TORONTO — British actress Cynthia Erivo is relatively small in stature. In person, she is earnest and genial. In performance, the 32-year-old can appear achingly vulnerable.
It was her Tony-winning transformation as Celie in “The Color Purple” on Broadway that first brought her to the attention of American audiences. Ever since, the explosiveness of Erivo’s voice — an earthy yet heaven-sent soprano that aches with perseverance and grace —has been causing jaws to drop like anvils.
Now, after glimpses of her on-screen power last year in “Bad Times at the El Royale” and “Widows,” Erivo gives her first leading performance in the Harriet Tubman film “Harriet.” In the diminutive abolitionist she immediately recognized something of herself.
”She was a small woman who was underestimated completely. She should not have been able to do what she did. She suffered from narcolepsy and epileptic fits. Nobody thought she was as strong as she is,” says Erivo. “As a 5-foot-1 woman wandering about the Earth in my skin color, people do that a lot.”
Director Kasi Lemmons’“Harriet,”now in theaters, is the first feature film centered on the Underground Railroad conductor. It focuses on Tubman’s initial escape from slavery in Maryland and her subsequent raids that led more than 70 people to freedom. It’s a strikingly younger and fiercer Tubman, beginning with her relationship to her husband, John Tubman.
”The one thing I wanted to make sure of was that people got to see her as a woman,” says Erivo, 32. “We get to see her in love. We see her lose that love and we see what that does to her. From that she has to figure out what next. No one realizes that essentially what happened is she went back for her husband and things went south.”
A lot was riding on the performance of Erivo, a newcomer coming off her success in “The Color Purple.”
”As soon as we started rolling cameras and I saw her step into this role, any of my anxiety about her ability to portray Harriet instantly melted away,” Lemmons says. “I was completely taken with her dedication and commitment and her talent. I mean, she’s a star and everyone is about to know this. She’s a real movie star.”
Still, some backlash greeted the film when its first trailer was released. Such a quintessentially American role, some said, should have gone to an African American actress. Erivo, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants to England, was born in London and currently lives in New York. Erivo responded to the criticism on social media at the time, explaining her passion for the role and the sometimes overlooked commonalities between black people on both sides of the Atlantic.
”At times it’s been tough,” she says. “But I have an understanding of where it comes from. I do really believe it’s a case of people feeling unseen, people feeling like there isn’t enough. These stories, they’re rare gems and they don’t come around as often as they should. Because of that, it stings more.”
Erivo will play another American icon, Aretha Franklin, in an upcoming Nat Geo series. Music, she says, will continue to play a prominent role for her. (She recorded a rousing song for “Harriet.”) Erivo describes herself as having “a very crazy dream of being a true renaissance woman,” equally dedicated to film and music. One informs the other, she says. Tubman, for example, she figured to be a slightly deeper register, more of an alto.
”I believe that each person has a tune and a rhythm, the way we speak, the peaks and troughs that we have in our voices, where we place our pauses, if we stutter a little bit. That is a rhythm,” she says.