Inside Cynthia Erivo’s Journey to Making a ‘Badass’ Harriet Tubman Biopic

After seeing Cynthia Erivo blow the roof off the theater in the Broadway production of “The Color Purple” in 2016, Debra Martin Chase was sure she’d found her Harriet Tubman.

Chase, the producer behind such movies as “The Princess Diaries” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” had been trying to make a film about the revered abolitionist for two years. When she saw Erivo as Celie onstage, she said to herself, “This is our Harriet.” She promptly arranged for a meeting.

A week later, when Erivo arrived at the Mandarin Oriental at Columbus Circle, Chase knew her instinct was right. ”She walked in, fabulous — short, blonde, natural hair,” she recalls. “Stylish and confident and dramatic.” The script needed work, but Chase asked Erivo to read it. Meanwhile, Chase called indie producer Daniela Taplin Lundberg (“Honey Boy,” “Beasts of No Nation”), for whom “Harriet” was also a passion project, to express her enthusiasm for Erivo playing the lead in the biopic.

The British actor and singer had just won a Tony, and would go on to win a Grammy and an Emmy, all for “The Color Purple.” But at that point, Erivo hadn’t acted in a movie yet, so casting her as Tubman was “a risk,” Chase says. “But she took a risk with us by just hanging in there and believing that we would get it right.”

“Harriet” was far from a sure thing. Getting it made would take replacing the original director with Kasi Lemmons in 2017, and Focus Features propelling the film into production in 2018. Yet from Erivo’s perspective, there was no doubt. “I’m stubborn. I kept asking if we were ready, if we were going to get there, if it was going to get made,” she says. “I was sure it was going to happen.”

The saga of “Harriet” finally arriving on the screen illustrates the ongoing shift in the movie business — which had previously precluded an obvious idea like the story of Harriet Tubman from getting produced — toward female-led content and diversity behind and in front of the cameras.

There is still much work to be done in terms of inclusion: in hiring crew, in representation on screen, in the C-suites of studios, networks, streamers and talent agencies. Nonetheless, the producers cite the success of global blockbusters “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther” as contributing to “making Hollywood understand movies about women and about people of color could be profitable,” Chase says. They also point to “Hidden Figures” — a historical film based on the true story of three brilliant black women at NASA — which became a box office smash after its release in late 2016.

The social movements #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo have also started to change industry attitudes and priorities, which benefited “Harriet.” “To have the industry shift as we’re developing this over years was helpful,” Lundberg says. “I don’t think anyone would have jumped onto this even two years ago.”

And Chase points out that the all-women filmmaking team of “Harriet” would have once caused grumbling, if not rejection, whereas in this newer era, the response was “Oh, wow! It’s an all-female filmmaking team! That’s a big deal, and that’s a plus.”

In “Harriet,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and debuts in 1,500 theaters nationwide on Nov. 1, Erivo delivers a powerful performance as the fearless, heroic American abolitionist who escaped slavery and then, as a conductor in the Underground Railroad, led more than 70 slaves to freedom.

Cynthia Erivo Variety Cover Story

In his review of the movie, Variety chief critic Owen Gleiberman writes, “As Harriet, Erivo communicates anger and anguish, fear and resolve, all held together by something like possession.” As awards chatter swirls around Erivo’s turn as Tubman — not least because to win an Oscar would be to capture the EGOT, adding the finishing touch to the Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards she already has — the actor tries to think of it all as just “a silly, fun thing.”

“I’m really glad to be even mentioned in the same sentence as the word ‘O,’” Erivo says with a laugh. “Freaks me out to say it!”

Erivo, 32, was born to Nigerian parents and grew up in London. She lived with her mother and sister. By her own account, she was a “good kid, who was a good student.” “I was funny. I was not shy at all — chatty,” she says. “I smiled a lot. I never lied.” These qualities appear to have carried into adulthood: In person, Erivo is forthright and not afraid to laugh.

She was also a gifted singer and played “all different kinds of instruments,” like the clarinet, the soprano saxophone and the viola. She wasn’t a theater kid at school, but loved performing, so her extracurricular activities were, for instance, starring as Juliet at London’s Young Vic in a production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Nevertheless, Erivo didn’t know there were schools where she could hone those skills, so she went instead to the University of East London to study music psychology. She was phoning it in, though — “I wasn’t really turning up to the lectures, but I was still passing” — and it didn’t feel right. A year later, at 20, she decided to take a course at Theatre Royal Stratford East, and there, she ran into her Young Vic director, who urged her to apply to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. When Erivo balked at the suggestion, thinking she would never get in, the director forced her hand: “She says, ‘If you don’t apply to the school, you’re not coming to this class.’”

