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In Her Shoes: Cynthia Erivo

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

On this episode of ”In Her Shoes,” on The Cut podcast, the Cut’s editor-in-chief, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, talks with Cynthia Erivo, who is too many things to name just one. She is an English actor, singer, and songwriter; she’s not just a two-time Oscar nominee but a Grammy Daytime Emmy and Tony Award–winning performer as well. She’s known for portraying legendary women like Harriet Tubman and Aretha Franklin. And on top of all that, she recently released her debut solo album and a children’s book.

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To hear more about the iconic Black women Erivo has played and how she feels about being so close to an EGOT, listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also read the full transcript below.

LINDSAY PEOPLES WAGNER: Hi, Cynthia, thank you so much for joining us. 

CYNTHIA ERIVO: Thank you for having me. Very excited to be here.

LPW: Let’s start with The Color Purple because I love talking to you about this, and I wanted to talk to you more about this at our dinner. I was there and just in such awe of you, like, Who is this person? Why can she blow like we’re in church? This is crazy. You won a Tony, which everyone would have been so upset if you didn’t. How did that change your life? Being cast as Celie in The Color Purple is such a big deal to us as a community and is a cultural statement of so many things that have happened in the Black community.

ERIVO: That show was my reason for being at that time. I first did it in the U.K., and when I did it in the U.K., I just fought for it. I was like, This is the show that I want to do. I don’t know why. I knew that it was the show that I was supposed to be doing. It was just pulling at me, and I wanted this to be part of the story that I was telling for myself. I just fought and fought and fought for it. They wouldn’t see me for a little bit and then they changed their mind, that I could come in and audition.

I had no idea that it was going to become what it became. I had no idea that it was going to end up as a musical on Broadway. So when we got to Broadway, I was already sort of blown away by how big this had become, and that was enough for me. At no point did I think, Im going to be on Broadway, and I’m going to do the show I love. It was one step further than I had imagined for myself, which is wonderful. So when I get there and it felt like everybody’s arms were wide open and people were ready to go on this journey with this young woman who is going through some of the most awful things — and experiencing joy, experiencing love properly for the first time, experiencing intimacy for the first time in the way that she’s supposed to experience it — it’s a real honor to be able to be part of that storytelling.

I don’t know if it was just the Tony. I think the whole thing — the performance, the show, the Tony — the whole thing changed my life. There were laser-focused eyeballs on this particular show, and that meant that I had the opportunity to branch out and do film and TV and meet some of my heroes and create a family here. It was one of the most amazing moments in my life, and I do think it was a turning point for me in my career that shifted me forward exponentially. I didn’t expect it. And when it came, I realized that I should probably buckle up and get ready for the ride.

LPW: When you don’t expect it and life just has a better plan for you than you thought, those are the best times. Then you’re like, I didn’t even dream of this because I didn’t think it was possible. I didn’t know this was something I needed and that it was going to change my life in such a big way. 

ERIVO: Right, because it didn’t start there. It started with really wanting to do the show because it means a lot to me and I would love to be a part of it. I didn’t know what this show and this story had in store for me at all. I had no idea how big the scope of the story was and how big the scope of this show was in my life. And I’m glad I fought for it and that I kept going for it.

LPW: Absolutely. I want to talk about Harriet Tubman. This is going to be talking about you playing extraordinary Black women and just taking everything to the next level because the Harriet movie was the first time that her story had ever been adapted into a feature film, which I didn’t even realize until I saw it. I was like, How has no one ever done this before? So what was it like being tasked with being the first person to tell her story on such a big screen?

ERIVO: Daunting, and I readied myself in as many ways as possible, whether it be training, reading, looking at pictures, or learning about her. As much as I could soak in about her, I did. Because I knew it was a huge responsibility to tell that story.

It did amaze me that it hadn’t been done on the big screen before. We had the first film, A Woman Called Moses, which starred Cicely Tyson and is a TV movie. Then we had a really beautiful version with Aisha Hinds, who played Tubman on Underground for an episode or two. But it had never been done for the big screen. I knew that there was a special moment to be able to tell this woman’s story as fully as possible. It was tough to do it because there was no glitz and glamour at all in telling this story and being out in the open air, in the field, in the middle of nowhere, at night, in the mud, in the water, in the grass, staring at the side of a mountain. All of those things we did, but they were completely necessary to tell the story in the right way.

LPW: How did you think about the conversations around the idea that we shouldn’t be glorifying Black trauma but also that this is a really important story that needs to be told and hadn’t been told on the big screen? How do you feel about that conversation? I don’t think there’s necessarily a right or wrong answer to this, and I’m curious because I think there aren’t that many movies recently like Harriet that talk about the emotions that Harriet had.

