The 'Harriet' star and double Oscar nominee reveals the loneliness of being the only actor of color in the race ("to not be able to share with another black actress is saddening") and her thoughts on British actors playing African-American characters.
As Cynthia Erivo sings "I'm Here," the song from The Color Purple for which, perhaps, she is best known, she takes you on a journey with her voice. The opening is clear and unadorned, but as the song builds, as we witness a woman realizing the innate beauty and strength she possesses, Erivo's voice swells into fullness, rich with emotion. During a concert at New York City's Town Hall in 2016, she sang "Still Hurting," from the musical The Last Five Years. With each note, she conveyed the entire story of a marriage in an indescribably affecting performance. No matter what she sings, Erivo has a voice that regularly brings people to their feet as she brings the house down.
Cynthia Erivo was born in South London in 1987 and raised by a single mother who always knew her daughter was destined to become a star. Erivo began performing at a young age and was classically trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Though petite in stature, Erivo takes up space and stands out. Thanks to a rigorous fitness regimen, her body is finely toned. She wears her hair closely shorn, dyeing it blond, green, blue. Her fingernails are often elaborately decorated, and sharp as talons. When she's acting, she brings muscularity to her roles, not just physically but emotionally, her expressive face revealing everything you need to know about the characters she plays.
She got her big break when she was cast as Celie in The Color Purple musical, for which she won a Tony, Grammy and Emmy. Erivo is an accomplished singer, performing on soundtracks and stages around the world. On the small screen, she can be seen in HBO's The Outsider, and in 2020 she will take on the role of Aretha Franklin in the third season of National Geographic's Genius.
On the silver screen, Erivo has starred in Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale, but the role for which she has received the most critical acclaim is her turn as Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons' Harriet. She was nominated for two Golden Globes and a SAG, and received two Oscar nominations, for actress in a leading role and best song for her work on "Stand Up." Should Erivo win one or both of these Oscars, she will be the youngest EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner of all time, and she will have accomplished this feat the fastest, given that The Color Purple opened in London in 2013. Erivo is the only person of color to be nominated for acting this year, across all four categories, despite public pressure in recent years — led in large part by April Reign's #OscarsSoWhite campaign — for the Academy to diversify its membership and more comprehensively recognize the excellent work of actors of color.
I had the opportunity to speak with Cynthia Erivo by phone on the morning of the 2020 Grammys, where she was scheduled to present. Our conversation took place mere days after Erivo was attached to a messy bit of celebrity gossip involving Lena Waithe, an impending divorce and rumors of an affair. It was the obvious choice to ask Erivo about this mess but I refrained, not because I was afraid to broach the subject, but because at the pinnacle of her professional career, her personal life had no bearing. As salacious as her answers to my questions on the matter might have been, I was more interested in what she had to say about the moment of which she is on the precipice. During our hour together, we talked about how she feels about the possibility of the EGOT, the kinds of roles to which she is drawn, the possibility of starring in a Marvel film and how she feels about where she fits in the world.
You're nominated for two Oscars this year. If you win, you will be the youngest EGOT winner. Do you care about those kinds of accolades? Was this something you imagined for your career?
I think I've said "EGOT" less than everybody else. I don't know that it's that I care less or that it's not the most important thing to me. It really is and it really has been about getting good work and playing roles I feel are good for me. When I played Celie [in The Color Purple], it wasn't because I thought I would win an award. It was because I really wanted to play her. In my heart parts and my gut, I was like, I know it's a role I'm supposed to play. The [accolades] are not the most important thing.
What kinds of roles are you drawn to?
Things that are not as tidy as one would wish. I want to play the messiest of women and the most complicated of women. I want to play those roles you just don't see, the stories of women that don't get told often. They don't necessarily have to be the hero of the story. I just want them to be fully rounded. I want them to be real. I want someone in the world to be able to connect to those people when they see them.
What kinds of roles are you not getting that you would love to try?
Roles that are not asexual. I would like to play the role of a woman who has sexuality. For some reason, I don't know whether it is specifically black women, but our roles lack sexuality. It's like we can't be badass and human and sexual at the same time. I just don't understand that. One of my favorite films is Call Me by Your Name, because of how tender and sensual it is. I still haven't seen that for a black woman. That's what I'm looking for.
I can see that being frustrating as an actor, not being given that opportunity. You're playing Aretha Franklin: What kind of preparation do you do for a person who was real with such a storied history?
With Aretha, I'm lucky because she's current, so there's video footage, books, albums that I can listen to. I can hear her voice. I can look at how she walked. Her interviews are fascinating, especially the ones from the '60s and '70s when she would sit and they wouldn't really let her speak. Somehow she managed to make them pay attention. Watching her make people lean in to her is really interesting. Amazing Grace is a huge gift … You get to look at what transformation happens when she starts to sing. A light switches on when she's singing that sometimes disappears when she's not.
One of the things I think about quite a lot, especially for black actors, is the narrow range of roles that we tend to get. More often than not, we have to play a slave, so we have to be suffering. We don't get be these fully realized people. And then these are the roles that receive the critical acclaim, and so it becomes this reinforced prophecy. Did you feel like Harriet and playing a woman who created freedom for so many people was an opportunity that challenged this dynamic of narrow roles?
