For a long while, especially in the entertainment industry, there was this archaic notion that women could not be complicated and messy, that we could not have angles and layers and been seen in various lights. Thankfully, in the recent years, various stories and characters are shifting the tide. For Carmen Ejogo — ho has been dazzling recently in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and It Comes at Night —
these are the roles that speak to her soul.
For Ejogo, starring alongside Denzel Washington as Civil Rights attorney/activist Maya Alston — a woman who is both burdened and enchanted by activism — in Roman J. Israel, Esq. was a no-brainer. “What I find most frustrating is when people operate from a place of clear delineations that you’re either good or bad,” Ejogo explained to me over the phone a few weeks before the film was set to premiere. “I really don’t like people that think in that way. I think it’s very destructive because I’ve not yet met a human being that operates in one of those zones to a degree of perfection. It means we are all going to be losers if that is somehow the definition of what is to be a valuable human being in the world. So I’m excited to bring to the screen people that are messy, that are weak as well as strong, that are nuanced, that are complex, that have complexity about them because that’s when you see yourself on screen.”
Set in Los Angeles, Roman J. Israel, Esq follows an idealistic lawyer (Washington) whose life is shifted drastically when his law partner dies and he’s thrust into the courtroom. Earning the attention of a hotshot attorney (Collin Farell) and a Civil Rights activist (Ejogo), Roman tries to cling to his morals while getting seduced by the trophies of greed. “I’ve never seen Denzel in a role like this,” Ejogo explained. “And I’ve never actually seen a film like this. There’s something about it that is super-mesmerizing and idiosyncratic and it really had its own signature. And that’s a testament to Dan as a really interesting filmmaker. He’s a dream to work with.”
Written and directed by Gilroy, the film is a massive tale driven by character. It’s a story that came together in a way Ejogo never expected. “I’ve gotten used to the idea that you can hope that a film is going to reach its potential,” she reflected. “What’s really gonna make me sign on is believing that this film has that potential, but most importantly, ‘What can I then bring to it individually?’ ‘Who am I gonna get to play with?’ ‘Will the components in place allow me to rise to the challenge at hand?’ If it then emerges that we’ve got a much bigger piece of art that starts to emerge, because you realize that all of the components that you’d hoped might be in place actually are in place, then it becomes like the golden goose. That’s when it becomes quite special. There are so many things that can happen during the making of a movie that people end up wavering from that vision. But you’ve got to know that what you can contribute individually is gonna be worth the time and the effort and the process. I just got very lucky on this that it all came together in a way that makes for a really timeless and relevant movie.”
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