Carmen Ejogo: 'There's some kind of trauma at play'

Sam Mendes is known for discovering American actresses, but his new film has a fresh British star. Carmen Ejogo tells James Mottram how her own troubled upbringing meant she could identify with the characters in 'Away We Go'

Sam Mendes is no slouch when it comes to casting. The British director, and latter-day partner to Kate Winslet – has discovered a few American beauties in his time – Thora Birch and Mena Suvari for starters. But for his latest film, Away We Go, it's the turn of a home-grown talent – albeit one who's much better known over the pond – to be in the spotlight. Still, unlike American Beauty stars Birch and Suvari, Carmen Ejogo is 33, married with children, and hardly fresh out of drama school.

When we meet, it's the day after Away We Go has received its UK premiere. Curled up on a hotel sofa, it's 11am and she's showing no after-effects of the after-party. Wearing a black dress and platforms, she looks nothing short of dazzling. With a mass of frizzy black hair, smooth caramel-coloured skin and penetrating brown eyes, her elegant demeanour means she seems like a more approachable Thandie Newton. Her accent is by way of her West London upbringing, though as she tells me: "I prefer not playing English. The occasions that I have, recently at least, it's felt a little too close to me and it's not as much of a transformation."

This telling comment aside, the fact you've probably never heard of Ejogo is surprising on three counts. Firstly, with a surname as memorably distinct as that – her father was Nigerian – you'd think it would've got out there and lodged in the collective consciousness by now. Secondly, given her beguiling beauty – she's an ex-model from her childhood years – you'd think that face would be on every billboard. And, thirdly, she started acting in 1986, when she was a teenager, in Julian Temple's musical Absolute Beginners. Quite simply: where has she been all our lives?

The short answer, at least for the past decade, is in the States. "I feel like I really did turn my back on the UK at some point and made a conscious decision to do that," she says. "I thought, 'I'm heading to America and that's where I'm going to do my thing.' Then I got there and America was not what I thought it was going to be at all, in terms of the work. To couple making good money with good work is a much harder task than expected. The kinds of roles on offer are just not that interesting. I just don't find them that appealing very often."

If Ejogo sounds a little bitter, it stems back to 1997, after she appeared in Metro, a rather forgettable action film with Eddie Murphy. When she "started traipsing around" the endless rounds of meetings fresh-faced actors are required to take in Hollywood, she received a shock to the system: her skin colour was a barrier.

"I was told: 'The head of such-and-such agency doesn't think there's enough work for someone who looks like you do. What are they going to do with you?'" Is it still this bad, I ask? She shakes her head. "That's not the situation any more. I think it's changed a lot. It's fantastic that it's moving in a positive direction. But I've become disillusioned in the process."

At least, her time in the States introduced her to her husband, actor Jeffrey Wright. Some nine years her senior, Wright is best known for playing CIA agent Felix Leiter in the two recent Daniel Craig 007 films. But, as I tell Ejogo, his performances in films like W (he was Colin Powell) and Basquiat (he played the titular artist) prove he's of the best actors working in America right now. "He's one of the best actors, period!", she shoots back, grinning. Ejogo met Wright on Boycott, a TV civil-rights drama in which he played Martin Luther King to her Coretta Scott King.

Hooking up in Atlanta, they took off for a while – "we travelled around a bit, bumming about, as we're both quite nomadic in that way" – before marrying nine years ago. After they settled down in Brooklyn, Ejogo gave birth to two children – seven-year-old Elijah and three year-old Juno – which adds another reason to why we've yet to really see her work. But it's evident she and Wright are a good match, neither chasing the Hollywood dream.

"I think we definitely see eye to eye in terms of the type of work we choose. He has an easier time at it. He's been at it longer. He didn't take time out to be pregnant with two kids! That always helps to keep a career's trajectory going in the right direction. Being a woman in the business as well, it adds to the limitations of choices that get presented to you."

Before she met Wright, she scuttled back to Britain after Metro and took a role in Michael Winterbottom's dark sexual drama I Want You before finding herself in another risible blockbuster, The Avengers, playing a Ministry agent alongside Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes. Yet, since then, Ejogo has avoided the crass commercialism Hollywood offers up. "I've been there," she sighs. "I've been there enough times to now be happy to work once a year with someone that's really worth working with, and otherwise I'll just hang out with the kids. It really is too heartbreaking as an artist... I'm not being over the top when I say that. I really mean that."

She certainly doesn't feel that way about Away We Go. Written by husband-and-wife authors Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, the plot follows unmarried thirtysomethings Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) who are expecting their first child when they begin to get the jitters – not so much about becoming parents, but simply where they belong in the world. Verona's parents have died in an accident years earlier, and Burt's decide to head off to Antwerp just when they are about to be expected to help out on babysitting duties. And so the Colorado couple take a road trip to help them decide where to relocate.

"I relate to that hugely," admits Ejogo. "Particularly that sense of, 'what is going to constitute the kind of family that I'm aspiring to create for myself?'. When I was pregnant with my first child, I had just moved to New York with Jeffrey. It was in 2001 – and my baby was due in October. September 11 happened, and I was eight months pregnant. We had been in New York for a few months – setting up shop. This is where we're going to have our kid. Then that happened. The sense of displacement... I was already a fish out of water, because that wasn't where I was from at all. And hormonally you're just a little bit insane at that point. So it was really compounded by that experience."

A picaresque comedy, Away We Go jumps from city to city as Burt and Verona plot an itinerary that takes them cross-country, visiting friends and relatives. Ejogo plays Verona's sister, Grace, now a hotel manager in Arizona. The scenes she has are among the more touching in a film that has a tendency to veer wildly towards comic caricature at times. Grace has dealt far better than her sibling with the death of her parents. Ejogo's own father, Charles, a "wheeler-dealer" as she calls him, died in a car crash when she was young. It meant she understood "quite intimately" that dynamic. "I'm probably the sibling, in my family, who was able to be more open about it."

Ejogo's mother, Liz, who hails from Cumnock in Scotland, was just 17 when she met her father, who was studying in London at the time. Their relationship only lasted two years. Growing up with just her mother and brother meant money was tight. While her mother took cleaning jobs to make ends meet, they lived in affordable housing near Chelsea and Earl's Court. "Some of the most dysfunctional families you'll ever come across, I grew up around," she recalls. "But for me that's just normal. I don't really know what a normal family is. As I strive to define my own family, I still can't figure out what I think the perfect family is."

In retrospect, Ejogo sounds like an early achiever. Recruitment by an art director neighbour to appear in a pop video led to some modelling gigs while she was still at school and that screen debut on Absolute Beginners, opposite David Bowie. She was 16 when she then landed a job fronting her own pop programme – The Carmen Ejogo Video Show – for a satellite channel. And before she was 20, she was in the States, presenting children's TV show Saturday Disney, earning enough money to buy her own flat. But it was acting that she'd always wanted to do. I wonder if it was her mother – "a total nomadic hippie spirit", as she calls her, who is now "out there living life" – who inspired her towards her calling.

"To some degree, yeah," she nods. "Watching an amateur drama queen in the form of my mum, for sure, infuses one with certain acting traits I think." She's smart enough, however, to look deeper than this. "About 80 per cent of actors come from broken homes, so there's some kind of trauma at play. My theory is that you're observing so many experiences from such a young age, when you're watching parents that aren't happy with each other, you have this deepest well to draw from when you take it into your career." It's certainly what Mendes spotted. Now Ejogo just has to hope others do too.

'Away We Go' opens on 18 September

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