Carmen Ejogo on Playing Amelia in True Detective, Social Issues in the Show & More

Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) talks to Wayne (Mahershala Ali) at a bar in HBO's True Detective

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Carmen Ejogo about her role in True Detective‘s third season. Fans of the show praised Ejogo’s performance in the show as Amelia; a pivotal character that many hailed the actual true detective of the season. Carmen was gracious with her time and had a lot to say about this memorable role and performance.

AG: I wanted to ask first, what were your initial impressions of the character of Amelia when you first received the script?

CE: I felt like it was really well-written. I only saw the first few scripts, so what I saw on the page was an intriguing and well-written, archetypal schoolteacher. I kind of had a sense of what the expectations were in the way that the role was going to be played. And the limitations. So I wasn’t sure how excited I was, based on what was on the page, and I say that with some hesitancy because I knew it was really interesting. I knew it was great writing, and I could tell there was something at the backstory that was in those first scenes that suggested that this could be…there could be somewhere to go with it.

I didn’t know just how important she would be to the overall season. So that’s where the dilemma lay, whether there was enough of her presence in the overall story that would make it worth my while, taking on a role like that. But then, of course, I got to hear from Nic more about his hopes and ambitions for the season, and when I then got to see the starter script, I was blown away by how rich and full of depth and complicated this woman was going to be to explore.

Carmen Ejogo in the classroom where she teaches in HBO's True Detective
We first met Amelia as a school teacher

AG: It really was extraordinary that True Detective had primarily been a male-driven show and here in the third season we saw a story of love, marriage, but we also saw your character, who many believed really was the true detective of the third season. I wanted to find out how you felt about that. A lot of fans did claim that Amelia was the true detective and I had not heard you comment on that publicly.

CE: Yeah, to know that the fans of the show felt that way was very gratifying because it was a very interesting and challenging performance to bring to the screen for me in ways that I had not really had to navigate previously. In that, to get her right, in my opinion, I had to really honor the more intimate and quieter, the more personal sides of her persona and how she fits into the show and not get too flashy with things. The possibility of her importance being missed by the audience was always there in my mind. I was always very conscious of the fact that with so many other great characters in the show, Amelia potentially could be a little background.

The fact that the fans really ultimately understood what I was going for and what Nic was intending was really gratifying because it just felt like I found the right tone. I found the right pitch without pushing too hard.

AG: There was always an air of mystery around your character. We didn’t quite know her backstory the whole time, we didn’t always understand her motivations or perhaps, how much more she knew than Wayne or some of the other characters in the show. Was that intentional?

CE: Well, I think it’s authentic to who we are as people. There are things that some of the people closest to me in my life still don’t know, certain parts about who I am or how I work or what I think. So I like the fact that Nic was happy to leave huge areas of this woman’s psychology and this woman’s backstory and this woman’s daily ponderings to the imagination of the audience.

It did lead people up the wrong path at some point. I think people did wonder if I was somehow involved in the murder—which was quite amusing—how that when you don’t give all of the information, it can lead to all kinds of wild conspiracy theories. But, again, I think that’s part of the fun of the genre and part of the fun of a mystery. Not quite knowing who’s doing what and how and why. I’m just glad that Amelia got to be part of that side of the genre.

AG: One of the things that I loved about the third season was how socially conscious the show was, and a lot of that really did revolve around your character. We live in turbulent times right now, socially, so to see the show take on some of these issues and not just be focused on the mystery was kind of refreshing compared to previous years. What was that like for you as an actress, to be able to partake in some of this and to be a woman leading the charge in a lot of sense?

CE: I think that tends to be a thread line through my work generally—a through line. Something that…I often gravitate to material that has social commentary as part of its intention. I think that’s probably why I got involved in the first place as I saw that it was something Nic was grappling with. It is certainly something that Mahershala and I took real pleasure in exploring and giving flesh to because to portray a black couple in the south in that time is a very particular experience. So to find ways to make it feel specific was exciting to us.

Also, to present this couple in their mundanity and their daily, tedious marital life—it was equally exciting to us, and the fact that that can also look like it does for any couple regardless of ethnicity or social background, I think that was also something that we took great pleasure in. And then from a female perspective, there’s been a lot of headway made since the 1980s and the 90s.

It was fascinating to play beats that felt quite stuck in their time. There’s the moment when she’s flirting with the cop, which for an intelligent, academically minded, socially progressive woman, that felt like a really strange thing to have to justify as an actress. I can’t imagine a contemporary character that I would play where that would make sense. But a character in the 80s, I think we were still in a time where that was part of what a woman would do to get what she needed regardless of her capacity to intellectualize the experience or to be bigger than that. It was just socially acceptable in a way that it probably isn’t now.

