Cynthia Erivo earned two Academy Award nominations for her starring role as the prolific hero Harriet Tubman in the film Harriet, setting her on the path to becoming an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner. Erivo was nominated for Best Actress and Best Original Song. At 32, the South London-born actress has already earned herself a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy for her work in the Broadway version of The Color Purple.
Her impressive performance has been applauded by critics far and wide who took notice of her nuanced approach and tempered intensity, which made the impactful and enlightening biopic directed by Kasi Lemmons something to marvel at. Despite the undeniable talent she has proven to possess, the actress was admittedly floored when she was asked to portray the woman who saved countless slaves on the Underground Railroad.
“ ‘Oh, my God’ was probably the first thing that popped in my mind when I got the call about Harriet,” Erivo says. “I was in the middle of The Color Purple at that time so I was entrenched in another woman’s story that focused on the courage of one woman. To be asked to play Harriet at that time was sort of mind-blowing to me. I didn’t expect anything like that to happen so I was really blown away.”
While Harriet tells the heart-wrenching story of the experiences slaves faced in the 1800s, many of its themes are extremely relevant today.
“I think one of the biggest things in it that Kasi [Lemmons] was really specific about was the separation of families. The ripping apart of people and the removal of people from their homes and their families, and the people that they love,” Erivo says. “We are also seeing the separation of families today, and it’s very apparent.”
Although she’s from across the pond and born to Nigerian parents, Erivo is extremely invested in and inspired by the work being done to protect and preserve the lives of Black folks in America.
“Opal Tometi is one of the founders of Black Lives Matter and I really admire her,” Erivo says. “She’s a woman who is steadfast in her fight for our lives to be seen and for our lives to matter and for our lives to be taken care of. She’s consistently fighting for those whose lives have been marginalized and she’s so strong in the work that she does. She has such a beautiful mind and I hope I could even be half of what she is. She’s amazing.”
Erivo is making her mark on Hollywood and shows no signs of slowing down. She’s starred alongside Hollywood heavyweights like Viola Davis in Widows. And with Harriet behind her, Erivo is focused on a long list of other projects. She is reparing to portray another Black icon — Aretha Franklin. The National Geographic series, Genius: Aretha, is scheduled to run in May 2020.
“I have had to let Harriet go so I can allow Aretha to come in. I’ve been seeking out Aretha’s spirit and her music,” Erivo says. “I’ve been listening to the way she spoke and watching the way she moved. Slowly but surely, she’s starting to come in.”
Erivo will also star in HBO’s upcoming series, The Outsider, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, which premiered Jan. 12. She'll star alongside David Oyelowo in the sci-fi thriller, Chaos Walking and will share the screen with Leslie Odom Jr. and Orlando Bloom in John Ridley’s Needle in a Timestack.
While Erivo is obviously enjoying the praise her Harriet performance has received, her true hope is that her work has a lasting effect on viewers.
“I just hope that in times like this, [Harriet] serves as a reminder that there is a lot of work to be done and that a lot of work was done but we are nowhere near finished with that work. There’s still a lot to fight for.”
— Cortney Wills