Actress speaks on breakthrough role in Ava DuVernay’s first feature film

It’s always tough for Emayatzy Corinealdi to choose her favourite scene from Middle of Nowhere. It’s no wonder, either. After all there are so many powerful scenes in the 2012 film, directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma), which tells the story of a young woman trying to find herself after her world is turned upside down when her husband (played by Omari Hardwick of “Being Mary Jane” and “Power”) is sentenced to several years in prison. Not only that, but the film, which received critical acclaim not only from the Sundance Film Festival, but also from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Sidney Poitier, marks Corinealdi’s break out as a lead actress.

For now, she chooses a bus scene with David Oyelowo, (Selma, Lee Daniels’ The Butler), where he and her character, Ruby, discuss a love for foreign and independent film – something Corinealdi says she enjoys too. “I’ve never shot on the bus before and the whole dynamic of that and what we were discussing it was really a lot of fun,” she shares. “David and I really got to connect.”

The scene Corinealdi selects is reflective of the entire film: simple, yet dynamic, commonplace, yet powerful.

TWO YEARS AFTER IT DEBUTED AT SUNDANCE, MIDDLE OF NOWHERE’S LIFE CONTINUES ON. WHY DO YOU THINK THIS IS? I think it’s had such a lasting impact because of the subject matter of the story. Though in the film we have Ruby going through an experience of having her husband incarcerated, it really is about the universal experience more so of people finding themselves in the middle of nowhere. I think all of us have had that experience at some point or another.

HOW DID THAT FEELING OF BEING IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE RESONATE WITH YOU PERSONALLY? For me it was the experience of loss; I lost my mother a few years ago to cancer and when it happened it was just one of those things that was so devastating. I had no idea what I was going to do. She was certainly my biggest supporter so it left me sort of paralyzed. That is what fuelled me in making this film, you know when you find yourself at that place, you just don’t know what you’re going to do and people have these expectations of you and you have these expectations of yourself – what are you going to do and how will you do it? Those were all of the things I was able to tap into myself [in order] to put me right in Ruby’s shoes.

SPEAKING OF STEPPING INTO RUBY’S SHOES, THIS WAS YOUR FIRST ROLE AS A LEAD ACTRESS IN A FEATURE FILM. WHAT WERE YOU MOST NERVOUS ABOUT AT THE BEGINNING? … It’s one thing to be the lead in the film and find out you’re the lead in the film, but it’s another thing to be the lead and you really are the lead where everything in the movie is you. I didn’t realize that until Ava pointed it out to me one day… it’s just one of those things you don’t think about when you’re in the midst of doing it… I think it was just that realization that oh, okay, this whole film rests on my shoulders.

MANY OF THE MOST POWERFUL MOMENTS IN THE FILM ARE ONES THAT WERE COMPLETELY SILENT. WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS? Because I think that’s when we find out a lot about a person in those quiet moments. We are alone and we get to have that quiet time to really assess how we feel. That’s when the truth comes out and there’s really nothing left to be said. And I think that’s a lot of what Ruby’s life entails. There were just so many moments of self-reflection she had to endure trying to figure out where her headspace was, where her heart was. And I think those are just the true moments in life.

AS AN INDIVIDUAL, WHAT DO YOU SHARE IN COMMON WITH RUBY, THE CHARACTER? She has this strength about her, and I think for me that was the way into the character – a strength that she didn’t even realize that she had and also that other people didn’t feel that she had at certain times. For me, that was the thing that I relate to, when it counted, in moments of crisis, this woman was able to hold herself together to do what she needed to do, to make the right decision despite what anyone else may have thought. And for me that takes courage, that takes heart. And so that’s one of the things that I relate to. It’s just I had to summon that strength for myself over and over again just with this career choice of being an actor. You have to have this inner courage, that tenacity to keep things going when all things are holding you back.

“Ava [DuVernay]’s a joy; it’s a true, true gift to work with a woman who knows who she is… I like when people do that thing that other people don’t think they can do or should do. She breaks down those barriers. Those are the types of women that I like to surround myself with.”

WHAT DID YOU FEEL WERE SOME OF THE STARK DIFFERENCES BETWEEN YOU AND HER? Her strength is more of a calm strength; she doesn’t want to have that confrontation. She’s a thinker, she’s thinking about it before she reacts. For me, though I do think about things before I react, I have a tendency to, the moment I feel like I’m being done wrong in some kind of way, I’m going to react and so I love Ruby’s ability to think things through. That’s an area where I can work on things more, to think things through a bit more. Sometimes I can just go off the handle like that, which doesn’t always serve you well.

THE FILM’S DIRECTOR, AVA DUVERNAY, HAS OBVIOUSLY BEEN IN THE SPOTLIGHT WITH SELMA, WHAT HAS IT BEEN LIKE FOR YOU TO WORK WITH HER? Ava’s a joy; it’s a true, true gift to work with a woman who knows who she is. And I love people who take risks, and this is a woman who had this whole other life as a publicist, now here she is, her second feature, she was willing to take that risk to see what other people’s response would be to the story she had to tell, because she was already comfortable in what she had to tell and how she’s going to go about it. So that is just one of the things I love about Ava and one of the things that I respect about her is I like when people do that thing that other people don’t think they can do or should do. She breaks down those barriers. Those are the types of women that I like to surround myself with.