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By the time she was 30, Cynthia Erivo already had a Tony, Grammy and Emmy for her starring role as Celie in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple.
Now the Brit triple threat has nailed a stunning double play, booking two major studio films (both from Fox) as her first features: Steve McQueen’s Widows (bowing Sept. 8 at Toronto, then opening Nov. 16) and Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale (Oct. 12).
“I always joke that if I wrote down the story of my life, it would look like a fairy tale, almost,” says Erivo, 31. “But these moments have come with hard work, and they have come with doubt, and being scared.”
Raised in London and based in Brooklyn for the past three years, Erivo was months away from wrapping up her run on Broadway when her agent got a call that McQueen wanted to meet with her (his casting agent had seen her in The Color Purple). After a breakfast meeting at the the Standard Hotel, she landed the role of Belle, a single mom who teams with a group of widows (Viola Davis and Michelle Rodriguez) to pull off a complicated heist. While she was shooting the Fox film in Chicago, she auditioned for El Royale, landing the lead role of Darlene Sweet, a singer who meets several strangers at a rundown hotel in Lake Tahoe (Chris Hemsworth and John Hamm also star).
“I think that these two movies were so completely different from what people expected of me, that I fell in love with them straightaway,” Erivo says. “The thing I really wanted to put out there about myself is that I want to mess around with different types of people, different types of roles, different types of characters.” And she’s cognizant of the responsibility that comes with this breakout moment. “I have the opportunity to be an example for younger people, for little black girls that want to act,” she adds, “and it is important that the things that I choose let people who are coming up behind me know that there’s an option for them to tell great stories.”
After wrapping work on two sci-fi projects — Lionsgate’s Chaos Walking and John Ridley’s Needle in a Timestack, with Orlando Bloom — she’ll next tackle her most ambitious role yet: Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ indie Harriet. “I can’t say I’m not frightened,” says Erivo. “I am, but that’s probably a good thing.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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