Carmen Ejogo has twice walked many (movie) miles in Coretta Scott King's stylish shoes. But the initial time she portrayed the first lady of civil rights, she had not met her beforehand.

That was when she starred opposite Jeffrey Wright in HBO's 2001 movie, "Boycott," later honored with a Peabody Award.

"She loved it; she responded to my performance positively, so I got to meet her and spend time with her, which was really quite an overwhelming experience, actually," Ejogo said in a recent phone call about "Selma," in which she again is Mrs. King.

"I knew what it was to be in her presence, very immediately, very directly, so that's definitely there in my performance," Ejogo said. She had a "stillness and the ability to move someone to tears — which is what she did to me — without saying a word," along with the ability to command a room.

Mrs. King had earned that as the wife and then widow of the civil rights champion, mother of their four children and human rights advocate in her own right. She died in 2006 at age 78.

Ejogo, who was a struggling single mother in "The Purge: Anarchy," Tyler Perry's wife in "Alex Cross" and Whitney Houston's divorced, sultry daughter in "Sparkle," was not born in the United States. Neither were her co-stars David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, who play, respectively, the Rev. King, President Lyndon Johnson and Gov. George Wallace.

"I wasn't really beholden to some kind of iconic or mythological representation of Martin or Coretta that you often do find in history books in the classroom," said the Londoner turned New Yorker.

"They're usually two-dimensional, they don't really get into the psychology of what made these people tick. They certainly don't get very heavily into the fragility or the doubtful sides of these leaders; you usually just hear about the heroics and assume that they were born that way, born into the ability to lead.

"Martin was asked to be the leader of the civil rights movement when the bus boycott was happening in 1955. He and Coretta had no intentions or desires, necessarily, to be put in that position. It was thrust upon them," she said, and it was helpful to know they sometimes struggled with their roles.

Coretta, she says, "at times was frustrated by her marriage and by being put in the position of first lady when it meant that she couldn't be the progressive feminist, musician, singer, intellect, academic that she also was. That she just had to sort of stand by her man and behind her man most of the time was, I think, an important thing to reveal about these people and was the only reason I was interested in playing the character a second time."

Read or Share this story: