Carmen Ejogo Is True Detective’s Secret Weapon
By Michael Gluckstadt
The actor explains why her teacher-turned-author is much more than just a detective’s loving wife.
As schoolteacher-turned-author Amelia Reardon, Carmen Ejogo has captured the attention of True Detective fans, and it’s not hard to see why. Over multiple time periods, Reardon deftly juggles the roles of thoughtful teacher, loving wife, successful author, and cunning investigator. Tying it all together is Ejogo’s performance, which she views as “self-actualizing in a time frame that is appropriate to the way that women evolve.”
In the following interview, Ejogo discusses Amelia’s relationship with her husband, what we can read in Amelia’s sense of style, and why show creator Nic Pizzolatto calls her the show’s “secret weapon.”
HBO: Tell us about Amelia.
Carmen Ejogo: When we meet her in 1980, she’s a schoolteacher in a small town in Arkansas. She’s had some time away on the West Coast, and she’s come back with the ambition to be a writer. In the meantime, she’s teaching at the school the missing children attended. Her insight into the community and direct relationship with the children give her the opportunity to write a book with the potential to solve the case. Her ambition is to be a writer, not a schoolteacher, so it’s interesting to play her over the decades as she’s self-actualizing and becoming the woman and the artist she wants to be.
HBO: How would you characterize her relationship with Wayne?
Carmen Ejogo: In many ways, they are ill-suited to one another. She is at heart an artist, a writer, an academic even. She has a worldliness about her, and is quite liberal in many of her attitudes. Wayne, on the other hand, is probably a Conservative. He fought in the war; she was an activist against the war. But what they share as a commonality is that they are both other — for many of those very different reasons — in a very small community. That understanding of each other’s journey is certainly part of the draw to one another. There’s also a very strong chemical reaction when they first meet — even if Amelia would be less inclined to admit it right away. Over time, there’s an inevitability about the relationship. There’s a destiny at play.
HBO: What was it like portraying the same character across multiple time periods?
Carmen Ejogo: I’ve done it a few times, in very different ways. For example, I played Coretta Scott King twice, once in the ’50s [in the film Boycott], and then again in the ’60s [in Selma]. In Selma, it was about the psychological impact of the marriage on that woman, much more so than the first time around when she was a brand new mother and wife. I had a sense of how to cover decades of time and how a woman might shift over those years. I also did it many years ago playing Sally Hemmings from the age of 16 until her death.
But I’ve never done it in this way. There’s a nonlinearity to the writing that meant I had to have all time frames in mind on an any given day of filming. It was a practical challenge.
HBO: Was there anything that helped you to address that challenge?
Carmen Ejogo: One helpful thing was the fact that the aesthetic was so markedly different from era to era. In the ’80s, with the hairstyle, the clothing, even the silhouette I wanted to achieve — small-waisted — she has a sensuality about her. She’s a woman at an age when she knows she’s sexually alluring, but maybe doesn’t fully know what to do with it yet.
In the ’90s, her hair isn’t straight anymore. She’s gone for a much more boho aesthetic, she’s becoming more in tune with the artist that she wants to become. Her clothes are reflective of someone who’s had children; a little looser and less cinched, and so on. Those choices mark the visual cues for where we are on the journey with this person emotionally, as well as physiologically and psychologically.
HBO: What was it like to perform Nic Pizzolatto’s writing?
Carmen Ejogo: His writing is delightfully colloquial. I don’t even know if it’s authentically Arkansas. But I do know that when the words emerge from your mouth, if you can get it right, it really feels fluid and authentic. It was intriguing to me, particularly with my and Mahershala’s voices. He really captures the vernacular, and the cultural specificities of what it is to be black in this country. I was impressed that Mahershala and I didn’t have to do any “nuancing” to the script. I suspect he’s a channeller — like some of us get to be when we’re at our most optimal as an artist.
HBO: We see Amelia reading poetry that speaks pretty directly to the themes of the show. What did you make of those poems and Amelia’s role as the one who conveys them to the audience?
Carmen Ejogo: The poems gave me the first indication of the enormity of the role of Amelia in this season. You really have to get to the end of the final episode to see how impactful Amelia’s story is on everyone — particularly Wayne’s. The poems were indicators of the fact that Nic was playing with much bigger thematics in these seasons. Thematics that were universal and transcendent and beyond the storyline. There’s something happening beyond the plot of it all. There’s an emotional experience that viewers are on that they might not even realize until later on. The way that time is is something we’re meditating on.
HBO: What else should the audience know about the character?
Carmen Ejogo: People who have only seen the first few episodes don’t realize how important this character is going to be. It’s telling of what people expect from the female character playing the wife. Nic has surpassed himself in the writing of a female character on this show who is self-actualizing in a time frame that is appropriate to the way that women evolve. But you have to experience the full journey before you can appreciate the importance of Amelia in this show. It only gets better for her.