Exclusive: Carmen Ejogo Talks New Film ‘Roman J. Israel’

Roman J. Israel, Esq., a film written and directed by Dan Gilroy, dives deep into the underworld of the Los Angeles criminal court system. Starring Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, and Carmen Ejogo, Gilroy presents a harrowing but hopeful picture of the reality of the justice system and the activism necessary to battle its shortcomings. The Knockturnal‘s very own O.J. Williams had the chance to ask Carmen Ejogo, known also for Selma, Fantastic Beasts, The Purge: Anarchy, and Alien Covenant, a few questions this past weekend about her experience with the film. Ejogo plays a young activist named Maya who enters into an unwitting friendship with the lawyer Roman J. Israel (Denzel Washington).

Ejogo and Washington as Maya and Roman.

Q [O.J. Williams]: When you first got your script, what was your initial, first reaction to the project?

A [Carmen Ejogo]: I was struck by how convincing the writing was of the character that I would be playing, of Maya. It can be quite a difficult voice to make sound authentic, the voice of the activist. It can sound like a trope very quickly; it can sound like a stereotype very easily. So, to find a piece of writing that felt like it had real soul and real spirit and depth was really exciting. And then having the visual of Denzel [Washington], which was not what Denzel ended up looking like in the movie at all, which was a  complete surprise to me, how he ended up embodying Roman. But I could tell on the page that that was going to be a really sympathetic, complex, interesting character as well. So, there weren’t really many reasons not to want to do it.

Q: You play a young, activist lawyer in the film. What was the most intriguing thing you learned about the U.S. legal system while doing the film?

A: In some roles, you have to get really down into the nitty-gritty of the career part of the character, and then in some roles, hopefully you bring something innate to the character. I don’t have a lot of the jargon to speak, as Denzel does, with his character, I don’t really necessarily have to be as savvy as to the ins and outs of that stuff. So, I really focused more on making sure that the essence of the character felt appropriate. I’m in few scenes in this film, but they had to be moments that really counted in terms of illuminating who Roman was by virtue of the way in which he affects others, and Maya is one of those people. So really it was illuminating what the effect was, was more of my job than maybe understanding the modern legal loopholes.

Q: In the film, your character Maya has to deal with the very eccentric Roman, played by Mr. Washington. How do you deal with eccentric people in real life?

A: I am a little eccentric myself, and I feel more comfortable with people that are a little less than straight-laced. In fact, I feel like I was raised by eccentric. I think I’m most comfortable with people that think a little outside the box, or a lot outside of the box, even. And I also have a great sort of empathy for that type, which is maybe again why Dan [Gilroy] thought I was right for the job to play Maya, because I think embodies that too. She has a patience and an innate understanding of what makes Roman work, or not work. And that’s what makes them good, kindred spirits on this journey.

Q: In this film, Roman is someone you turn to often for advice, or for a re-centering. Who is that for you in real life?

A: Two people come to mind, two sets of people. The first set is my children, who will remind me and keep me in a place of balance, because it is my absolute job to, then, offer them the same in turn. They are very good at keeping me in a place that is a little more rational than I might manage without them. But, not to completely discredit my own sort of influence on myself, I think I somehow over time nurtured the ability to find that within myself in my own personal way to cope and to maintain rationale and a sense of purpose and ability to keep moving forward.

Q: Speaking of children, in the film, there is a scene where a younger character decides to school you and Denzel. Why do you think the young people have a hard time heeding the older generation’s advice?

A: We live in such a youth-based culture that anything past a certain age isn’t valued in the same way. I think it goes both ways; I think there’s a problem with elders and people in positions of power that don’t always appreciate and value our youth in the ways that they ought to, and therefore there is this natural antagonism that then emerges. And a lack of appreciation of the elders that I think should be in place as bastions of wisdom. But if people of an older generation don’t attempt to understand those of the younger generation and have contempt and suspicion of the youth, it’s not surprising that younger people then, in turn, do the same, and then on top of that we do have a culture that really doesn’t celebrate anything as being time-worthy if it tops a certain age. That, I think, really needs to change. For me, speaking as a woman, that’s something I’m very conscious of, as I feel women get more interesting as they get older, somehow in this industry in particular, we aren’t being hit with the same eyes. And it’ll be a great day when we all start to appreciate the wisdom of people getting older. That would be a benefit to all of them, I think.

Q: Speaking of learning, you have a lot of amazing scenes with Mr. Washington. What did you take away from him? Were there any gems, or any tips that you took away from him?

A: I think what was most valuable was to just witness somebody that hasn’t given up on their love of the craft. For someone of that stature that’s reached their age, that’s reached their place in the industry, the potential for having less of a degree of passion for the work could easily set in, and it just hasn’t with him. So that was certainly what I took away from it.

Q: While we’re on the subject of him, in this film, he gives you an “unexpected gift,” as you call it. Have you ever gotten a gift in real life that you later appreciated down the line?

A: I’m very un-materialistic. I’m the worst person to give presents to. I’m one of those people. And so, in the moment, it may be hard to get it right for me, and to give something to me that I feel that I want to keep in the cupboard or keep on a shelf. But I’m learning in myself that despite my lack of materialism, sometimes when things are given to you, even if you didn’t want them, they’re worth keeping around, because they do embody some of the spirit of the person that gave it to you. So, there are several things from people that are close and dear to me that I’m glad I didn’t throw out, even though I may have wanted to.

Q: Mr. Dan Gilroy, we love him as a director. Talk about working with him and what it was like collaborating to pull the character together.

A: I’m madly in love with Dan Gilroy. He is a man of such heart. I don’t say this lightly – this industry is full of all types, and it’s rare that you get somebody that I would describe as being full of heart. It’s a very self-involved industry and business. So, to find somebody as a director, which is a position of ultimate power on the set, that hasn’t lost that sense of heart and compassion and real commitment to the most pure idea of why he’d make that film in the first place, is a really rare thing. And after meeting him once, I had no doubt that his motivations of telling this story were pure. If anyone responds to this film positively, it is for that reason, because the voice from its very beginning was a pure voice. I can’t think of a higher praise you can give anybody than that, frankly. To have a pure voice in the world, as an artist, as a person.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. premieres in New York and Los Angeles Friday, and everywhere else this Thanksgiving. Tickets can be found here: www.romanisrael-tickets.com.

Check out the trailer here.

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