HEROINE 15 cover story: Cynthia Erivo in conversation with Steve McQueen
Film+TV | 10 December 2021
Photographer Mark Seliger
Stylist Daniel Edley.

dress and shirt both by THOM BROWNE FW21; earrings and necklace both by CARTIER

As Cynthia Erivo flawlessly performs Man of La Mancha’s The Impossible Dream at the 2016 Kennedy Center Honors, the camera pans to Aretha Franklin, eyes clenched shut, singing along with each word. Five years on, and Erivo received an Emmy nomination for her unerring portrayal of the musical icon in National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha docudrama. Two years prior, in 2019, Erivo was embodying another of America’s most eminent and influential Black women: Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’s gripping cinematic ode to the abolitionist and political activist. Yet it’s on stage that she first caught the attention of Academy Award-winning auteur Steve McQueen, in a stunning musical interpretation of The Colour Purple that saw Erivo receive an Emmy, Grammy and Tony award. Struck by her performance, McQueen was compelled to cast her as badass single mother, Belle, in his 2018 film, Widows. Two icons revered for the singularity of their visions – they unite here as colleagues, contemporaries and above all, friends.

jacket by PROENZA SCHOULER FW21, shirt by CHANEL FW21, earrings by BOUCHERON

Steve McQueen: Cynthia, how are you first of all?
Cynthia Erivo: I’m good, you know? This week is particularly busy because I’m getting ready to perform at the Hollywood Bowl and I’m moving at the same time, so it’s a lot of things at once.

SM: Wow. What are you doing at the Hollywood Bowl?
CE: A full concert, some of my music, some by other artists but it’s my show.

SM: As you do at the Hollywood Bowl! [both laugh] I also saw that you are going to be on the jury at Venice [Film Festival]?
CE: Yes, I’m really excited about that.

SM: It’s intense. What excites you about being on the jury?
CE: There’s a few things. One, being in Venice – I love that place, I think it’s stunning, so just being there will be really great. Meeting Bong Joon-ho will be really cool as well, and the director of Nomadland, Chloé Zhao. She’s going to be on the jury as well. Also being able to see films that I might not be able to…

SM: In America, I imagine?
CE: Yes. The fact that it’s an international festival allows me to see movies that might not make it all the way to the United States or to the UK. I get to dive into that world of film.

SM: Are you now in LA?
CE: Yes.

SM: So you’ve moved hook, line and sinker, you live there?
CE: Yes, hook, line and sinker, I live in LA.

jacket and trousers both by ALEXANDER McQUEEN FW21; earrings and rings all by BOUCHERON; necklace, worn throughout by CARTIER; nose ring and studs, worn throughout, CYNTHIA’s own

SM: So goodbye London?
CE: I mean I think I’m happy to come to London when I’m working.

SM: I’m happy to come to London! OK! [laughs]
CE: Or for a specific reason, but other than that…

SM: You’re a Londoner and it doesn’t sound like you’re too enthusiastic about London.
CE: Well, I guess it’s easier to be in London when you feel more like a tourist than a person who lives there – for me. Just whenever I’ve been there, working, I haven’t enjoyed it. I haven’t… what’s the word I’m looking for? I felt unwelcome.

SM: Wow.
CE: Even this morning my mum phoned about someone calling from one of the channels to interview me about something that happened a long time ago, but they had no idea what I did, where I was… Like, calling my mum for information? And my mum was like, “Why don’t you just call her agent?” – “She has an agent?!”, “Well yeah… she’s an actor.” It’s that.

SM: So basically, London didn’t really give you love?
CE: At all.

coat by ISABEL MARRANT FW21; bodysuit and gloves both by PRADA FW21; shoes by ANN DEMEULEMEESTER

SM: I remember very well when you were doing The Color Purple – which is actually the first time I met you before casting you in Widows – I remember the hairs on the back of my neck went when you were performing. That show was absolutely astonishing. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t have high expectations when I went because I didn’t know who you were, I didn’t know what this thing was about, I knew the book and saw the film. A musical? OK. And you totally knocked my socks off. You lifted everybody in that room, it was incredible. Then you told me about the response to that show when it first came out in London, tell me a little bit more about that.
CE: We did the show and the audiences were actually really wonderful, they were really responsive. We sold out every night. People were really enjoying themselves, like stamping on the ground because they were enjoying it so much. Ovations every night. Then the reviews came out and it was like we were the worst thing you’d ever seen. “She doesn’t look old enough, there isn’t enough violence in it.” One paper called us a gospel choir – it was like what we were experiencing was totally opposite to what these papers had experienced. The thing that really saved us was Ben Brantley from The New York Times coming in and going, “This was incredible. This piece is how it was supposed to be done.” And that took us to Broadway. Broadway happens and rave reviews across the board.

