Cynthia Erivo is one London-born actress who’s a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood, especially since she was nominated for two Oscars in early 2020. She earned a nomination for best actress for her performance as 19th-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman in director Kasi Lemmons’ biopic Harriet, and she scored another nod for best original song, as co-writer and singer of the film’s closing song “Stand Up.”
While it may appear to filmgoers that Erivo burst on the scene seemingly out of nowhere with her work in Harriet, the actress has definitely paid her dues, earning rave reviews — along with multiple awards — for her portrayal of Celie in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple musical — and, before that, in the same play in London’s West End. That role proved to be an ideal showcase for her gifts as an actress and singer, quickly propelling her onto Hollywood’s A list.
Erivo’s accomplishments have been impressive, yet there’s still much to come from this talented performer. Earning two Oscar nominations — not to mention her earlier Emmy, Grammy, and Tony wins — is only the beginning. Read on to learn the untold truth of Cynthia Erivo.
How Oprah helped bring Cynthia Erivo to Broadway
By 2013, Cynthia Erivo had been carving out a career in British theater, landing her big break when she was cast as Celie in the West End revival of The Color Purple. In the stage musical, based on Alice Walker’s novel and Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film adaptation, Erivo shone in the role originated on the big screen by Whoopi Goldberg.
Oprah Winfrey — who won an Oscar nomination for her role in Spielberg’s film — was one of the play’s producers. When Winfrey and her partners brought the revival to New York City, Erivo went with it, presumably having impressed with her performance in London. In that production, Erivo co-starred with Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson, and reviews were through the roof. The New York Times described Erivo as an “incandescent new star,” while The Hollywood Reporter gushed that “Erivo’s the real deal” and that her performance was “not to be missed.” The Wall Street Journal wrote that Erivo’s performance “has Tony Award stamped all over it” — a prediction that came to pass when she won the Tony for lead actress in a musical.
Cynthia Erivo had only appeared in two movies before starring in Harriet
After Cynthia Erivo’s Tony-winning turn in Broadway’s The Color Purple, Hollywood quickly took notice. When she was nominated for an Oscar for best actress in January 2020, casual moviegoers could be forgiven for asking, “Cynthia who?” After all, Erivo’s nomination for portraying Underground Railroad slave smuggler Harriet Tubman in Harriet was only her third movie.
Erivo was first seen onscreen in 2018’s Widows, part of an ensemble cast that included Viola Davis, Colin Farrell, and Liam Neeson. Her next film role came soon after in crime thriller Bad Times at the El Royale. Once again, Erivo was part of an ensemble, portraying aspiring soul singer Darlene Sweet opposite Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Dakota Johnson, and Chris Hemsworth.
Erivo was then cast in Harriet, her first big-screen starring role. Harriet director Kasi Lemmons explained why she chose Erivo, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “About Cynthia, you just don’t get any better.” Lemmons continued, “She was prepared in every way you could possibly be prepared to play this role. She was prepared physically, emotionally, spiritually to play Harriet Tubman. And she was wonderful.”
Cynthia Erivo had a saying while filming Harriet
Harriet Tubman brought hundreds of slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad, and bringing those experiences to the screen required Harriet star Cynthia Erivo to perform an array of stunts for the film. In fact, the role required her to jump off a bridge, ride a galloping horse through a forest, climb a cliff, and more — all while wearing ungainly 19th-century clothing. “The stunt work is me,” Erivo told CBS This Morning, revealing that she trained hard in order to meet the physical demands of the role. “I was working out the hour before I would get on set,” she said.
Besides, added Erivo, no matter how difficult a stunt or how uncomfortable a situation, she knew that when it was over “there would be someone with a coat and we’d be able to go back inside and we were fine.”
Speaking with The Guardian, Erivo shared that during filming “if anything got difficult there was a saying: ‘HTH’, which was ‘Harriet Tubman hard.'” She explained, “So if it wasn’t Harriet Tubman hard, it was fine, we were going to get through it. And nothing was Harriet Tubman hard, so we always got through it.”
The reason why Cynthia Erivo once sang behind a curtain while another performer lip-synced
Prior to her star-making role in the West End revival of the stage musical The Color Purple, Cynthia Erivo attended London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), whose graduates include Anthony Hopkins, Sophie Okonedo, and Allison Janney, as well as Fleabag star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, The Walking Dead‘s Andrew Lincoln, and many more famous folks, as noted by Backstage.
According to a profile of Erivo in The Guardian, she was one of only four people of color admitted to RADA in her year. Despite her powerful voice and obvious singing talent, she recalled only being given a minor role in a musical production. Bizarrely, the lead role went to another student who hadn’t had much experience singing.
