This article was originally published March 4, 2019.
Last year, the Emmy-, Grammy-, and Tony-winning actress and singer effortlessly jumped from stage to screen with Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale. Turns out, that was just a warm-up. In 2019, as the lead of the upcoming Harriet Tubman biopic, Erivo owns her star power and seems unquestionably EGOT-bound
Before her 2016 Tony Award win for Best Actress in a Musical and 2017 Grammy Award win for Best Musical Theatre Album—both awarded in recognition of her astounding performance as Celie in the 2015 Broadway production of The Color Purple—Cynthia Erivo wanted to be a psychologist. Well, sort of: after attending high school in her hometown of London, Erivo studied toward a music psychology degree at university before transferring to the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for acting. Multiple awards and global recognition later, Erivo appears to have made the right call, but the music has followed her through tremendous on-stage performances as well as one of her more recent transitions to film: Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale, in which she played a singer. It was a fitting entry into on-screen performance, and one that, in combination with her musical and onstage accomplishments and the endorsement of champions like Oprah Winfrey, has led to her being tapped to play the title role in an upcoming biopic of Tubman. On her birthday last January, Erivo spoke with screenwriter and actor Lena Waithe about performing, moving to America, and her undying love of music. Psychology? Not quite, but her brief foray into the field has seemed to only add to her constantly-expanding triumphs onstage and on camera.
LENA WAITHE: Happy birthday, Cynthia! What are you doing on this celebration of your birth?
CYNTHIA ERIVO: Just chilling out a bit, then I’m going to see Choir Boys which is opening tonight. I have a friend of mine in it.
LW: I was a fan of your voice before I even saw you, and then, like many Americans, I discovered you and your beautiful face through The Color Purple. You’re originally from London, though, and I wanted to hear a little bit about your training and upbringing in London, and how that affected your career as you moved to America. How was that transition?
CE: I originally came [to America] for the play, which I had no expectation would go anywhere but London. Then one day, I sat in the office and learned it was going to Broadway. Genuinely, I was petrified, because I didn’t know what that would mean for the play, or for me, or what this area of the world was really like. I remember getting to the airport and just crying my eyes out. I felt that there was a genuine fifty-fifty chance I’d even be able to get on the plane to go, because I was so unsure if I was ready. When I arrived, there wasn’t really anything for me to do except throw myself into the show. I didn’t have time to doubt.
LW: And now you’ve been getting so much great press about this upcoming Harriet movie. How did you come to a place to being able to know you could tackle that role, and once you actually got the part, what was it like preparing for it?
CE: When I first heard the idea about me playing Harriet Tubman, I didn’t know if I was ready for it. I was in the middle of doing The Color Purple, and I felt my brain wasn’t really in the right place to do something so intense after having played Celie for so long. The script took a long time, however, which gave me time to really think about it, and once the show ended, I had some more clarity on what was really being asked of me. I learned about the use of music in Harriet, which was already so much a part of me. Then there was the idea that this woman, who was no more than 5’1″, was able to carry her own weight, move and run the way she could, and be as powerful as she was—it felt like there was a sign coming from somewhere. There were all of these things that felt a part of me already without me even having to try. I feel very strongly about the way I work, the pieces I pick, and the roles I pick. I knew that it was a story that desperately needed to be told. I feel like people don’t fully understand how much she did for herself; how much fight and energy she had. It’s not the story of a woman trying to be a man; it’s the story of an extraordinary woman. There was absolutely that moment when I didn’t know if I could do it, but I got on set and realized, Well, I’m doing it and here I am. And that was that.
LW: People have come to know you so quickly, which is a little bit similar to my own story. How has dealing with the quick fame been for you?
CE: There’s a part that you really have to be thankful for because it’s something you’ve dreamt so much about. But, there is a point where it can become very overwhelming. I’m still learning how to navigate it. When I went back to London, I had no clue that anyone would know me. I was somewhere watching a play, and everyone seemed to know who I was. It was so strange to me. I also hadn’t acknowledged how tired I was after it all. I wasn’t conscious of how much energy I was using, until one day I was lying down and just burst into tears. I had moved around so much without stopping to take a proper breath! I’m trying to learn how to manage doing a lot while being honest about when I need to stop. I’ll keep going until the wheels fall off, but then the wheels actually fall off! But I don’t feel famous. I’m learning how to adjust to people’s changing reactions to me.
LW: We aren’t changing, the world around us is.
CE: Yes, it feels like exactly that.
LW: In Chaos Walking, you’re playing the leader of a peaceful community taking a stand against a villainous mayor. Have your political views helped to inform your acting roles before, and do they now?