SM: I’d like to understand why you feel less comfortable in the UK and more comfortable where you are?
CE: Because I feel like in the UK I have to make myself smaller than I am and if you have to try and fit yourself into a box that is not big enough for you, it’s uncomfortable. Physically it’s impossible and uncomfortable. As a performer, as a creator, I feel like whenever I’m in London it’s like someone’s trying to put me back in my place. Like, “Don’t get too far above your station, don’t do too much.” It just feels like I’m being asked to lessen myself and it doesn’t feel good. At least here I can just be all the things that I want to be, create the way I want to create. It might not always be the easiest but it’s possible. In London, before I’d come over to the US, where I was given the platform to be seen, no one was casting me in TV. The only person that did was Michaela Coel, she’s the only person that was like, “I’ve got this thing,” which started as a one-woman play and turned into a series because she’s a genius. Everyone else – [dismissive hand gesture] “No, she’s only theatre.” Mind you, I’d put myself through drama school, the Royal Academy of Dramatic  Arts, no less, and it wasn’t enough.

SM: So two Black British people, Michaela and myself, cast you in your first TV show and your first film.
CE: Exactly.

jacket by PROENZA SCHOULER FW21; shirt by CHANEL FW21; earrings and rings all BOUCHERON

SM: One time I was introduced to Barbra Streisand in a restaurant in LA and it was just so amazing. I sat with Barbra, if I can call her that, and we just talked. I mean, I chewed her ear off, she was chewing my ear off, and I remember – this is really corny – I said, “I love your accent,” and she said, “Well I love yours!” [both laugh]. Because she had this really kind of broad Brooklyn esque accent which you know, I remember hearing as a kid. She’s the only person I can think of as an equivalent to you. As in, what you have achieved musically and within your acting. Is there a comparison, are they complementary or not at all?
CE: For me they are. I feel like music is interlinked and interlaced in everything I do, even if it’s not necessarily song. Speaking about accents, people always ask, “How did you learn that accent?” And genuinely I hear accents like music, so I hear the rhythm, the sound and the pattern of it – that’s how I learn. It’s not enough to just hear the words. I think the only way to connect with people through song is if you do it honestly. Music has the potential to make people tell the truth. Even if you’re not a singer but you have to sing, all of a sudden you become really vulnerable, you can’t help but be nervous and people can really see who you are. If you’re not a nervous singer, if you’re open – and that’s the only way that feels really good – that’s when you just let it be. So you have to be open, you have to be honest, you have to be truthful. When you spend so much time experiencing what that feels like, you’re less afraid of it when you take away the instruments, the sounds and music. So you spend your time just searching for that when it comes to film or TV, you’re looking for the same honesty that you look for in music. That’s what I do. That’s genuinely my connection to music and acting because it all feels like it’s one family of ways to speak, to connect.

SM: I never forget, there was a criticism of Ella Fitzgerald saying that she’s a great singer but she doesn’t go there emotionally. I thought to myself, “What nonsense.” Also, I don’t think that people acquainted sexuality with Ella Fitzgerald, they thought she was the maid, or the nanny, or the aunty, or whatever. But you can’t sing those songs without having red blood running through your veins. So there’s this kind of stereotype I find as well, have you felt any of that?
CE: I do think that people sometimes forget that I am a sexual being. I think people erase that sometimes. Now I’m in a place where I’m able to wash that off a little bit. All these things can be true at once: I can be a wonderful singer, I can be a truthful actress, I can be all of those and I can be a fully-rounded sexual being in the world. I think that people would sometimes rather not see that of Black women.

SM: Particularly dark-skinned Black women, absolutely.
CE: Yeah, it’s easier to see us as like, the friend [both laugh]. But we don’t exist that way. I think some of that has been applied to me, but I’m making specific choices to shift that narrative. What I’m mainly looking for in the people I play, are people I haven’t met before. I always look for moments of intimacy, vulnerability and sexuality…

dress, top and trousers all by NOIR KEI NINOMIYA FW21; earrings, worn throughout, by CARTIER

“All these things can be true at once: I can be a wonderful singer, I can be a truthful actress, I can be all of those and I can be a fully-rounded sexual being in the world.”

