It’s difficult to step into an iconic role that so many people hold dear. That was what British-born actress Carmen Ejogo had to do when she was cast as “Sister” in the remake of the 1976 movie “Sparkle.” Ejogo reprises the role made famous by Lonette McKee, who plays lead character Sparkle’s troubled oldest sister. The three sisters form a rising girl group that is ultimately destroyed by Sister’s addiction to drugs and a violent gangster boyfriend. While the new version takes a few liberties with the old one, Sister is still feisty and wounded and Ejogo plays her with fire and sass. This has turned out to be a good year for Ejogo. The 38-year-old actress stars as Tyler Perry’s wife in the upcoming “Alex Cross” movie and plays an FBI agent in the new ABC TV series “Zero Hour” with former “ER” star Anthony Edwards. In her down time, she’s a wife and mother married to her “Boycott” co-star Jeffrey Wright, who she met on the set. Read on to find out why she didn’t see the original “Sparkle,” what she thinks about working with Whitney Houston and how American TV helped her career.
Blackamericaweb.com: You’ve got 3 major projects coming up this year. At 38, you’re an overnight sensation!
Carmen Ejogo: I took time out to raise kids, so I don’t regret that it took this long to become an overnight sensation (laughs) but I’m happy that I’ve been given another shot at my career. For a lot of people, when you take that kind of time, you can forget about coming back. It’s a very unforgiving business in that way.
Blackamericaweb.com: How have you been able to play these iconic American characters like Sally Hemmings and Coretta Scott King, despite your English background, which no one would ever guess from hearing your American accent?
Carmen Ejogo: I’ve always been excited to really transform and obviously playing another nationality really helps in that. I love playing historical figures because there’s all the research in digging down deep and really understanding who you’re playing. In playing Sister, the transformation is really huge because there’s so much in the page and then you can just pick and choose from the kinds of characters that you meet in your life and then embellish and create a character that’s new on the screen.
Blackamericaweb.com: You didn’t see the original movie?
Carmen Ejogo: No, I didn’t. I wanted to do something fresh. I’m not in this game to copy other people’s work. Lonette McKee’s performance was so brilliant and so iconic that that was that. I’m really trying to do something new in this movie, which pays homage to the original but is definitely its own movie. So I have to bring my own version of Sister to that. The political backdrop of our movie is 1968, so there are all kind of references that resonate for this character and my family that are different from the original which was set in the 50’s. I still look forward to seeing the original but it wouldn’t be useful to my performance at all.
Blackamericaweb.com: British actors like Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor and yourself are able to do these undetectable American accents so that people are surprised to find out you’re from London. How are you able to do it?
Carmen Ejogo: Part of what made the accents come to me so naturally is that I had a musical upbringing so there’s a melody and a rhythm that you pick up if you want to do an accent successfully. I also grew up watching American TV. As a British culture we idolized and aspired to be actors in the U.S. I’m so glad I got my first impression of what acting should be about from the U.K. It’s about craft over there, not a fast track to celebrity, but there were absolutely great American movies and performances that inspired me all along the way.
Blackamericaweb.com: Did those American influences help you approach the role of Sister, given all the girl groups like the Supremes that came out of the U.S.?
Carmen Ejogo: I don’t think of Sister being somebody that embraced the whole music thing like Sparkle did. She just wanted to be famous. My point of reference were certainly some of the more tragic stories from that era and even people like Amy Winehouse from our day and age. There is a lot about the journey of Sister that was very parallel to Whitney’s life. She talked about that and was very available to me and helped me to make my character more authentic in any way she could. She was surprisingly available and honest about her own journey if it would help any of us. She was very reflective on the set. I feel like she was at a place where she’d made her peace with the past and she was prepared to go forward. This was a project of passion for her. She adored the original as a 13-year-old girl and she brought a passion to the set that was infectious and really made all of us work so much harder.
Blackamericaweb.com: People have their favorite couples – Jay Z and Beyoncé, Will and Jada, but you and Jeffery Wright are the power couple for creative folks. Do you ever look across at each other and go “Wow, we’re both just amazing?”
Carmen Ejogo: (Laughs) I do in the sense that we’re both awesome parents. That’s what I cherish most. He’s an amazing dad and I strive to be a great mom every day. You’d be surprised; we don’t talk about work a lot. It’s all about being parents. (Laughs)That sounds so boring. But it’s what I gave up my career for. Before I had kids, the last project was “Boycott.” (The couple has a pre-teen son and daughter.) My focus shifted and willingly. My number one role in life is being a good mom.
Blackamericaweb.com: “Zero Hour” is your next project. What’s that about?
Carmen Ejogo: Anthony Edwards plays a skeptic who runs a [paranormal] magazine when his wife is kidnapped. I play an FBI girl who comes into the situation believing I know who’s behind it because 10 years ago, my husband was killed. It starts out in Nazi Germany. We’re dealing with cloning, we’re dealing with science vs. religion, we’re dealing with a lot of faith. I love TV and I’m excited. (“Zero Hour” heads to ABC in midseason in 2013.)