ERIVO: I understand that conversation, but my real purpose when it came to telling the story was about Harriet because, yes, she did some incredible things but I believe her story deserves to be told. Her, the woman who had 91 years of life in her, who did many things in that 91 years that still deserve to be told. I understand that the pain and trauma that comes from the knowledge of the reasons why she had to do those things can sometimes be too much for people to watch, but our not telling means that no one gets to learn in seeing her hard work and seeing what was sacrificed to get people to freedom, to make sure that we, that women, had the vote because that’s also what she was a part of, her being in the war, making sure that people were safe. A lot of sacrifices went into her life, and when we erase that work, we don’t do her justice and we don’t remind ourselves about what has gone into making sure that we have some freedoms now.

I know that there’s pain tied to watching some of the harrowing things that she had to go through, but this is also before she is an abolitionist and a hero. This is a Black woman who had love and loss and wants and desires and deserves to be seen. And since she hadn’t been seen for such a long time in the right way, I wouldn’t have been doing my duty if I didn’t tell the story as fully as I possibly could. Some of these stories, yes, can be tough to watch, but I do think they’re important. Sometimes we forget that these people were existing living human beings who also had lives that were bigger than the norm and so deserve to be remembered and celebrated, especially when it’s about specific individuals who shifted and changed the course of history. That deserves to be celebrated.

LPW: Oh, I agree, and even when you were just talking about it, I don’t think that people making that argument have ever sat down and thought about Harriet’s own personal desires and dreams and goals for herself because there were so many more important things that needed to happen. Did you feel with playing Harriet that she set the stage and led you to want to take on Aretha as well, another big icon in a different direction?

ERIVO: No, because I had no idea that Aretha was coming, and before Aretha, I had done a digital series called The Outsider, which felt good to do because it was a nonexistent character who is made up and fictional. Aretha came out of the blue. I wasn’t expecting it at all, and the reason I did it is there were so many different signs that made me feel like it was right for me. The message came to me from Clive Davis and Ron Howard and Brian Grazer that they wanted me to consider doing it after they heard me singing a song of hers on the red carpet at the Tonys. I did not know that that tape had gone anywhere but that interview. And so that tape had gotten back to them, and they had come to my team to ask if I would be interested. And I said, Well, I’d love to sit and talk to the writer.

I sat down with Suzan-Lori Parks, and when I sat down in this New York restaurant, they were playing hotel music, sort of like nondescript, no words, no lyrics, no artists, easygoing music. And then I sit down and Aretha’s “Day Dreaming” comes on, and it’s sort of like nothing, no music, and all of a sudden, it goes [Singing]: Day dreamin’ and I’m thinkin’ of you / Day dreamin’ and I’m thinkin’ of you / Day dreamin’ and I’m thinkin’ of you. And I look at Suzan-Lori Parks and I go, Did you plan this? Did you tell them? And then she was like, No, I don’t know why that’s playing. It’s not me, it’s not me. It was one sign after the other sign, and it just felt like it’s right.

I realized that it’s another woman whose humanity we hadn’t met yet. We know about Aretha the musician, we know about Aretha the Queen of Soul, but we hadn’t learned about the human being that made all of those other things possible. That’s what I’m interested in doing; I’m interested in telling stories of these women whose humanity and humanness get erased because of how bright their star shines, which makes us forget that it’s because of their humanity and their humanness and who they are that they’re still shining bright. To meet the human being so you can understand how much work went into becoming the star, becoming the icon, that’s what I was interested in. That’s what I wanted to do.

LPW: What was it like with this role? You’re stepping into and playing another icon but one with an iconic voice. As a singer, having your voice but then portraying Aretha, walk us through what that was like.

ERIVO: It was like having a master class every day. Each episode had about four or five songs, and I was well rehearsed up until episode two, when the songs changed. So I was getting songs every episode to learn. I would sit with my vocal coach, and we would go through each song with a fine-tooth comb, going through all of the choices that she would make. Which breath is she doing here? How long is that breath being held? That’s more than eight. It’s an irregular length. Why is she pausing here? This is different from the live performance that she did; this is different from the recorded performance. Which performance are we going to choose? How much of it? It became music theory for me, which is thrilling because I’m a music geek and I love learning. But that’s what I would spend my time doing when I wasn’t on set working through scenes and making sure that the words felt like they were hers and making sure that I’m working with the hairstylists and the makeup artists, Corey and Darryl, who helped to create the looks. We try to mine everything for detail.

LPW: I have to say something that I know is going to sound a little obnoxious, but I think we should talk about it because you’re one Oscar short of an EGOT. I know that’s a lot, and I don’t want to put pressure on you but it’s a big deal. What does that feel like? I know it’s not something that you probably wake up and think, like, Oh, I’m one short of this, but what goes through your head?

ERIVO:  It’s very overwhelming because I didn’t expect it so soon. It still is really weird. I move through the day without thinking about it and then I’m reminded, and it’s interesting because I didn’t know that it was possible to get all those awards with one show. Essentially, that’s what happened. The Emmy, Grammy, and Tony came from The Color Purple. The Grammy came from the album, the Tony came from the show, the Emmy came from a performance I did on a morning show that came from The Color Purple. It was the morning I found out about the Tony nomination; the performance that got me the Emmy is the same day I found out about Tony. It’s very metaphysical and strange and weird and insane. Going through the Oscar process and being nominated was also really weird. But I hope that if/when it happens, I live up to that legacy. There are a lot of incredible people who have that title, people I look up to.