SM: You’re looking for truth, absolutely. How has America embraced you? Because there were issues of course, I remember you playing Harriet Tubman and you not being African-American… so you go out of the frying pan and into the fire it seemed, how have you handled that? Because in some ways this environment has given you the playground you want to be in, but at the same time, there’s been some pushback.
CE: There has, and when it was happening it was deeply painful but I also saw it as an opportunity to have broader conversations that I would never have been able to have in the UK. We still can’t have the conversation of colourism in the UK, it’s just not happening and it’s there. Like when something says “cast needing a Black woman” and then you see the actual project and it’s a light-skinned mixed-race girl, which is wonderful, but it’s not a conversation that we’re having yet. At least here it’s being had. Especially in this particular year, I got the ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Vanguard Award, I’ve been working with the BET Awards, there are so many different ways in which my Blackness is welcome. I found, outside of all of the noise, angst and issues that came up during Harriet, I’ve actually managed to create a wonderful family of people who are like-minded, who want to know me as a person and have come together as a community. That actually started with Broadway, which was really new for me – to be on Broadway and to have other shows come and want to be a part of that. And then within that, to find other Black people in other shows who are really making the effort to show up for each other. That was the first time I experienced that in such a large way. Before, I think we were all so afraid that we wouldn’t be working, we didn’t have the time to concentrate on creating community in the UK. It’s really important to do that because there’s so little to grab onto, we’re all running around trying to make it work. But here, it’s like the community is the most important thing, because without it you’re on your own.

SM: You’ve played two iconic African-American roles, Harriet Tubman and Aretha Franklin, so I imagine you know the argument is, well why can’t there be an African-American actor to play her?
CE: Yes.

SM: How have you dealt with that? Because it is a fair question.
CE: It is a fair question but often the question comes from a place of, this is and will be the only one that’s ever made in the history of film. And I’m always like, “This doesn’t have to be the only one.” That’s what’s happened with Aretha Franklin, mine is one version on TV. There is another version with Jennifer Hudson who is an African-American woman and after that, there may be another version with somebody else. I think there’s been two Whitney Houston biopics so far, and there’s another one coming, so three. And when it comes to our white counterparts there are constant movies about presidents, about Marilyn Monroe, about Judy Garland, like, there can always be more. So you don’t want to see my version? You don’t have to. But, know making another version is a possibility, you know? I am here to do the job of making sure that I connect this person with whoever watches them. That is my only job, that’s all I want to do.

dress by GIVENCHY FW21; earrings, bangles and rings all by BOUCHERON

SM: As an artist, how do you maintain yourself? How do you stimulate? LA is an interesting place but you’re very much in it [laughs]. You hear about it, you see it, you smell it. How do you keep yourself maintained as an artist within that environment?
CE: I make sure that I fill my life with the things that make me feel – I know this sounds strange – but normal. I get up in the morning, I go running, or I work out. There are things that keep me grounded, and then I feel connected. I take time with friends and family – this morning I did a pilates session with my sister who’s in London, we do a Google Meet every two weeks where we do some exercise or work out. I read, I listen to music, I dance just because I want to, I like clothes so I’ll shop, I cook. It’s just finding the human things that make me tick, that keep me grounded. That helps me be creative.

SM: And how do you deal with – I mean you’re famous.
CE: Yeah [laughs].

SM: How do you deal with that?
CE: I’m not sure I have dealt with it, to be honest. I just try and be gracious to everybody I meet. My best friend always tells me off, he’s like, “You keep forgetting you’re famous,” and I’m like, “I don’t” – because I don’t feel that way, I still feel like me. I still feel like Cynthia. I still feel like I’m asking, “Can I read the script?” I’m that person from the very beginning of my career who’s still really hungry. That never went away. And I still want to do things for myself, it makes me tick. I try to be polite and kind, because that’s really all anyone else wants.

SM: What excites you musically right now?
CE: I feel like we’re coming to a place where artists who sing from their heart, from their gut, their soul, with lyrics that mean something, are finding their way back. We’re making space for them again, because for a while, we sort of dismissed them. Streaming is a really easy thing where you can pick up whatever songs you want, so it got to a point where everything started sounding exactly the same and no one was really speaking about anything. But I think because we’ve come through all of this [the Covid-19 pandemic], people are making music that says something. People are genuinely needing music to express and connect to their feelings. So I’m hearing really beautiful music. There’s an artist called YEBBA, who is really, really wonderful, and is making music that is really connected – now we get to hear it out loud and I’m excited for that. I’m excited that I get to share my stories, my life, things that have happened to me, things I’ve been through, things I’ve observed through my music.