As Erivo recounted, one time during the musical’s run, one of the female performers lost her voice. Erivo was asked to jump in — not to take over the role, but to sing behind a curtain while the other actress lip-synced along. For Erivo, it’s not a pleasant memory. “It still makes me feel a little bit yuck to think that I even agreed to it,” she admitted.
Why Cynthia Erivo won't be lip-syncing when she plays the Queen of Soul
Following her Oscar-nominated turn in Harriet, Cynthia Erivo was cast in the third season of the National Geographic channel’s Genius series, playing the late Aretha Franklin, as reported by IndieWire. While it’s not uncommon for actors portraying famous singers in biopics to lip-sync while that artist’s voice is heard onscreen, Erivo insisted that wasn’t the case with her portrayal of the Queen of Soul.
“Singing is my second language, the rumor is true, I do sing live on set,” Erivo confirmed while promoting Genius at the Television Critics Association press tour, as reported by Variety. “It allows me to connect to her music in a way, to open up and be vulnerable and to express the things that you can’t say. It means I can be in the moment and don’t have to fabricate it, it’s there in the words and the moment and the lyrics.”
Cynthia Erivo will always cherish this memory of Aretha Franklin
When Cynthia Erivo was cast as Aretha Franklin for National Geographic’s Genius series, she revealed she had once been fortunate enough to meet the late Queen of Soul in person. As Erivo recalled in an interview with E! News, Franklin had come to see a performance of The Color Purple on Broadway and had requested to meet Erivo backstage after the show. According to Erivo, the moment she met Franklin, the music icon “sang the line from The Color Purple back to me.” As Erivo recalled, “That definitely shocked me!”
Erivo has another fond memory of Franklin that she absolutely treasures. She told The Guardian that she performed at the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors, which was being filmed to be aired on television. During the broadcast, as Erivo sang “The Impossible Dream,” the camera panned to Franklin, who was sitting in the audience taking in the show. In the transcendent moment, Franklin, eyes closed, could be seen singing along with Erivo. “It’s one of my favorite things to keep going back to,” Erivo said proudly.
How Cynthia Erivo felt being the only acting nominee of color at the 2020 Oscars
Being nominated for an Oscar for best actress placed Cynthia Erivo in rarified company. However, the actress told Vanity Fair that she found the experience to be “a little bit of a bittersweet feeling” given that, out of all the acting categories in the 2020 Oscars, she was the only person of color nominated.
“I don’t know what can be done, I don’t have a complete answer, but I do think maybe the rules need to change,” she said of the Oscars’ ongoing diversity issues. “But it was a bittersweet feeling, because I wish that there were other people of color who could be celebrated too.”
The fact that the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, which first trended on Twitter in 2015, was still relevant in 2020, should be a wakeup call for the Academy. As Erivo told BBC Breakfast, her personal goal is “to make sure it doesn’t look like this every single time,” and she expressed her hope that 2020 would be “a turning point for everyone because we’re talking about it out loud and now it can start to make some changes.”
Cynthia Erivo's casting in Harriet was met with backlash
When it was first announced that Cynthia Erivo would play Harriet Tubman in the big-screen biopic Harriet, the news was met with backlash. As The Root reported, some felt the role of the iconic abolitionist should have gone to an American actor, not a Brit. As the controversy grew, Erivo responded in a since-deleted Instagram post, comparing playing Tubman to her earlier role in The Color Purple. “I fought for the role of Celie, and spilled blood sweat and tears playing her, the same applies for every role I’ve earned, this will be no different,” she wrote.
In an interview with Deadline, Erivo addressed the negative comments that had been directed at her on social media. “I do understand where some people are coming from, but I think that some of the ways in which people express themselves sort of disregard the fact that I’m human, so yes, they do hurt,” she admitted. At the end of the day, she was hopeful that the work would speak for itself. “I would rather tell this story well, do it justice, and hopefully some minds will change,” Erivo added.
Cynthia Erivo is seriously into fitness
Cynthia Erivo’s Instagram demonstrates that hitting the gym isn’t so much a hobby for the actress as it is a passion. In fact, her social media contains frequent entries featuring video of Erivo’s intense workouts and the occasional photo of her six-pack abs.
Erivo is also a marathon runner, and she told Elle that running was something she kind of “fell into” when she “decided one day I wanted to run, and it only started as like doing five kilometers every day, and that was enough for me.” As she continued, the distances grew longer, to the point she was “running about nine miles every other day.” She noted, “I liked it, so I thought I wanted to explore how far I could go with it.”
For Erivo, exercise is more than just physical. “I know that my body asks for that amount of activity and it makes me feel good. I don’t think that working out is just a physical thing, I think it really is about how you feel,” Erivo told Bon Appetit. “You release serotonin when you work out, so I think I may be slightly addicted to the feeling.”