CE: My views about the world, my views about women, my views about the stories that are told about women of color, particularly—those are the things that will combine to help me choose what roles to play and how I will play them. I read about my character in Chaos Walking, and was just blown away by her and how strong she was: her quest for truthfulness, her defense of the people she takes care of, and how seriously she took all of it. Those are traits that aren’t seen enough when it comes to female characters, and especially female characters of color. I don’t know if the role was actually specifically intended for a woman of color, but I suppose they changed their minds halfway through. [Laughs]
LW: How do you feel the industry could better serve women of color?
CE: There needs to not be such a fear of the stories that we have to tell. It’s not that the stories aren’t there—the stories are all there, and we all have stories to tell—it’s the idea that our stories aren’t palatable enough or lucrative enough. I think the time has come, though, where that’s been proven to be wrong: I think people just want to hear good stories, and our stories have been proven to be good. The industry could serve us well by listening to these stories and making room for them. There are so many wonderful women in history who need their stories told because they’re brilliant women, and once the industry opens its eyes to those kinds of stories and isn’t so scared to tell them, we probably could have quite a good time.
LW: How would you like to be perceived in the industry?
CE: I suppose I want to be perceived as the woman who takes the hard route. I want to find the stories that people don’t get to see very often, and I want to mine the characters for the complexity that women have. Some people are afraid of being an example to other young women. I love that—the idea of being an example to young women and women of color, showing them that there are so many different characters we can play and not to be afraid of that. Not to be afraid of searching for them, and finding them, and standing your ground knowing that these are characters you can play.
LW: Are there any characters you’ve played that you particularly relate to?
CE: Each one of my characters has some part of me. With Belle [in Widows], her physical prowess and the way she moves is very close to me. Darlene [in Bad Times at the El Royale] could be the most like me in spirit. She has this very strong will to survive; she never really gives up, and if she does, it’s not without fighting. Music is a part of her, which is something that’s very important to me.
LW: What is a role you would automatically turn down?
CE: I’m open to diverse opportunities as long as the story that we’re telling is not fortuitous. If we’re telling the story of a sex worker, it needs to be from her point of view. I don’t want to do a role that’s telling the story of a man who’s misusing a woman. That’s not interesting to me. Neither is a role that uses a woman as a prop, because that’s happened far too much already. But if we’re telling the story of a woman who’s living her own life on her own terms, and doing it her way, one that allows that woman to be fully rounded—you can see everything about her—I’m attracted to it.
LW: What helps you keep a balance between the characters you play and the “real” Cynthia?
CE: If I spend a really long time with a certain role, I can feel myself becoming consumed by them. I was definitely consumed by Celie, and I was definitely consumed by Harriet. That’s part of why I work out so much—it’s like a cleanser almost, an hour I can just keep for myself. I need to be conscious of how I treat myself. I put my body through so much when I played Harriet, I felt my body was not 100 percent whole at the end of it. It took some time to heal my body and my mind, because she experienced so much trauma, and I had to let my body know it wasn’t really happening to me.
LW: How do you pull inspiration from the real world for your characters?
CE: The thing about all of my characters is that they all tend to be human. Therefore, I tend to pull experiences from my own life. They might not be identical, but I’ll take whatever I need to get me in the emotional state I need to be in. If there’s something I haven’t experienced myself, I’ll go to someone who has and ask them how it made them feel. I’ll do research, I’ll read. I use music—if there’s a song that tells my character’s story, I’ll listen to that. All of those things combine to put me in the right state of mind to play a character, so it’s about finding the right tools at the beginning to make sure I’m authentically in their world.
LW: What are some of the hardest parts of being an actor, and what are some of the most rewarding?
CE: When I was younger, I probably would have said the “no’s.” When you get a “no” from someone or something, it’s pretty hard. However, I’ve grown to understand that “no” often makes room for “yes,” so if it’s meant to be for me, it will be for me. If a “no” happens, then a “yes” is not too far behind.
LW: What are you planning for your upcoming studio album?
CE: Hopefully some really good stories. I’m writing everything, with some help on a couple of things. There’s hopefully music that’ll accompany your moods when you’re feeling happy, or sad, or if you’re feeling like you need to have a great time. A lot of the album will be drawn from my own experiences, so you’ll hear a lot about my story on it. And finally, discovering it all for myself: being able to concentrate so much on my own stuff is such a new thing to me, and even I’m asking myself what I expect. We’ll all just have to wait and see, really.
PHOTOGRAPHS ROE ETHRIDGE
FASHION JOHN COLVER
INTERVIEW LENA WAITHE
MAKEUP FRANCELLE DALY
HAIR COREE MORENO
MANICURE GINA OH
SET DESIGN DANIELLE SELIG
PRODUCTION NICOLE TONDRE FOR HEN’S TOOTH PRODUCTIONS
LOCATION ELWOOD STUDIOS
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