The British Broadway star has conquered the stage, and now she's stepping out in her first lead film role.
When Cynthia Erivo signed on to play the singer Darlene Sweet in Bad Times at the El Royale, she didn’t realize just how big her role was. She auditioned for Drew Goddard’s crime thriller shortly after The Color Purple Broadway revival (which netted her a Daytime Emmy, a Tony, and a Grammy). The London native knew Bad Times required singing, but she thought it’d be more of a cameo — until she read the script.
“I was just happy to be a part of it!” she says, laughing. “I didn’t realize how much a part of it I was until the end.”
A twisty ensemble piece, Bad Times (out Friday) centers on seven people in 1969 who converge at the El Royale hotel, an aging establishment that straddles the California-Nevada state line; violence and mysteries ensue. The hotel’s strange, secretive guests include Jeff Bridges as a priest, Chris Hemsworth as a charismatic cult leader, and Dakota Johnson as a kidnapper. But Darlene is the sunny heart of the story, dressed in yellow and persisting against impossible odds (even though she has a few secrets of her own). “She has this inner light that she never really extinguishes,” Erivo says.
As the tenacious lounge singer, Erivo, 31, puts her voice to good use, performing ’60s classics like “Hold On, I’m Comin'” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” For one particularly complicated long take, she had to sing “This Old Heart of Mine” 27 times, live on set. “I was blown away every time because she was able to repeat it over and over again,” Goddard says. “I guess it’s the Broadway training: If you’re doing multiple performances a week, you’d better be on, and we certainly felt that when she would start singing.”
Darlene is cautious to open up, letting the songs do the talking for her throughout most of the film. However, Erivo suggested to Goddard that he add a speech near the end, one in which she confronts Hemsworth’s sinister character. The director took up her suggestion, and they wrote the scene together.
“You have to be mindful that I am the only woman of color in this piece, and if [Darlene] doesn’t have a moment where she can just speak, it will seem as though we don’t want her to,” Erivo explains. “I found it really important to be representative of what black women were going through in the ’60s because they were used a lot, [especially in] entertainment.”
Bad Times is Erivo’s first film ever to hit theaters, though she’s also starring in Steve McQueen’s Widows (out Nov. 16). She’ll soon start filming Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet Tubman biopic, Harriet, too, meaning that Bad Times is far from the last time you’ll be seeing her (and hearing her voice).
“I’m having the time of my life,” she says with a smile. “I can definitely sense the change from what I have been experiencing to what I am experiencing. It’s subtle—but it’s for the better.”