LPW: Is there any specific person that you …

ERIVO: Well, Whoopi.

LPW: I was gonna say Whoopi. [Laughs.]

ERIVO: It’s so crazy because I feel like, in a way, I’m following in her footsteps by accident. I couldn’t be prouder. I’m not looking for it. That’s not the aim — the aim is to try and tell really good stories — and if that comes of it, then wonderful. And if that comes from it, I hope that it only opens up the doors for me to tell more stories and create more space for other people. That is the goal, really and truly.

LPW: Well, you know, we’re rooting for you, and we’re very excited. Let’s talk about this album. Let’s just start with the concept itself. Why now? I know you’ve been working on music for a while, but just walk us through why you felt like now was the right time and what you’re trying to get across with this music.

ERIVO: Why now is simply because I was given the chance to do it. Getting a deal and being right for a record label takes time and work and it takes convincing people to see what your work …

LPW: You had to convince somebody? You?

ERIVO: Absolutely. I met with a few labels who just couldn’t see it. I’ve heard everything, from “We don’t know what to do with her voice because she can do a lot with it.” Being able to do too much was a problem. I’ve had labels put me in writing camps just to see if I could write because they wanted to know I could, even though there are artists who don’t write at all. It’s very peculiar, and this particular label just sort of believed that I could do those things. They had seen me sing, they had heard me sing, they knew I could sing and believed that I could write. And so that’s sort of what happened. I ended up with a label that believed that I could do the job, and that meant that I had the space to create. I had written a few songs before I started working on this album, and some of those songs have made it onto this album, songs I had written seven years ago. So the reason now is because I was given a chance, and the idea behind this particular album is to introduce people to who I am as a person outside of another character, outside of storytelling on a screen. People get to know me a little better and hear some of the stories that I’ve experienced and some of the stories that they may also be able to connect with. This album is about trying to connect people and trying to make people understand that we are all going through something, that we are all connected by the things that we go through, and a lot of those things are similar.

LPW: Did you have any influences when thinking about what you wanted your album to look like or sound like? I feel like you like a lot of old-school music. Did you feel like you had a lot of influences there?

ERIVO: I think I did. I wasn’t necessarily thinking of an influence to follow, but I have an eclectic taste in music and it’s found its way into the album in that none of the songs are the same style. The connective tissue is my voice. That’s how I’ve listened to music my entire life. So many different artists have made it into the smorgasbord of musicians that I love listening to, whether it be Aretha or Annie Lennox or Brandy or Mary J or Gladys Knight and the Pips or Mike and the Mechanics or Aerosmith. There’s always something, and there’s loads of different styles on the album that sort of lent themselves to the storytelling I wanted to be a part of with each subject matter.

LPW: I have no idea how you have the time, but you also released an amazing children’s book, Remember to Dream, Ebere. Can you tell us about the book and what made you want to make a children’s book in the midst of all of these amazing things you’re working on?

ERIVO: Remember to Dream, Ebere, was sort of an accident because I was resistant. I didn’t want to write a kids’ book when it was first offered to me. I waited for a little bit, thought about it, and I said no because I figured if I was going to do it, I wanted to do it properly and I wanted that idea to be fully formed. I thought, I’m going to leave it alone until it feels right. And then one day, I think I was in New York just getting ready for a meeting, and I was in the shower when this idea just sort of fell into my head. It became really clear, and I’m sure that the idea was already there but it had sort of crystallized.

It was the notion that people can dream very big dreams but we’re often afraid to dream of the detail within it. I’ve spent my life doing that, where I dream about something and I think about all the things that can make it whole. I think about the color of something, or if I want to do a film, I think about the kind of character that I want to play, about the people I want to work with, all of those little details. For me, it makes it more real. So I wanted to write a story about that that taught kids, or anyone, really, to dream fully. Dream with all the detail; dream with all the color in it so that you can see it as bright as day. That way there’s a real focus. You can see it. If you can see it truly, then you can believe it and you can probably make it happen. That’s what this book is about.

LPW:  That’s so beautiful.

ERIVO: I can’t believe that it’s done and ready and beautiful. We have an amazing illustrator who took the time and has done an amazing job. She’s wonderful. I’m excited and proud of it.

LPW: That sounds like a sermon. I would listen to you talk about that for an hour, and I’m going to think about how I need to dream in even more detail because that is so true and so beautiful as well.

ERIVO: I’m excited to be alive right now. I’m excited to be in a position where I can create and tell stories and do what I’ve always dreamed about doing. Maybe even create work for other people. That is the next frontier. This next year is going to be about doing things that are from me and that have me in the driver’s seat where I can help other people’s dreams come true. That’s the next thing.

In Her Shoes: Cynthia Erivo