SM: And what about film? Is there anything you’re seeing or interested in? Do you have a passion project?
CE: I have a couple of passion projects. You know what? I’m going to pat myself on the back and say I’m proud of myself because I’ve managed to make sure that the projects I pick, I love. There’s one project I’m about to go and film and then straight after there’s a passion project I have been plugging away at and working on to make sure it comes to fruition for about four or five years. The script came to me when I was in The Color Purple, and it went off for a second but then we found a writer and it all feels like it’s coming together, so that’s going to happen. Then obviously the one I spoke to you about, The Rose, is coming as well. That came to me and I jumped at it because I thought it was a really beautiful way to talk about women in the music industry and I’m passionate about that. Then another TV show I’m working on as well that’s… yummy – there’s anger and angst, this woman is the greyest grey you could possibly find. She’s not a hero, she’s not a villain, she’s just trying to figure it out, she’s a mess.

SM: A full-blown human being.
CE: Yes, I just love it. It feels really full and luscious. Those are happening and then there are a couple of other fantasy projects that may come my way and I’m wishing and hoping. I just want to fully realise the skills I have – the superhero in me.

jacket, top and skirt all by SIMONE ROCHA FW21; earring and rings all by CARTIER

“I have a couple of passion projects. You know what? I’m going to pat myself on the back and say I’m proud of myself because I’ve managed to make sure that the projects I pick, I love.”

SM: It would be remiss of me if I don’t ask you about Aretha, how was it to play Aretha Franklin? We spoke about vocalists, one of the greatest vocalists of all time. How did you match her voice?
CE: Like I was explaining earlier, my way in is sound. I found lots of interviews with her and I’d just sit and listen to them. I found an interview on a game show and it’s a wonderful thing to watch, because it’s like mid-late-70s, so this is when she’s done Young, Gifted and Black, this is when she’s really leaning into her Blackness. She’s got her Afro, she’s in a full denim outfit, flares and everything, huge platforms she can’t walk in. So when they introduce her she sort of shuffles to her seat to sit next to this presenter and all of her answers are “Yes,” or, “No” – anything more than that is really quiet. You watch this interviewer going [leans towards the camera] just leaning closer to hear her more, and what happens is, it’s like she’d learned that if she answers in a certain way, if she uses her voice in a certain way, people lean in and they actually listen. I just kept watching these interviews and as time went on she becomes bigger, more expressive, more herself. I think per episode we would have about four or five songs, so I would spend an hour or two on each of those, learning, learning, learning, just going over it and learning all of these little changes that she’d make. It’s one thing to listen to Aretha as a listener, but when you’re learning her you realise that she makes all these really complicated decisions and these… choices in her music, on the fly – but they’re not on the fly because it is a decision to hold a breath for that long, it is a decision to hold a note for that long, but it’s also because at that moment, she’s deciding, “Does this word matter? This word matters more than that one. This moment matters more than this one. I’m going to express this more than I’m going to express that because this is more important than that. I really relished learning how she would do that, and even like, you think about Rock Steady [sings a flawless Aretha impression] “Rock steady, baby!/That’s what I feel now/Let’s call this song exactly what it is/Step n’ move your hips/With a feelin’ from side to side.” It sounds like the movement.

SM: I wish I could do that, just switch that on, just open my mouth and sing. For me with Aretha, it’s spiritual. Funnily enough Rock Steady was one of the records in my mother’s collection with the old gram. Me and my sister would raid the record collection and Rock Steady was one of the tracks in there. Her voice stirs me.
CE: Because she always means it.

SM: Absolutely she means it… for me it was almost like she was being used as some sort of instrument of god. It breaks through the barriers. It’s like the holy spirit in a way. Anyway, will we ever see you playing a role in Britain one day? Will we ever get you back? Will you be doing Eastenders?
CE: You can have me back whenever you want. For sure, sooner rather than later, I just don’t know whether I’m going to be moving back to London anytime soon.

SM: Your talent shines and wherever it finds a home I know it will be blinding.
CE: Thank you, I appreciate that.

jacket and trousers both by BALENCIAGA F21

Interview originally published in HEROINE 15

makeup JOANNA SIMKIN at THE WALL GROUP; manicurist ERI HANDA at HOME AGENCY ; executive producer RUTH LEVY; creative producer COCO KNUDSON; photography assistant ROMY KIRCHAUER and STEVEN BURTON; digi tech ALEXANDER SCOTT HARRIS; fashion assistants SHANELLE RUSSELL and JOE JACOBS.


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