Yes, actually. I didn't know how it would be received, but I did know I wanted to tell that story because you got to see something from a different point of view. You get to see someone who was defiant and who lived her life as a free woman. That's a different conversation. To take on that role was to challenge how you see women who lived through that time and how much agency they can have. To see a woman of color in the middle of a period piece holding a gun, saving people, freeing people, it shouldn't make sense, but it was real. I love the idea that it challenges people's idea of what a black woman can be onscreen, and how she can tell a story.
When Harriet came out there was a lot of discussion, and some would say controversy, about a black British woman taking on the role of an African American woman. How did you feel about those concerns, and how do you navigate these tensions between black Americans and the rest of the black diaspora?
At first I was naive, because I didn't know that it would be a huge problem for me to play this woman, because I had come from playing African American women onstage. Then I took stock. Valid points had been made, but I do think that there is a discussion to be had between African Americans and black British actors about the experiences we share on either side of the pond. There are misconceptions that come along with this business that we haven't been able to have a discussion about. And the fact is, I'm a storyteller, and my aim is not to slight anyone. My aim is to be prepared enough to tell a story.
What are some misperceptions that we should be talking about?
There's a conversation to be had about the specific experiences we each have in the business on either side of the pond. You'll see that there's a pattern of a lack [of work] for both parties. When something like this [role] comes along, there's a want for it because it doesn't come along very often, whereas it should. These kind of roles should come along far more often. It's sad that we have to fight among ourselves because of it.
You refused to perform at the BAFTAs because of that lack of representation in the nominees. How was that decision received in the U.K.?
There are black actors who have reached out and said, "Thank you very much, congratulations and well done." Here, it's been received really well. Over there, I've only been paying attention to those I know and care about who are also black actors and actresses in the business, and demand to be a bit more outspoken about their belief in making sure it's a more diverse playing field, and that we get to see ourselves celebrated as well.
Throughout your career, you've been more than willing to take political stands. How do you decide when it's important to take a stand? How do you handle the vulnerability that comes along with doing so?
I'm stubborn, so I forget about the vulnerability and figure it out afterward. I have a thing about injustice and fairness. When I feel like that is being endangered, it makes the hairs prick up on my neck. I can't help but to speak out.
You've mentioned Kasi Lemmons to me as "possibly one of the most intelligent people I've ever met." Are there additional dream directors you'd like to work with?
She's so clever and it's kind of wonderful just to be around her. I'd happily work with Kasi again, and I loved working with Steven [McQueen on Widows]. I would love to work with Ryan Coogler. I'd love to work with Ava DuVernay. And I'd love to work with Barry Jenkins.
You mentioned Ryan Coogler, who directed Black Panther. Do you have any interest in the Marvel universe or other superhero films?
Yes. My body is suited to it. And I'd love to see what that experience is like. I think I could have a good time doing it.
You are incredibly fit. You run marathons. How did you even get into marathon running?
I dared myself to do a 5K in London for breast cancer and I trained for it and I loved how it felt to achieve something like that. Then I dared myself to do a 10K, so I did a 10K. [Then] the half marathon, and I thought, "I wonder if I could do a full." I did some training when I got to New York and tried that and it worked. But the thing I learned from running is that there's a meditative state when you run for a long length of time. You get to disappear. I found I was able to use it to process feelings and thoughts; it was mobile therapy for me.
My fitness came from a trainer a long time ago. I used to be in a dance company and he would say, "You shouldn't let the dance make you fit. You should be fit for the dance." I applied that to my life. I never wanted to be unprepared when I was walking onto a stage or a set. I always wanted to be ready physically, so it was the last thing I had to think about.
2020 is an election year and you're a British citizen. Would you ever become an American citizen?
I think so. I can't stand to be a part of the political climate and not be able to vote and exercise my right to share my views and have a say in what happens. I live here and work here, so whatever happens, I experience also.
You're going to be the only Oscar nominee of color in the acting categories. Does that weigh on you?
It does. It is a moment for celebration, but it also is a real eye-opener. It can't just be me alone. There's just such good work going on and this may sound fatalistic, but I would hate for people's work to have gone by and then for us to have looked back and go, "Oh, I wish we would've given roses," when people aren't there to actually receive them. I don't want us to do that. To be in a room and not being able to see other actors [of color] who are nominated, to not be able to share that with another black actress is saddening. I would love to share this moment with someone else.
It must also be lonely, especially when you think of all the roles this year. What were some of your favorite performances this year?
I watched The Last Black Man in San Francisco and I thought that was gorgeous. I did see Judy, and because I'm a Judy Garland fan, it was a nice nostalgic moment to see that. Joker was brilliant. Joaquin Phoenix was brilliant in it. I did see Dolemite Is My Name and it was so cool to see Eddie Murphy back, and Da'Vine Joy [Randolph] is such a special new actress.
In a New York Times interview, you talked about how black girls in England and black girls in the U.S. share a pain of displacement and not feeling like we quite belong in places. Do you still feel like you don't belong in places? And do you know if that will ever change?
I do have a feeling that I don't quite belong. I'm lucky now because of the community of black actors and actresses who have welcomed me, so in that respect I feel like I belong. But in the wild, I don't quite belong in the United Kingdom and there are places in the United States I definitely don't belong. I'm now coming to the realization that that's part of the charm of me, that I'm a bit of an oddity, where I don't fit. I'm starting to accept that if I don't fit in, I don't have to try and make myself fit in.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.