After winning Tony, Grammy, and Emmy Awards tied to her herculean performance as Celie in the 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple, Cynthia Erivo has been busyin movies, with turns in Widows alongside Viola Davis and Bad Times at the El Royale alongside the likes of Jon Hamm and Chris Hemsworth. But you haven’t seen her like this.
On November 1, Erivo appears in cinemas nationwide as Harriet Tubman, the woman personally responsible for the escape of dozens of enslaved African Americans via the Underground Railroad, in the biopic Harriet. As Harriet, Erivo is fearlessness personified. She brings what is becoming her signature combination of gravity and litheness to the role—much as she did with Celie.
In fact, Erivo credits her time in The Color Purple with preparing her for Harriet. “It lent stamina that was necessary,” she tells Playbill. “The experience of accessing all the heights of emotion and for so long made it less daunting for me to have to do. If you’ve not done something like that before, it can be overwhelming and it can be scary. Doing that with Harriet, I sort of welcomed it because I knew it was necessary and I wasn’t afraid of it.”
The emotional endurance braced her to tell a tale that oscillates from moments of paralyzing fear (when she first escapes her master and runs for freedom) to awesome joy (when she traverses the hill to her freedom), from moments of crippling loss (when she returns to the South to fetch her husband and he has remarried) to moments of unparalleled strength (when she follows her visions and stands up to her own brother on the quest to the North). Though Celie and Harriet’s stories both trace an arc from suffering to self-actualization, they are very different women.
“They’re both dealing with [abuse] from different places: Celie, it is insidious because it comes from people who should be protecting her, taking care of her; with Harriet, her abuse comes from people who can disconnect completely,” Erivo explains. “There are two different pains that come with that. There’s a pain of betrayal when it comes to Celie and there’s a pain of dissonance and a want for freedom [with Harriet].”
And with two different women come two very different singing voices. Celie’s voice was soaring, textured, and bright. With Harriet, Erivo cultivated something different. “Her voice is more grounded. Her voice is more earthbound. There’s a purity in it,” Erivo says. “There’s no embellishment on it because it’s not about sounding a specific way. It’s not really about performance; it really is about communication. And yes, I use communication, but this is literally—the singing she uses is about making sure a message gets to someone.”
Erivo sang live on the set—without any rehearsals of the traditional spirituals that served as secret instructions on where and when to run. “I didn’t practice those pieces. I would only do them when we were on set to film those scenes,” Erivo says. “It’s a special thing to have to sing, and I don’t think it’s one that should be wasted.”
If her performance is proof of anything, it’s that nothing has gone to waste.