Yes, Erivo applied to RADA; yes, she got in. She left at 23 in 2010 to star in a play called “Marine Parade” at the prestigious Brighton Festival. If it seems that Erivo has not had to struggle, she says that while at RADA, “I was singing at nightclubs and doing backup vocals for people, not finishing until one o’clock in the morning, and then having to go to drama school the next day.” She’s not defensive about it — she knows how it appears. “I think it sounds like I haven’t had to struggle now,” she says.

She worked steadily on the London stage. In 2013, she landed the role of Celie in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s revival of “The Color Purple” and received rave reviews. When the off-West End production moved to Broadway in 2015, Erivo went with it.

And as the accolades and awards poured in, so did the offers for movie roles.

Chase’s Harriet Tubman journey began in 2014 when, at the suggestion of her friend Gregory Allen Howard, she read his 1993 screenplay “Freedom Fire,” a biopic about Tubman. After making attempts with other writers at reworking Howard’s script, Chase and Lundberg hired Kasi Lemmons, who was replacing the director Seith Mann, to rewrite and direct “Harriet.” The two producers are complimentary about Mann, but his ideas for the movie did not jibe with theirs.

“He was talking about a very violent and visceral version of the film, which I’m sure would have been an incredible version in its own right,” Lundberg says. “When Kasi came in and talked about the film, it was a film of inspiration, and a film about a woman as much as a hero.”

“We held hands a lot. We knew it would have to have that kind of intensity. It was a perfect actor-director relationship.”
Kasi Lemmons, ‘Harriet’ Director

Lemmons wanted to give Tubman “the superhero treatment,” making the movie about “a young woman heroine who’s a badass.” That concept was exactly in line with how Chase had sold Lundberg on the project. “When Deb first pitched it to me, she said, ‘This is a badass, Pam Grier version of Harriet,’” Lundberg says.

Lemmons, who is a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, had to make time to write “Harriet.” Knowing it had been lagging in development, she “put our feet to the fire,” says Lundberg. “Kasi was like, ‘Listen, I’m gonna write this for you ladies. If I get it right, you have to promise me we’re going to be shooting within six months.’”

As Lemmons embarked on writing, Erivo was shooting her first two film roles — “Widows” and “Bad Times at the El Royale” — back-to-back. When the director and the actor finally met in person, Erivo perfectly fit the impression of Tubman that Lemmons had formed from her research. “Even on a physical level,” Lemmons remembers thinking, “just tiny and strong and fast and a singer — and those cheekbones!” Erivo was already a fan of Lemmons; she considers her 1997 movie “Eve’s Bayou,” “one of the most beautiful pieces of film ever.”

They talked in detail about creating the character of Tubman. “I said to her, ‘Study her face, look in her eyes, look at her mouth — you know, try and find her,’” Lemmons says. They obsessed over Harriet’s speaking voice, and her singing voice as well, which Erivo (“I’m a bit of a geek this way,” she says) — decided was an alto, even though she herself is a soprano. Erivo worked with a dialect coach on a late 1840s Maryland accent. “It’s one thing to do an accent, but if it’s not specific, it’s pointless,” she says.

They discussed Tubman’s relationship with God, which was a direct one and is a major theme in the movie. They talked about the physicality of the role; Erivo, a runner and fitness fanatic, wanted to do her own stunts.

The two forged a bond. “‘OK, we’re making this, and we’re making this together,’” Lemmons says.

Lundberg, meanwhile, had secured independent financing, and they were in early prep to begin filming. But the producers decided to take one last shot at getting studio backing for “Harriet”: With Erivo as Tubman and Lemmons’ revision of Howard’s script, Chase and Lundberg were confident they would make this damn movie, with or without studio support.

Focus Features chairman Peter Kujawski says their July 2018 meeting resulted in “one of those beautiful moments that was an easy yes.” He considers Lemmons, who had worked with Focus on her 2007 film “Talk to Me,” to be “a definitive American filmmaker.” The director pitched the “superhero origin story of Harriet Tubman,” Kujawski says, and said there would be “no whips and chains.”

Kujawski remembers Lemmons saying, “This woman was a figure, who through her own force of will, her own love of her family, and her own belief in God was able to accomplish these amazing things that have defined the country we all live in today.”

Focus bought it in the room. Suddenly, after years of thwarted attempts and disappointments, the “Harriet” team had to hurry up. They had to start shooting in September.

To Lemmons, the film’s producers and Focus, Erivo was the clear choice to star in the movie. Yet there is a vocal group of people for whom casting Erivo — a British woman — to play an American hero is an offense. Armed with screenshots of some of her past comments on social media, they have attempted to make the case that she is prejudiced against black Americans and has made fun of black American vernacular. Each time Erivo is cast in something — as was evidenced when it was announced in early October that she will play Aretha Franklin in NatGeo’s next installment of “Genius” — the criticisms against her reignite.

