Thursday 10th Nov 2016
How Carmen Ejogo became MACUSA President Seraphina Picquery.
Carmen Ejogo delivers her final, devastating line in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, spins on her heel, walks out of frame and makes her way to the make-up tent on the periphery of the MACUSA set.
Still dressed head-to-toe as Seraphina Picquery, President of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, she perches on a stout chair inside the tent. She’s wearing a structured, fitted suit and headpiece. She’s elegant and commanding in that very specific way the most powerful witch in North America might be.
‘It feels like a family get-together that’s come to an end,’ Carmen says, shrugging off her character but looking slightly forlorn now that filming has wrapped.
‘We’re really like a big family. I guess that always happens on films, but maybe more so on this one because we all understand that we are part of a legacy and there are already so many people excited for it. We recognise that we’re on a unique journey; that we’ve been picked to be in this special world.’
The special world Carmen’s talking about of course comes from J.K. Rowling’s imagination, circa 1926 New York. It’s a world Carmen has spent six months immersed in, yet, because of the secrecy around the plot, even Carmen doesn’t know a huge amount about her own character.
‘It’s been a lot of fun to come up with a look, personality and an approach that has that element of otherworldliness. I’ve never had to do that before,’ she tells me.
‘I’ve held on tightly to a couple of words and ideas that that David [Yates] has given me. For example, the idea that this is a woman of power – who doesn’t have to assert her authority. You can interpret that in many ways but it’s very helpful. So, I’ve tried to hold on to little signifiers like that.
‘I didn’t know what Colleen [Atwood] was going to be doing with my costume until my first fitting,' she continued. 'I didn’t know whether she was going to put me in something flowing or structured. It wasn’t until I arrived in New York, at the studio she was working out of, that I saw this incredibly structured gown and realised that this woman was somebody who kept a certain posture.'
The most prominent performance of Carmen’s career so far has been as civil rights activist Coretta Scott King, the wife of Martin Luther King Jr, in the films Boycott and Selma. In many ways, portraying a real person in a biopic about civil rights in the U.S. could hardly be more different from playing a witch in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World, but there’s something in Carmen’s energy that feels right for both.
She’s very proud, she says, to be playing a character of colour in a major feature film. It’s important.
‘This is not a character that is peripheral,' Carmen says. 'She’s absolutely in the mix in a way that is really fundamental to the storyline. She is nuanced, she has complexity, she’s not two-dimensional or predictable. For all of those reasons, I think that there’s been a real effort to appreciate that the world of wizardry can be more expansive.
‘I think the subject matter, by definition, is already expansive, in terms of trying to celebrate that we’re all different and we are all to be tolerated for our differences. So it’s already sending a message out to all of us. I do think that audience members like to see themselves on screen. There’s a whole community that would love to be a part of the wizarding world and they will be thrilled when they see characters like Seraphina on screen.’
Carmen is quite enigmatic about Seraphina’s motives, though. We know she’s the President of MACUSA and we’ve seen her standing at the helm of a wizarding conference in the trailers for Fantastic Beasts. We’ve had glimpses of how graceful she is, how stern and how charismatic. But we don’t know yet just how she behaves towards our protagonist, Newt Scamander, or where she appears in the storyline.
‘The potential to want to play the good character or the bad character has probably been on all of us at some point in this film,’ she says. ‘But then you start thinking back to J.K. Rowling’s other work and Harry Potter, all of those characters are complicated and it’s about living in the grey area. Seraphina is like that. She has a lot of conflict. She might be better at hiding it, but that’s the political game she has to play.’
And that, for the time being, is all Carmen can say about Seraphina Picquery. Just before she goes to her trailer to slip back into No-Maj clothes and wipe the traces of make-up from her face, I ask her what's next.
'I’m a mummy, so I want to go home to look after my babies for a while. Well, they’re not babies, they’re 10 and 14 – so they’re big babies. That’s my next gig.
‘I think I have done some good work in my career. But it is all irrelevant to them compared to this. They came to visit set and they were just blown away! They went next door to Warner Bros. Studio Tour London and came out transfixed and really excited that their mummy is part of this whole universe.’
Judging by the broad smile on her face as she talks about this film, Carmen is just as excited as her children.