Cynthia Erivo Talks Starring in Harriet Tubman biopic 'Harriet,' Upcoming Projects & More

By Alexandria Abramian | December 3, 2019 | People

Broadway breakout Cynthia Erivo soars on the big screen in Harriet—but for Hollywood’s fastest-rising star, it’s only the beginning.

cynthia_one.jpgTop by Celine by Hedi Slimane; all jewelry, Erivo’s own.

Cynthia Erivo’s Instagram bio distills her story far more eloquently than any endless CV: “UK actress and singer, yes you read correctly I’m both! Not more of one but all of both and more.”

Emphasis on “more”: The 5-foot-1-inch actress is making a massive mark as one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising stars, one who spends much of her life 30,000 feet in the air, shuttling between New York, LA, DC and Atlanta, singing, acting, writing and recording. Spending time in her hometown of London rarely makes it onto the schedule. “I don’t know when a proper holiday is in sight for me,” says the 32-year-old. “When I do get a weekend or a day, I try to really relish it—get a massage or lie in or read. Most days, I get up early and I’m going all day. But I’m also very aware that this is what I’ve always dreamed of.”

That dream includes her starring role in the Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, one that’s generating Oscar buzz that could make Erivo the youngest member ever of the EGOT club—she’s already won a Tony (for her portrayal of Celie in The Color Purple), a Grammy (for the cast album) and an Emmy (for her performance along with The Color Purple cast on The Today Show).

In Harriet, Erivo delves deep into Tubman’s transformation from 19th century slave to fearless conductor of the Underground Railroad, bringing new dimension to the American heroine. “Too often, films that have slavery as a subject matter are so violent, you can’t share it with your kids. It’s too traumatizing,” she says. “My hope with Harriet is that someone will tell me they went with their grandma and their great grandma. This is a movie [to which] you can take your children.”

However, Harriet is only one of Erivo’s many upcoming projects. There’s also John Ridley’s Needle in a Timestack alongside Orlando Bloom, Freida Pinto and Leslie Odom Jr.; The Outsider, her first television project, a Stephen King thriller-turned-HBO series with Jason Bateman premiering Jan. 12; and Rip Van Winkle, Warner Brothers’ musical take on the American folktale, in which Erivo is both star and executive producer.

cynthia_two.jpg
T-shirt by John Elliott; all jewelry, Erivo’s own.

This month, Erivo will spend much of her time in Atlanta, where she starts production as another American icon, Aretha Franklin, in the next installment of National Geographic’s Emmy-winning Genius, a project that brings the actress’ past into the present. Not only did she grow up listening to Franklin, but Erivo also met the singer on two occasions: once after a performance of The Color Purple, when Franklin came backstage and “sang one of my lines back to me,” she shares; and again at the Kennedy Center, when Erivo sang “The Impossible Dream.” “After the first time, I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to meet her again,’” she says. “But then she remembered me at the Kennedy Center. There’s even a recording of her singing along with me.”

And while research for Harriet involved visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on multiple occasions, meeting with Tubman’s living relatives and reading extensively about her life, Erivo is no less diligent in preparing to play Franklin. “I’ve been looking at videos and interviews,” reveals the actress. “She shimmies. She doesn’t take big steps. I watched her as a guest on a game show and there’s this coy, come-to-me thing she does. It has an ‘If you can’t hear me, lean in further’ feeling to it.”

As for gearing up to sing like the Queen of Soul, Erivo isn’t taking any shortcuts. “I continue to work with my voice teacher, who trained me during The Color Purple,” she says. “It’s a weird thing: I’m so aware of what a gift it is to sing, and I don’t want to ever risk anything. I keep practicing like I’m a first-time singer every time.”



Photography by: PHOTOGRAPHED BY TERRELL MULLIN; STYLED BY JASON BOLDEN; Hair by Coree Moreno at The Visionaries; Makeup by Terrell Mullin