When I meet Carmen Ejogo in Park Slope, the coffee shop is crawling with children; it’s like a hip daycare, and she apologizes for the clamor. Ejogo lives nearby in Fort Greene with the actor Jeffrey Wright and their two children, and seems keenly aware of the delicate balance between her art—performing in movies like Away We Go, Pride and Glory, and the upcoming Sparkle, a remake of the 1976 musical that has her acting and singing alongside Jordin Sparks and Whitney Houston—and the responsibilities of family life. “You’re clearly not a dad,” she says in her crisp London accent when I ask about her favorite local bars; later, she speaks eloquently about the trouble with Brooklyn’s new basketball stadium. “We were so against that happening, but my son is such a big basketball fan, and I know we’ll end up there at some point.” We talk about Sparkle, missed concerts, and the Fort Greene delicacy she’d eat every day if she could afford it.
Brooklyn Magazine: Sparkle has an eclectic cast: you’ve got actors singing, and you have singers like Jordin Sparks, Cee-Lo Green, and Whitney Houston also acting. What was that ensemble like?
Carmen Ejogo: Well, it was very different for each of us. I’m someone who’s come to learn that most artists are multifaceted, and do a bit of everything really well, so it’s not a surprise when you’ve got a singer who shows up and is really good at acting, or an actor who can really sing. For me personally, I’ve done some singing, but never on film, which is partly why I wanted to do it so badly, like a legitimate way of getting to be a pop star. [Laughs] It’s hard to explain what this set was like; it was unique. I just felt like everyone came to the table to make something really special. There was nobody floundering at any level.
What were some of your other singing experiences? I sang a little bit—nothing really that serious—back in my youth, back in London. I sang on a single, a drum-and-bass track. I went on tour with Tricky for a while. So I’ve sort of dabbled. But my tastes in my personal life, musically, are very eclectic and quite alternative. PJ Harvey, who I love, and I’m paraphrasing, but essentially she said at some point that there’s so much good music out there already, if you’re not going to bring something that’s really spectacular, there is no reason to be making music; there’s enough great material out in the world already. And I kind of swiped that; if I was going to do it, it would have to be superb, it would have to be on par with the music I’m inspired by. So I’ve kind of stayed away from that and focused on acting.
Do you go out and see much music in the city?
Having kids, you know… I tried to get my hands on tickets to Santigold, couldn’t. I had tickets to go see Sleigh Bells and then didn’t show up because I had to take care of my kids. I also had tickets for TV on the Radio when they were playing on the waterfront, and I missed that too! It sucked. I have all these great intentions but no time.
Were there musicals you liked growing up?
I was in one, now that I think about it. My first-ever film was one called Absolute Beginners, with David Bowie and Patsy Kensit. It was this big musical meant to save the British film industry, and it didn’t quite do that. But it was such a major moment in my life. I was 11; it was just a summer holiday opportunity that happened to come around. It was my introduction to film sets, and to music as well, in some ways. It blew me away.
In Sparkle you play Sister Williams, eldest sibling to Jordin Sparks and Tika Sumpter. You also played Maya Rudolph’s sister in Away We Go. It seems like something about you inspires people to cast you in a sisterly role.
[The characters in] Sparkle and Away We Go couldn’t be more different as sisters. I think being cast as a sister is more about looking like the lead. Sister has talent, but what she has moreso than talent, I think, is charisma and ambition, and a willingness to objectify herself, to achieve success. The three of us have this very overbearing mother figure in Whitney’s character; she’s overprotective based on her own mistakes in trying to achieve fame. Funnily enough, it was more about Whitney, because despite myself I’m more like my mother than I’d like to be [in the movie]. With Sister and Sparkle [Sparks’s character], it’s almost more of a maternal relationship than a sister relationship. There’s really a lot of depth to [Sister].
Obviously the movie will receive attention because of Whitney Houston...
Whitney was very willing to be authentic about herself and her past, and bring that to the table when it was necessary. That was helpful to me, because there are a lot of parallels in my character’s life that she was very aware of. I think the message of the film becomes all the more powerful as a result. I think her concert was the first I ever saw. As a girl growing up in the UK, there were certain people who were just iconic and massive personalities that seemed at times to rise above and beyond any other kinds of preconceptions of what somebody who looks like me can and can’t do. It really had an impact, and her body of work is very impressive to me.
How does Fort Greene compare with London, where you grew up, or other places you’ve lived?
I’ve never lived in LA; New York is much closer to what I love in terms of diversity. I don’t actually believe New York is really a melting pot, to be honest. I think that, you know, in the day we all kind of cross paths on our way to work. Then we all sort of scurry back to our various parts of the city, and it’s pretty segregated. London isn’t that, in my memory of it. I adore London, and I miss it dreadfully. But of all the cities I’ve spent time in, I think New York, especially Brooklyn, is the best fit for me. I definitely feel very much at home here.
This is our food issue, so I need to ask: any restaurants in Fort Greene you’d recommend to people?
I like spaces that are low-key. The Vanderbilt I like. I’ve watched DeKalb change so much, but there are a few mainstays: General Green is really great. You could find a plethora of good food on DeKalb; that’s where I’d send people. Luz has this great garlicky steak and [yuca] appetizer. If I could afford it, I’d eat it every day.
You’re of Nigerian and Scottish descent. Do you have recommendations for Nigerian and/or Scottish food anywhere in the city? Is that an absurd question? Haggis in Brooklyn?
I’m afraid I don’t know any great haggis spots. I’ve not yet found one myself, nor have I been looking, frankly! EN on Lafayette, which is a real Nigerian spot. It’s got really good food, it’s also a bar, and it’s mostly Nigerians who go there—that’s the hangout in the neighborhood. That would be my first recommendation. I’m much more connected to my Scottish heritage than my Nigerian, actually; I spent most summers in Scotland. I remember a lot of fish and chips. That’s the best I’ve got. •
Carmen Sings of Brooklyn