So there are lots of things that were exciting as an actress to really take myself back into that time as authentically as possible and then make choices—not from Carmen the feminist’s point of view, but Carmen the actress’ and Amelia the character’s point of view. It was challenging in new ways for me and in ways that I really took great pleasure in tapping into.

Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) and Wayne (Mahershala Ali) walk through a field in HBO's True Detective
Equal parts love story and mystery.

AG: You touched upon my next question a little here, you as an actress portraying multiple versions of yourself. What was that experience like, playing the same woman but at different points in her life?

CE: How often do you get to do that? So rarely as an actress and I really believe that we are all injected with the stuff we’re made of from the beginning of our life journeys. It’s just at some points certain parts of those things emerge more strongly than others. So in order to find a way to allow the audience to feel convinced that this is the same persona every time that she would appear in different forms in different time was part of my job. It was trusting that things that maybe didn’t feel entirely congruent or entirely like the same person—like, a confidence level in Amelia and that a different kind of ownership of self that happens in the 90s that you don’t really see in the 80s.

But to give myself permission to allow for these various flavors to sort of flicker into those different time periods, it’s a very messy way to perform. It’s a very messy performance to give, and you’re normally encouraged to do something that’s far more cohesive feeling in terms of character. But I actually think this is the stuff that most of us are made of. It’s much messier than what we normally get to see on screen. It was really fun to tease out a real range of attributes and characteristics and vulnerabilities at different points in different timelines and, as you said, as the subconscious voice of Mahershala. And also, as really the voice of the poetry of the season. I’m really the person that gives life to that too. And so it was quite a large task but one that I relished and, hard to swallow, something like this.

AG: So you’re a few months removed from the show concluding on television, considerably removed from filming. How would you describe this experience as a whole for you? As an actress and as a human being?

CE: Wow. Testing. I mean really, it was difficult in the best way. Gosh! I’m lost for words now because it’s such a unique experience. It was, on so many fronts—just in the process of figuring out how to bring to life a couple that was so not made for each other and figuring out how to navigate that stuff with Mahershala was so challenging. Because to get that right and to make that feel honest meant that we had to go places that were uncomfortable, a lot of times. So it was a very complicated shoot and experience.

I think what I’ve come out the other side realizing is that sometimes you have to be willing to go there as an artist to really make the good stuff happen. When you’ve got everyone stretching for their best work, from the writer/creator…I think Nic really pushed himself on this season to do something that I don’t think that we’ve really seen on television. He was stretching to his outer limits. And it meant that we had to do the same with acting. That’s somehow extremely uncomfortable, but I think for the sake of really good work, really great work, you have to be willing to go there sometimes and that’s how I look back at the experience as an actress and as a person.

AG: Thank you. I always like to ask a fun question to cap things off. Something humorous, perhaps, that happened on set or just one of those funny stories that people might see on a Blu-ray extra or something like that that breaks the fourth wall so to speak.

CE: I don’t think we have a blooper reel; it was truly heavy stuff. From start to finish, that might be why I’ve asked my agent to look for some lighter fare going forward (laughs). That took a lot out of me; I have to say.  Yikes, I’m not sure. I mean, some stuff you just have to stay in the pocket all the time and…some experiences are really, very high tension and that was this job.

I say that with utter love and appreciation for what we were all investing every day that we showed up. I think it shows on the screen just how hard we all had to work on this one. It’s such a commitment to go into prosthetics and to be covering such material and to be stuck in Arkansas for seven months. It’s a lot to hand over of yourself. Yeah. God, I wish I had a funny story! You’d be stretched to get a funny story out of any of us I think.

AG: I think that makes for a great quote. I absolutely agree. True Detective Season 3 was, both professionally and personally, one of my favorite things that I’ve watched in forever. This was an amazing season of television that I know a lot of people share my feelings about and something that will definitely be remembered for a long, long time.

CE: Thank you. And I think that’s the bottom line. I think when you know—I’ve been in this situation in the past a couple of times, I’ve been lucky to be in this situation a couple of times—but I knew that if we’d done it right, we’d been making timeless, classic cinema or television.

When you know that that’s what’s at stake, you really give it your all in way that you leave very much less of yourself. There’s not a lot of energy left for yourself at the end of the day. It was that kind of experience. I’m so happy that the audience has taken that away from the effort put in. So thank you, thanks for saying that.

Written by Andrew Grevas

Andrew is the Founder / Editor in Chief of 25YL. He’s engaged with 2 sons, a staunch defender of the series finales for both Lost & The Sopranos and watched Twin Peaks at the age of 5 during its original run, which explains a lot about his personality.

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