Cynthia Erivo is poised to make history this awards season. The 32-year-old British actress, whom many will remember from Bad Times at the El Royale or her supporting role alongside Viola Davis in Widows, is currently in theaters playing arguably the most famous Black woman in American History, Harriet Tubman, and she is getting a ton of Oscar buzz. Harriet is Erivo’s first starring role, but theater fans will instantly recall her as Ms. Celie from the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. For her work on the Broadway hit, she won a Tony, an Emmy, and a Grammy – and if you’re counting letters, she is only one O(scar) away from the prestigious and elusive EGOT. Luckily for Erivo, many awards pundits are betting on her, putting her on track to become the youngest EGOT winner ever. We recently sat down with Erivo to discuss the film, her friendship with co-stars Leslie Odom Jr. and Janelle Monáe, and why Meryl Streep’s pursed lips are a big part of one her Five Favorite Films.
First is The Devil Wears Prada, which I watched a million times over. I’m a fashion fanatic, and I love how it’s like a character in the film. I think it’s one of Meryl Streep‘s most amazing performances. I don’t know, there’s just something about it, the subtleties like the little purse of her lips that she does. I think it’s just really cool, and it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. And the soundtrack on it is fabulous. I loved watching the way in which they used fashion through it, the dedication to keeping it very fashion-forward. I loved it. I thought it was brilliant.
The original was called Pollyanna, and then they did a remake of the film, called Polly, and it had Phylicia Rashad in it. It was probably one of the first musical films I had ever seen that was fully… Pretty much almost fully cast of Black men and women and children. And I think it was one of the reasons I was like, “Oh, I can do musicals. I can be in them. This is cool.” And I love the music. I still remember the songs, and it’s been a while since I’ve watched it. I have the VHS of it. I don’t even know if they do it on DVD. I don’t know if you can even get it on iTunes. But I loved it.
The 1954 version of A Star Is Born. Judy Garland in that role is unbelievable. She is heartbreaking, and that scene where she sings “The Man Who Got Away”… Just so gorgeous. It’s at that time in her life where really the role could’ve been reversed between her and her partner. It glazes heartbreak over the whole entire thing. It’s just beautiful, and she’s beautiful in it.
Next is The Color Purple, for obvious reasons. The first way I came to it was the film, a bit before I read the book. And it has some of my favorite people in it. And I think I’ve met them now, strangely enough, most of those people from the film.
I mean, Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, of course.
Yes, I’ve met Whoopi. I’ve met Oprah. I have also met Akosua Busia – she’s Nettie. I met Whoopi; she was at the premiere. She’s so kind and cool. And I have also had the pleasure of meeting Oprah. Then I met Akosua. But that film was the beginning, I guess. And in watching it, it changed my life. I watched that movie and was inspired. I read the book, and then the musical came along, and I got the musical, and here I am. So, that film is always going to be one of my favorites.
Lastly, I am gonna have to say Black Panther. My favorite scene of Black Panther – it’s not really even a scene, but it’s towards the end when they’re at the United Nations, and just the image of Danai Gurira in that beautiful, black dress, that’s got that crazy neckline, and she just looks regal. And then, obviously, there’s the scene in the big battle, where a rhinoceros that comes towards Danai, and it stops right in its tracks, inches from her face. There’s just something. Oh, it’s so powerful, it’s so good, so good. And such a delectable moment. I can’t even tell you how much I loved that film.
Jacqueline Coley for Rotten Tomatoes: Talk about taking on such an iconic person from American History. A lot is known about her, but a lot isn’t.
Cynthia Erivo: Preparing for her all of us, myself and Kasi [Lemmons, the director], we both needed to do character research. Kasi did about seven months’ worth of reading, and I was doing the research as well. Kasi and I spent a lot of time together, deciding what it was that we wanted to bring to her. I made sure I was physically ready for her, because I knew it was going to be a completely physical role. And I made sure that I made my mind ready so that I could be emotionally available for the things that needed to be done with her story. I knew the work that she did. I knew that she was married to John. I knew that she ran a hundred miles to freedom. I knew that she came back and brought other enslaved people to freedom. But being able to work on this, read the script, and learn about her was really fun because it filled in the blanks.
You mentioned the physical preparation. Talk to us about that. You did a ton of running.
[Laughs] I did. But for me, I think it’s all the same, because I was taught that you always get ready for the performance; you don’t let the performance get you ready. Whenever I’m about to get into a role, I try to prepare physically for it. Some require more work than others. Harriet needed a lot of physical work beforehand, so I really had to put myself through training. It was a lot of cardio and running and biking and horse riding. I needed to be able to lift myself up, climb on things, climb over things, and run. And I did all my stunts, pretty much. Maybe two stunts I didn’t do. The rest was me. I wanted to make sure I was ready for all of that. I didn’t want to have to concentrate on whether or not I was ready to do something because I hadn’t trained. So I trained to make sure that I could get on set and be ready. And then everything that came up that was new was the only thing I needed to handle.
Beforehand, Janelle and I knew each other. I begged for Janelle to be a part of it. I asked her if she would do it, then I asked Kasi, and I asked Debra [Martin Chase, the producer]. I was like, “Please, can we have Janelle be in this, please, because I think she’d be perfect for it?” She’s this beautiful soul. It just felt right. It felt like she was right for that, and she was. She was a wonderful, wonderful addition to the cast, just because she’s such a caring, gentle personality, but there’s a real fight in her, which I absolutely adore. For Leslie, he and I have known each other for a really long time. We both won our Tonys the same year. His daughter is my goddaughter. So we already had a rapport with each other. And it always just feels great when he’s on set with me, because I feel safe. And I just met Jennifer [Nettles] and Joe, who are lovely, lovely people, and they were there for the right reasons. I was really lucky to have an incredible group of people to do this with, because it could’ve been far more difficult. But because Kasi and Debra are wonderful people, they also pick wonderful people to be around.
Harriet is in theaters now.