Cynthia Erivo, Kasi Lemmons, Jennifer Nettles, and Omar J. Dorsey tell EW about making the historical period piece at the Toront International Film Festival

By Joey Nolfi
September 09, 2019 at 04:03 PM EDT

“We know her strength, it’s been talked about,” director Kasi Lemmons tells EW at the Toronto International Film Festival of the woman at the center of her new Harriet Tubman biopic. “But, [we wanted to bring] her femininity and her womanhood in such a centered way.”

Enter Cynthia Erivo, who leads the film’s unique perspective on the titular abolitionist who led scores of enslaved people to freedom on America’s Underground Railroad throughout the late 1800s.

“The first day that we shot, she was running, and I said to her, ‘God, I’m just so impressed by the femininity of what you’re bringing to this character,'” Lemmons continues. “She started talking about how you can understand characters by how they run. And she said, ‘Yeah, I think she’s an ordinary woman, she’s just really fast!'”

Erivo says focused on fusing the softness of Tubman’s personal life with the survivor spirit the real-life hero is known for.

“More than anything, we wanted to show the woman, so we looked into her family, her life, and her love,” Erivo remembers, admitting she also put herself through radical physical training — including going for bike rides two hours before each early-morning call time to keep herself in top shape — to build up her endurance to match Tubman’s. “I did some horse riding with corsets before to make sure I got used to that. All of that, I just wanted to make sure I was ready physically so I didn’t have to think about that when I was on set. I just wanted it to be a second-nature thing for me.”

Costar Omar J. Dorsey also felt the effects of Erivo’s dedication.

“She’s about 5’1, but she has the presence of a 7’2 basketball player,” he fondly recalls. “She’s so strong, so she was actually the living embodiment of what Harriet Tubman was. She was this little woman, but she was the boss in the room when she walked in. That’s how I felt working with Cynthia. She has this elegance, grace, and power, and I’m still baffled by it. I call her once a week just so I can get some of that mojo she has.”

Supporting actress Jennifer Nettles (known for co-fronting the country band Sugarland) says she admired Erivo’s “beautiful balance of this femininity with a warrior spirit,” adding that, after getting to know the Widows actress, it’s all “part of who Cynthia is.”

“I look at her and it’s like, she could have done Gladiator, she could have done Braveheart, she happened to do Harriet,” Nettles finishes. “This warrior is within her that way.”

Widely expected to be a key contender in the upcoming awards raceHarriet came together with the help of several, as Oscar-nominated musician Terence Blanchard (BlacKkKlansman) composed the film’s music, Emmy-winning designer Paul Tazewell (The Wiz Live!) stitched the period piece’s costumes, and two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer John Toll (Legends of the FallBraveheart) shot the film.

Ahead of Harriet’s world premiere Tuesday night at the Canadian festival (in anticipation of its Nov. 1 theatrical bow), watch EW’s interview with Erivo, Lemmons, Nettles, and Dorsey above.

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