Cynthia Erivo could become an EGOT winner
Cynthia Erivo’s role in the Broadway musical The Color Purple not only won her acclaim and placed her on Hollywood’s radar, but it also put some impressive statues on her shelf.
In 2016, Erivo received her first nomination for a Tony Award and won, taking home the Tony for best leading actress in a musical. The following year, she and the rest of the cast of The Color Purple won a Grammy Award for best musical theater album. This was followed by another win at the Daytime Emmys, with Erivo and the rest of the Color Purple cast winning the best musical performance in a daytime program award for a number they performed on the Today show.
Then in early 2020, Erivo was nominated for two Oscars for Harriet, one for best actress and another for best original song, as the co-writer and singer of “Stand Up,” the song that plays over the film’s closing credits. Gaining an Oscar would make Erivo one of the rare performers to win EGOT status, meaning she’d have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. During an appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Erivo discussed the possibility of joining the EGOT club. “It sounds weird, doesn’t it?” she joked.
Cynthia Erivo co-starred with Hollywood heavyweights in a rock-musical podcast
Cynthia Erivo’s film and stage roles have brought her a lot of acclaim, but there’s another project that hasn’t garnered nearly as much attention, yet is every bit as fascinating as anything else she’s done. That project is Anthem: Homunculus, a rock-musical podcast from John Cameron Mitchell, star and writer of cult favorite Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
In an interview with Oprah Magazine, Mitchell explained that he “had a musical in mind but it was too bizarre for television and [he] really didn’t want to do it on stage,” which led him to do it as a “radio play.” He assembled an A-list cast comprised of Glenn Close, Marion Cotillard, Broadway legend Patti Lupone, and Erivo, who plays a character called Joan the Baptist and sings a song called “Love You for Free.”
According to Broadway World, Anthem: Homunculus tells the story of “a broke, solitary, and bitterly funny shut-in, Ceann Mackay,” who launches an online telethon to raise funds to remove his brain tumor, which leads to unexpected fame and the realization that “the thing that is killing him may be the very thing that’ll save us all.“
What Cynthia Erivo and Charlize Theron talk about when they FaceTime
An actor lucky enough to receive an Oscar nomination will inevitably get sucked into the madness known as award season, a period that begins in early January with the Golden Globes and continues through to the Academy Awards. Nominees attend an array of award shows and industry shindigs, with the same stars bumping into each other at event after event. For Cynthia Erivo, this repeated exposure to her other 2020 best actress contenders had the unexpected benefit of allowing her to strike up friendships with fellow nominees Charlize Theron and Renée Zellweger. As Erivo admitted in an interview with Vanity Fair, that has been a “really cool” part of award season.
“We’ve been texting and calling and FaceTime, especially with Charlize as well. And Renée and I are texting all the time, we seem to just be like egging each other on and giving each other great encouragement,” said Erivo. Asked what she and Theron talk about when they FaceTime, Erivo answered, “Everything! So she has dogs, and I have a little dog, and we talk about her beautiful daughter and her kids and so human things, really.”
Why Cynthia Erivo turned down an invitation to perform at the BAFTAs
Cynthia Erivo was invited to sing at the 2020 BAFTAs, the U.K. award gala presented by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. She turned the offer down, explaining it felt inappropriate due to the fact that not one person of color received a nomination in any of the BAFTA acting categories.
“I felt like [the invitation] didn’t represent people of color in the right light,” Erivo told Extra. “It felt like it was calling on me as an entertainer as opposed to a person who was a part of the world of film and I think that it’s important to make it known that it’s not something that you throw in as a party trick, you know?”
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Erivo was asked if she had reached out to BAFTA to foster a discussion about the lack of diversity in the 2020 nominees. “It’s not my job to reach out to them,” she said. “If they want some change, they should start reaching out to people and being the change that they seek, but they haven’t got to that.”
The truth about Cynthia Erivo's red carpet style
Cynthia Erivo hit plenty of red carpets during the 2020 award season, and she consistently dazzled fans with her bold style. The actress’ stylist, Jason Bolden, shared some of the secrets behind Erivo’s fashion choices in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
While Erivo has sported some truly phenomenal outfits, perhaps the most eye-catching of them all was the feather-festooned multicolored gown from designer Marc Jacobs, which Erivo wore for the Los Angeles premiere of Harriet. “I told her, ‘Either it will be the most amazing thing ever or it’s going to be the most horrible thing ever,'” Bolden recalled, admitting that his fears were ultimately for naught. “It fit like perfection,” he added. “Cynthia has that thing where she makes something [that] seems so out of this world [be] so right for the planet.”
Meanwhile, Bolden also revealed the one thing that Erivo wears on every single red carpet she walks: a ring featuring the face of Harriet Tubman. This, explained Bolden, is Erivo’s way of “carrying her with her everywhere she goes.”
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