Cynthia Erivo on interracial relationships, Viola Davis and flawed women

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Helen Bownass
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Stylist meets Cynthia Erivo, the film and stage actor smashing her way into Hollywood. 

Cynthia Erivo and I are discussing the joy of watching Viola Davis and Liam Neeson having a massive snog in Widows, the upcoming film both women star in. “It was a wonderful thing to see,” Erivo tells me happily. “A woman of her age with a man of a similar age, an interracial couple – I’m part of an interracial couple myself – it’s stuff that we see in real life but it’s never put on screen because we don’t think people are ready to deal with it. But we put it on screen and we say we accept it, we say that it’s real.”

Erivo is an actor who knows the power of
 a voice in every sense. The south London-born 31-year-old is already a huge name in the world of theatre, winning a Tony award for her role
as Celie in The Color Purple when it went to Broadway (look up the YouTube video of her singing I’m Here if you want to feel something). As well as singing for Barack and Michelle Obama (twice), Oprah Winfrey has called her performance as Celie “transcendent” and she won an Emmy and a Grammy for the role. 

And now the elusive fourth award, the Oscar, seems almost within her grasp. Erivo is starring in two of autumn’s biggest releases: Bad Times At The El Royale, about a group of strangers who meet at a rundown hotel, and Widows, directed by Steve McQueen of 12 Years A Slave with a tightly-wound script co-written by Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn. The plot of Widows, of course, isn’t just 120 minutes of Viola Davis snogging (although that would also be a great film), it is about a group of women (including Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez)
 who must pull off a heist after the death of
their criminal husbands. It is gripping, clever, subversive and very entertaining, and Erivo crackles on screen as a hairdresser who
also happens to be a hard-hitting boxing powerhouse. And she’s just getting started… 

I loved Widows, particularly because it was a female heist film but it didn’t descend into being a buddy film – the women were flawed and they had their own agency. Was that something that spoke to you?

I love the mess. These women are unapologetic about their circumstances and who they are. There’s this weird thing in film and TV where 
a woman has to be perfect and you have to like her and with this [film], it’s not asking you to 
like them. You get to see that with men very often but you rarely get to see that with women. And in real life we are not perfect. It’s tiring to think that we have to be.

Does it give you hope that we’re finally moving into a world where women’s experiences are no longer treated as other or singular?

We still have work to do but we are moving into a moment where we can tell stories
about women who are multifaceted, who are flawed and different. As women now in the entertainment industries, we don’t want to tell any other kind of story any more, we’re done with that. The more that happens, the more we say no to roles that don’t deserve us, the more we force people to write roles that do. The films that are the most successful are starting to be the stories with women that you just don’t meet very often in films but you do meet in life. Once people get it in their heads that it isn’t something to be afraid of and it actually serves everyone, then we’re laughing.

You said you’ll say no to things – is that easy for you?

I’m stubborn so I say no to anything I don’t
want to do [laughs]. I get scripts that come in and the first thing I look for is if this woman is well-rounded. Especially for a woman of colour, [the roles] can become monolithic: the idea of a woman who yells and shouts too much or the woman who is really, really sexy. [She pauses for a minute and laughingly asks, “Can you hear my dog in the background? He’s trying to get my attention.”] I don’t want to be the person who puts a character on screen who doesn’t show a good example
 of what we are
as women and 
I feel like it is my responsibility to
do that. Maybe I’m taking on too much but I feel like that has always been my responsibility.

You’re filming Harriet at the moment, about the American abolitionist and escaped slave Harriet Tubman. Was
 she someone you knew much about?

I made it my business to; she was a woman of colour who’s done incredible things. I’m
a geek when it comes to looking up all these stories that don’t get told. And because she was mini like me – she was 5ft1 and extremely strong – and she was doing all of those things by herself, her strength and her will really intrigued me. 

There’s been some criticism about you getting the role of Harriet as you’re British and not American. You said on Instagram, “Nothing has been given to me without me first putting the work in. People speak of foreign privilege and truthfully, life would be unbelievably easy if that were applied to me but that is not my portion.” Have you been able to prevent that negative reaction impacting your experience?

I felt like it wouldn’t be fair to the director, to myself or to Harriet to not celebrate that [the story] was being told, because it hasn’t been told properly before. So I had to compartmentalise. Right now it’s important for me to be in a space where I can tell the story, get to set six days a week, run in the mud and slip and fall and hurt myself. I really need to enjoy it so I have the will to do it.

What other roles would you love to take on?

I’d love to do a Marvel film. Storm is my top number one, two and three of Marvel superheroes. I used to watch the X-Men cartoons every day.

So you’re a sci-fi and superhero fan?

YES. Did you ever watch Quantum Leap? It was my favourite thing.
I used to watch Farscape and Stargate. And I used to religiously watch Xena and Hercules. I’m that girl: Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel, that was all my stuff. I do still watch TV now, but I’m always catching up. 

You studied music psychology at university before going to The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Is there anything you learnt while studying that you still use now?

The thing I learnt – and I think I’m going to go back at some point and study more – is about the psychology of the voice. The way we use our voices is deeply connected to the way we think and feel. I can say something, but if I sing it, sometimes it will connect deeper because music forces me to open up. You’re seeing someone at their rawest [when they’re singing]. I’m really interested to learn more about what it is that we can do to open up ourselves and to tell our stories clearly.

Finally, as a Brit currently living in the US, what do you miss most about London?

Marks & Spencer! The snacks are good, Percy Pigs are amazing. And Hyde Park in the summer. And my friends and family. I’m working so much that rarely do I get time to come over. I haven’t been to London for such a long time so hopefully when I get back
I’ll get time to be a tourist.

Widows is in cinemas now 

Images: Instagram

Photography: John Russo


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Helen Bownass

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