One of Britain's brightest young acting talents, Carmen Ejogo stepped away from the industry to become a stay-at-home mum, but she's back, starring in a string of major films and plotting her producing debut, as Jane Mulkerrins finds out
A humid, rainy morning in Williamsburg, New York. High above the city, in an airy, white-walled suite of the hip Wythe Hotel, Carmen Ejogo is talking about the moment, almost 15 years ago, that she walked away from fame.
"I had to make the choice between career and family," confesses the London-born, US-based actress, haltingly, as she sits, legs tucked underneath her, on a vast cream sofa.
"You can lose sight of what your life could have been, which is what happened to me. I did lose sight, for a while there, of what my life could be."
Such a frank expression of vulnerability is striking from an actress who, at 42, seems in the prime of her career. Having won rave reviews for her performance in 2014's Selma, the Oscar-nominated story of the 1965 march for civil rights, in which she played Martin Luther King Jr's wife, Ejogo will be seen in some of the year's most highly anticipated films, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the prequel to the Harry Potter series, in which she stars alongside Eddie Redmayne and Katherine Waterston.
But then, Ejogo is an unusual actress. Though head-turningly beautiful, she could easily walk out of the hotel in her gold-printed cigarette pants and voluminous smock and down the street, untroubled by paparazzi.
Rewind 20 years, however, and she was on the cusp of Hollywood stardom. The daughter of a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother, she had begun acting in her early teens and left school at 16, to front her own satellite TV programme, The Carmen Ejogo Video Show, before landing roles in credible productions such as The Avengers (alongside Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman), and Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost, while being hailed by critics as one of the industry's brightest young talents.
Only, things didn't work out quite like that. Having relocated to the US in the mid-1990s, she abruptly stepped back. She met and married the American actor Jeffrey Wright (Felix Leiter in Casino Royale) and soon became pregnant.
"I chose to take time out and be a stay-at-home mother, because that's how I wanted to do it," she says today, in an accent entirely undiluted by two decades in New York. Her son and daughter, Elijah and Juno, are now aged 14 and 10. She and Wright divorced in 2014. Part of her motivation for returning to acting was, she says, to show her children what a working woman can achieve.
"There are a lot of logistics, and you're probably always going to feel guilty, but you also realise that you're a great role model for your daughter - and your son, which is equally important." It was a brave move: "You wonder if you're ever going to have permission to come back into the business.
"And to find that I have been given that option, at this point in my life, I'm so grateful," she says.
But if she were nervous, she needn't be. After the spectacular success of Selma, this year is set to be a big one for Ejogo. There's Fantastic Beasts, out in the autumn: "Do you know what my character looks like?" she asks excitedly, whipping out her iPhone to show me a snap of her in costume as Seraphina Picquery, the president of the Magical Congress, sporting a gigantic, sequined turban-style headdress. Set in 1920s New York, though shot in London's Leavesden studios, the film seems like The Great Gatsby on acid. "The whole aesthetic is insane," nods Ejogo enthusiastically.
She's also recently returned from filming another high-profile prequel, in Australia and New Zealand - this time to the Alien franchise. With Michael Fassbender and Billy Crudup, Ejogo is part of a team of scientists attempting to recolonise a new planet, "because the Earth is f*****," she says.
But before either of those two big-budget blockbusters, this month sees the release of the infinitely more intimate Born to Be Blue, in which Ejogo stars with Ethan Hawke as the long-suffering girlfriend to his outrageously talented but hopelessly heroin-addicted trumpeter, Chet Baker. When the film was screened at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, it received a rapturous reception from critics and the audience alike.
Jane, Ejogo's character, is not a straight rendering of a real person, but rather a composite of women with whom Baker had relationships. The essence of Jane was, says Ejogo, "that sense of a woman who has arrested potential, because of the love of a man who is demanding all of her attention."
It wasn't a difficult dynamic for the actress to tap into. "I think most of us know a woman - it might have even been ourselves at some point - who has really lost herself in a man, lost her identity and direction.
"It's so easy to do, and it's such a part of the female narrative. You meet a guy, and you start shape-shifting to accommodate his needs over your own." Baker's relationship with Jane may be an extreme case, but Ejogo sees where the attraction lay. "He was a manipulator of women," she says, with a wise smile. "He knew how to tap in to that maternal desire to give."
"Plus," she adds. "He was really f****** good looking. And he could play an instrument."
Ejogo is no stranger to the attractions of a professional musician. In 1998, aged 25, she was briefly married to the triphop star Tricky, though it's not a subject she'll discuss today. After her divorce from Wright she is dating someone new, but remains tight-lipped on the details. Would she ever marry again? "I don't know, maybe," she laughs, gazing out of the window again. "Never say never."
She grew up primarily in Kensington and Chelsea. "It sounds so posh, but it wasn't," she laughs. "I was the council flat kid in those posh areas." Her father died when she was 12 and she and her younger brother, Charles, were raised alone by their mother, Elizabeth, who worked nights as a cleaner to make ends meet. It was, she says, "a good, grounded, Scottish background". She won scholarships to private schools - the Oratory and Godolphin and Latymer. "I was always conscious of the fact that academia was important, but it was so obvious from an early age that the thing I really loved to do was art, in whatever shape or form it took."
Aged just 14, with no acting training or experience, Ejogo was cast in the rock musical film Absolute Beginners alongside David Bowie and Patsy Kensit. "I just got really lucky. People would just spot me and ask me if I'd be interested in doing something," she says. "It always came to me; I was never encouraged to go and find it." She combined acting with modelling and TV presenting. "I was quite cocksure and it all came a little easy, frankly," she admits. "I take all my opportunities very differently now."
Being bi-racial in London was, she believes "a huge advantage, and a large part" of what led to her opportunities. "Growing up in the Seventies, Eighties and onwards, there was just a feeling in the air that this was the new Britain. I think I got lucky in that sense, and I was representative of my time."
For 15 years, she has lived in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Fort Greene. "It's a complete fallacy that New York is a melting pot," she says. Her adopted city, she believes, is far less integrated, racially and ethnically, than her actual home town.
"Everyone comes together or crosses paths on the streets, or in a deli, but then everyone scurries back to their particular ghetto," she says, while shaking her shoulder-length bob. In spite of settling in the US, and raising two American children, Ejogo has no desire to become a US citizen. "I don't really see what the benefits are," she shrugs. "And I am so proud of what it is to be British." This, however, does mean she can't vote.
"But I have very mixed feelings about the vote," she says. "Having made Selma, I understand and appreciate what it took to get the vote in this country. But I think there's something a little illusory about the power of the vote.
"It's the same issue I have with the Oscars," she continues. The Academy Awards this year were famously mired in a furore over their lack of racial diversity. "If there are only certain kinds of film that you're voting for, then your vote only can ever say so much.
"I think changing it from the inside is a healthy approach though."
To that end, Ejogo is moving behind the camera, too; she is hoping to "pull together a horror movie", as a producer.
Producing, and directing, she acknowledges, have never felt female-friendly, and have long seemed like something of a closed shop in Hollywood.
"I think it still bloody is," she insists. "But I think there are more outlets now, more platforms. You aren't relying on such a small group of people to give you the permission.
"Women have got more of a shot than ever," she beams.
"So, it's a good time."
Born to be Blue is available on Blu-ray and DVD