Golden Globe nominee Cynthia Erivo on the 'responsibility' of playing Harriet Tubman
There’s no one way to make the first biopic about one of the most heroic figures in American history. With so much uncharted ground and so many years of material, director Kasi Lemmons, actor Cynthia Erivo, and the entire team behind Harriet had several huge choices to make in terms of how they wanted to tell Harriet Tubman’s story.
For Erivo, who joined EW in our Los Angeles studios shortly before she received two Golden Globe nominations for the film — one for her leading dramatic performance, and one for co-writing the original song “Stand Up” — those choices were rooted in finding Tubman’s humanity. She tells EW, as part of our Awardist series, that she felt a “responsibility” to find the woman behind the myth.
“There was so much faith in me from the director and the producers,” she says of her journey to the part. “I knew that the story needed to be told. And I didn’t want them to wait anymore.” Lemmons and Erivo launched into the film by realizing, via research, that Tubman’s pioneering work on the Underground Railroad had relatively intimate origins. Explains Erivo, “The adventure that we know, the trial that she put herself through, began with a love story — it began with the fact that she could not live without her husband.”
Erivo quickly found a kinship with Tubman — particularly her strength, both physical and otherwise. “Some people say that I’m fearless — I don’t know that I am fearless. I know I’m daring, for sure,” she says. “I think there’s a spirit that the two of us share. We’re strong-willed. Strong-bodied.” But she was careful not to box the character into a “strong woman” stereotype: “Sometimes when we see these characters, they lose their humanity and their earthliness, as it is. It’s all too easy to detach from the humanity when it’s a woman of color. It’s the one thing: strong woman.”
Harriet charts Tubman’s path to freedom, from her life as a slave to her escape to Philadelphia, after which point she helped bring many others to freedom by taking dangerously long, physically arduous, and emotionally taxing trips back and forth. Tubman’s central arc in the film is found in the way she grows into herself; she’s initially bewildered when she arrives in Philadelphia, free, but gains confidence as time goes on. “What I decided to do was ease out of that so it wasn’t a stark difference,” Erivo recalls of that process. “I wanted to take time for her to get used to walking in a corset and in a big dress. It’s new: It’s the shoes, it’s the corset, it’s the dress.”
Erivo trained a lot to get in shape for the demanding role, and made specific choices as to how she lived in Tubman’s skin, revisiting old photographs and allowing the icon’s legend as a “badass” to shine through in the movie’s final moments.
Of course, Erivo is no stranger to taking on huge roles. She made her name stateside with her Tony-winning performance in Broadway’s The Color Purple revival, and will next play Aretha Franklin in the new installment of Genius. Erivo tells EW that it was the experience of playing Tubman that confirmed she had what it took to take on the Queen of Soul.
With SAG, Golden Globe, and Critics’ Choice nominations under her belt, Erivo appears well on her way to her first Academy Award acting nomination — and maybe an Original Song nod as well. Watch our full Awardist interview above, or listen to that and more in our latest Awardist podcast episode.