The Tony award-winning actress and star of upcoming biopic Harriet talks colourism, portraying a historical figure and Aretha Franklin.
Cynthia Erivo already has a Tony and a Grammy, but if early Oscar predictions are to be believed, she’ll soon have another statuette to add to her collection. Her career-defining performance as slavery abolitionist Harriet Tubman, in Kasi Lemmons’ new biopic Harriet, is set to win over the Academy and the audience, flexing impressive vocal range as well as deft dramatic range and tear-jerking lines.
Despite being one of the most important figures in the history of America – escaping the life of slavery she was born into in 1879, before returning to her Maryland hometown to free approximately 70 more enslaved friends and family members – the life of Harriet Tubman has never been documented on screen before. In Lemmons’ biopic, Tubman’s life is explored with veracity, the director refusing to shy away from the brutal reality of slavery and the arduous journeys that the inspirational woman made. It’s an urgent, honest look at her phenomenally inspirational life, and Erivo, who only last year made her feature film debut in Steve McQueen’s gender-flipped heist thriller Widows, is the perfect choice to portray her.
We caught up with Erivo about Harriet, colourism and Aretha Franklin…
Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved in Harriet?
I was still in The Colour Purple on Broadway when Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Debra Martin Chase [the film’s producers] came to see me in it. [Debra] said she thought that I was right to play this role, still being really coy about it, and I was like “this sounds great, what would that be?”, and she said it was Harriet Tubman and I nearly fell over. The Colour Purple was a huge move for me anyway, and this was just after I won a Tony, so for me it was just another moment of “what is happening at the moment?!” And that’s how I got involved, and then it was another three years from that moment to actually get it made.
And were you a fan of Kasi Lemmons’ work before being cast?
Yes, Eve’s Bayou is just like… I think it’s beautiful. I think she’s got wonderful taste, and I love Kasi as an actor as well.
Yeah, I only just realised she’s in The Silence of the Lambs…
Right! Isn’t it crazy? She’s amazing, and I like learning about her and her history and learning that she was a professor as I well. I just think she’s an incredible woman and an incredible example of what it is to truly understand art and make it.
What was it about the script that made you realise you couldn’t pass on this opportunity?
I think in the conversation [with Kasi] she had told me that it had been on the shelf for like… I think it was seven or eight years, so this was a long time coming. And I knew of this woman’s story, I already knew loads of other stories about figures throughout history, but none like hers. And very few of a singular black woman who can do something like this. I could also sense that Debra was tired of waiting, and I think Harriet was tired of waiting, it was time to tell that story, and I just wanted to be a part of that moment of telling her story and helping to bring that to fruition, and if they had waited this long, I didn’t want them to wait any longer.
It’s 2019 and her story hasn’t been told on screen before, which is crazy. Did that put any pressure on you, to relay this historical figure and this story that has so much weight to it?
Not pressure, but I felt a responsibility. More responsibility than pressure to tell the story. I felt like I was now responsible for making sure that this story was told in the right way, so I’m happy that they allowed me to be involved…
So you were really involved in that process then?
Yeah, they allowed me to do it from the get-go – speaking to people about what we wanted, when it came to finding Kasi… I sat with her, I spoke with her, we discussed what we wanted to bring out of Harriet, out of the story… you know, all these things, even when we were on set, that never ended. Whether it be a fight scene which I helped to choreograph, or just those small pieces coming together, I was allowed to be a part of that.
I didn’t get taught anything about her at school, it’s only been throughout my own research in the past few years… did you know a lot about her already? How did you research for the role?
I had known the broad strokes of her… at my school we learned about slavery and a small amount about her. So I knew she was a woman who had run 100 miles to freedom, and I knew that she was a woman who had come back and freed enslaved people, but I didn’t know the details… so coming to this was really enlightening for me. I didn’t know at the beginning that she was as small as me, but I guess that’s a reason why they came to find me; someone who was strong enough and small enough to tell the story fully.
There’s a point where William Still says to Harriet “fear is your enemy”. She starts off being very timid, and she becomes more and more fearless – what did you channel for the role, and how did you get into the headspace of who she is at the end of the film?
I guess it’s the determination of wanting something to go right, wanting something to work. In her being told that fear is her enemy, I knew that being afraid of going as far as I needed to go to tell the story, was unhelpful. So I was prepared to go as far as I needed to go. Whether it be getting in the water myself, climbing up the cliff myself, running as far as I need to run, all of those things, I wasn’t afraid to do that at all… jumping on a horse, like all of those things.
She also gets told at one point that she ‘got lucky’ because she escaped and then kept coming back. What do you think convinced her to keep returning to save more people, even though she’d gotten out successfully herself?
I think her strong sense of morality – her strong sense of right. I thoroughly believe that she did not believe that it was right for people to belong to people. She believed that everyone had a right to their own freedom, to be of their own self, to own their own selves. And it wasn’t enough for her to have a taste of that… she cared deeply about her family. I think she believed that until everyone else had their freedom, she really wasn’t truly free herself.
I also had no idea until watching the film that she was such a prominent figure in the women’s suffrage movement. Do you think this film will pave the way for more diverse representation of that?
I hope so, because it’s something that has something that has sort of struck me as really odd. The suffrage movement really was for all women, and women of colour were involved, and I think with a few portrayals of women’s suffrage – and even when we speak about it throughout history – it’s like we weren’t existing. We had Harriet Tubman, who was a strong part of it, so I’m hoping that just knowing that she was a part of it will spur people on to tell the stories of women of colour who were also part of that movement.
There’s one scene that really stayed with me, where a light-skinned slave managed to ‘pass’ as white while pretending to be her master in order to escape. It really resonated with issues surrounding colourism today – were these incidents something that was documented form the time, or was it added in for topicality?
I think a bit of both really. It’s consistently documented that there was a differentiation in how dark-skinned people were treated compared to light-skinned people. I think it still happens today, and we are only just about getting to a place where we can talk about it freely and openly. There is still a defence mechanism that comes up when we discuss it, but I think we need to get to a place where we actually really speak about it, because it exists. In the case of the film, it was the thing that helped everyone, but it was there. And it is a swift and subtle reminder that people were treated differently.
When the news broke of your casting, there was a bit of backlash – similarly with Daniel Kaluuya and Get Out – that a black British actress be playing an African-American. Did this backlash effect you?
It did affect me because I’m human, but I think it filled me with the determination to really give it my best. Because it’s one thing to satisfy people who are already believing in you, but it’s quite another to try and satisfy those who don’t feel like you can’t do something. I wanted to make sure that all people were given something, you know? If people think that I’m not deserving of it or that I can’t portray this role, I wanted to try and give [it] my all, and do everything in my power to make sure that people could have their faith restored, and hopefully be convinced to come and see it first and maybe have their minds changed.
So news broke recently that you’re portraying Aretha Franklin in an upcoming TV series. What does it mean for you to be cast in this role?
It means a lot, because I love her. She was one of my heroes, and to be able to be a part of this time where we get to tell our story is really special, because this is a woman that… I don’t know if people realise but she was an activist, she was involved in the civil rights movement. On top of which she was an incredible storyteller and an incredible vocalist, some of which… I don’t know if I’d be the singer I am [if it wasn’t for] the music she’s made. I think it’s awesome, and I’m really excited to be able to do it! I’m nervous because it’s a big deal, you know?