Cynthia Erivo just needs an O.
For her Broadway debut as Celie in the 2015 revival of The Color Purple, Erivo earned Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Awards, but full EGOT status may not elude her for long. Following a breakout film debut in Bad Times at the El Royale, the 31-year-old British actress kicks ass in Steve McQueen’s crime drama Widows as Belle, a hard-as-nails hairdresser and babysitter who helps a group of women avenging their dead husbands.
Speaking of Oscar bait, Erivo opens up to NewNowNext about her controversial casting in the upcoming Harriet Tubman biopic, plus the possibility of her returning to The Color Purple on the silver screen.
As a Color Purple fan, I’ve enjoyed watching you blow up in Hollywood. Are you living your best life?
I genuinely am. I feel like I’m outside myself watching it all happen.
Widows is a heist flick for the #MeToo era. Has there ever been a better moment for its celebration of female empowerment?
It’s really wonderful, isn’t it? Steve McQueen didn’t know that feminism and equality would be moving to the forefront of our discussions. He just knew this was a story that needed to be told, and fate—or what have you—provided him the perfect time and place to tell it.
Like Darlene, your character in Bad Times at the El Royale, Belle in Widows is strong and complicated. You skipped past “girlfriend” parts and went straight to playing badasses.
I know. I don’t know how that happened, but I’m really grateful for it, because I feel like that’s where I fit well. I don’t know if being the girlfriend, talking to a man on the other side of the phone, would work remotely well for me, to be honest.
You’re starring as abolitionist Harriet Tubman in the upcoming biopic Harriet. You’ve set a high bar very quickly. How will you top yourself?
I still might surprise you. I just want to keep playing women whose stories we don’t see very often, and I think they’ll all be different. I want to tell love stories, too, if the women are well-rounded and fully realized. As long as I keep making good decisions, we’ll keep having a good time.
After being cast as Tubman, you publicly responded to online criticism that a British actress shouldn’t play an African-American heroine. Why did you feel the need to address that backlash?
I understand where the critique comes from. It comes from women of color feeling invisible, and because there aren’t enough roles for women of color. Some people feel like I’m stealing something from someone, but I want everyone to understand that this role didn’t come easy, and I didn’t just jump into it. I’ve worked hard and I have the skills. If I didn’t feel I was able to play this woman, I wouldn’t do it.
The argument that actors must share the same experiences as their characters is echoed in the push to cast queer actors in queer roles. What’s your take on that?
I don’t want anyone to feel marginalized, but I think there should be room for all of us—including LGBTQ actors playing straight roles and straight actors playing LGBTQ roles. If you can’t do your job because someone’s standing in your way, telling you you’re not allowed to be creative, what are you supposed to do? Just as we need more roles for women of color, we need more LGBTQ roles so that there are more opportunities for all actors to do our work, to tell more of those stories, so it can stop being about our labels.
Belle in Widows is a single mom with no man in the picture. Were you working with any queer subtext? I caught a vibe.
Yes, and I’m so glad you saw that. We decided that Belle is bisexual and that the person she’s with is female. Those inside lives, the things that aren’t necessarily written or seen on screen, can still inform the way a character behaves and how the audience sees them, so it’s cool that you picked up on that. Well done!
Celie has a same-sex romance in The Color Purple. Did you feel any pressure to do right by the queer community?
Yes, because I think too often with LGBTQ stories, we’re too scared to make them real. I didn’t want to hide behind anything. I wanted people to understand that Celie was a woman in love with another woman and brokenhearted by that love. I wanted that part of the story to be really, really clear, and that determined the way I played her. Love is love, and when it hurts it hurts, and no matter who that love is with, it deserves to be treated with respect.
Some have inferred that Celie only fell in love with Shug because she’d been abused and oppressed by men. How did you see Celie’s sexuality?
Celie is a lesbian. I don’t know that Celie knows that, but that’s what I think. Later in life she finds love with this woman who gives her herself back, whether out of happenstance or necessity. But I do think Celie is pure in that she sees love before she sees the other person. Shug being a woman comes secondary to the fact that Shug is someone she loves.
The 1985 film adaptation of The Color Purple softened that relationship. Did you find Broadway audiences were shocked by Celie and Shug’s love story?
Yeah, like they forgot that happened. The musical is more like the book in that it makes this intimate, loving relationship between two women more obvious. But if people were surprised, maybe they missed that in the movie to make it more comfortable for themselves. When it’s live, right in front of you, you can’t ignore it. I hope that young LGBTQ people, especially young women who had never even spoken about their sexuality, felt some relief seeing that I wasn’t embarrassed or afraid to show that love.
It was recently announced that the musical is being adapted into a film. Are you as excited as I am?
Yes. I’m glad it’s coming to the big screen because it definitely deserves that treatment.
The gays may riot if you don’t play Celie in the movie, Cynthia.
[Laughs] I hear you. Look, I can’t really say anything except that I would love to be a part of it. If it works out, I would be more than happy to be a part of that story again. It definitely changed my life.
The Color Purple earned you a huge queer following. Have you continued to feel that support?
Very much so, yes, and I’m really grateful for that following. I have a deep love for the LGBTQ community because they’ve accepted me with open arms, particularly LGBTQ people of color. It makes me feel really special.
You also played queer women in Jussie Smollett’s “Freedom” video and Todrick Hall’s “Nobody” video. Do you hear from female admirers on social media?
Oh, yes. I do. I even get the occasional marriage proposal.
You’ve also proven yourself to be a vocal ally, from tweeting your disgust with Trump’s trans military ban to honoring victims of the Pulse massacre at the GLAAD Awards.
I have so many friends who are a part of the LGBTQ community, it would make no sense not to support them. I’m for them and with them. I’ve also been working with the Hetrick-Martin Institute, working with young LGBTQ people, which has been such a wonderful, eye-opening experience. I just want to continue to be on the right side of history, making sure people have equal rights, making sure people can be fully themselves without fear. What a boring world this would be if we didn’t have those people who live out loud.
Do you feel a responsibility to call attention to important issues?
I do. Some people run away from being a role model or an advocate, but I feel lucky to have a platform I can use to help others. If I waste it on nonsense, what is the point? There’s enough vacuousness in the world. It is necessary to shine a light on issues that don’t get enough attention, and I feel like it’s part of my job.
You’ve also tweeted your support of Pose.
Well, it would be ridiculous not to support Pose because it’s really great and so addictive. Billy Porter is also my friend and one of the most incredible people in the world.
Are you a RuPaul’s Drag Race fan?
Yes, and I’m desperate to be one of the guest judges, which would be a dream come true. I’m so amazed by the incredible creativity and skill on that show, and there’s so much joy and laughter. You know I love me some fashion, so I admire all those vibrant, colorful works of art.
What’s your advice for a drag queen who wants to do Cynthia Erivo?
Make sure you have a really good lip color—I usually do a dark lip—and always have your nails done. I also have massive eyes, so sometimes I wear two pairs of eyelashes. Then just get that English accent down and you should be good!
Widows is now in theaters.