Erivo says the campaign is “tough” to experience but “understands where it comes from.” Lemmons does too. “As African American women, we’ve been marginalized for such a long time that anything that feels like infringement is going to cause some dissatisfaction. So the first thing is that I kind of understand where it’s coming from,” she says.

Harriet Movie BTS

“There are elements of it that become a little bit reminiscent of some of the very, very unpleasant and ugly nationalistic arguments going on in the world,” Lemmons continues. “And that makes me extremely uncomfortable.”

Chase vociferously defends the casting of Erivo. “Honestly, I think it’s unfair and, frankly, ridiculous” she says of the criticism. She lists several biopics — “Lincoln,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Selma” — in which Americans have been played by British actors with little or no controversy. “So I don’t know if it’s because she’s a woman,” she says, “but it is so unfair. This was her role!”

Erivo has tried to reason with people on Twitter, and as recently as late August engaged with one individual who had basically told her to shut up. “I’ve acknowledged my being insensitive … apologized, explained, displayed my intent, but people are unsatisfied,” she tweeted. As for the receipts people hold against her, she does get frustrated. “I know — I know — that I haven’t said anything that is derogatory toward any race,” she says. “So I think it’s easy to screenshot something and put it in a context where it can be demeaning. But I know that that is not what I have ever done.”

Leslie Odom Jr. plays the abolitionist William Still in “Harriet” and, in life, is one of Erivo’s closest friends — she’s the godmother to Odom’s daughter. The outcry over her casting is “coming out of pain,” Odom says. “That’s coming from a people that have felt ignored and looked over. I know African American actresses who feel ignored — that’s real!”

But Odom thinks that with the new explosion of opportunities, black actors shouldn’t “be afraid that our stories are not going to be told,” because “we really are not creating out of a place of lack anymore.” Nor does he think “Harriet” will be the only movie ever made about Tubman.

Before he was cast as Still, he witnessed the attacks on Erivo as her friend. “Cynthia has continued to lead that sort of charge with all the grace and dignity and courage that she took on the role of Harriet with,” Odom says.

Cynthia Erivo Variety Cover Story

Getting revved up, he continues: “She ain’t afraid of nuttin’ out here! Cynthia is a liberated black woman. She gonna do what she wants to do, you know what I mean?”

On the “Harriet” set, Erivo took care of everyone else. “She was more worried about her stunt double getting cold than she was about herself,” Lundberg says. When someone stepped on a hornet’s nest and members of the cast and crew were being stung, Lundberg says Erivo was “bringing the cast into vans, making sure everyone’s OK. She’s talking with the medic, applying poultices to various cast members with stings.”

As they shot during a rainy fall in Virginia, Erivo and Lemmons grew even closer. “I mean, we held hands a lot,” Lemmons says. “We knew that it would have to have that kind of intensity. And I think it was very important for the film. And it was incredibly profound for me — it was a perfect actor-director relationship.”

“Listen, this movie works because of Cynthia Erivo’s performance,” Odom says. “It rides on her steadiness in that role. Her steadiness, her perseverance, her eagle eye. Cynthia came to Virginia to do work.”

That work may well pay off. Focus, Kujawski says, is “bullish” on the movie’s prospects, particularly based on audience testing, which showed extremely strong results among black audiences and women as well as very positive overall scores among general audiences.

Playing Tubman put a strain on Erivo. After production wrapped, she had what she called “a proper breakdown.” She was in London with her boyfriend, Mario Martinez, when “in the middle of the night, my body shut down — I got really ill out of nowhere.” Martinez tried to help her, but “I felt like I was drowning.” Eventually, she cried and cried — and then felt better. “Having the release was important,” Erivo says, “because I think it was the first time I had let go.” She learned a lesson about taking care of herself: “Because I didn’t, and it was a bad idea.”

In November, Erivo will start filming “Genius,” which makes her a little nervous: “I adore Aretha Franklin,” she says. “She’s one of the reasons why I sing the way I sing.” In January, she’ll be seen in HBO’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “The Outsider,” in which she plays an investigator trying to solve a murder. “She’s complicated, on the spectrum, odd, long braids in her hair — different,” Erivo says of her character.

She says she’s proud to have co-written “Stand Up,” the end credits song to “Harriet,” with Joshuah Campbell, the Harvard University student whose song “Sing Out, March On” went viral after he performed it at the school’s 2018 commencement. “I thought that a collaboration between the two of us would make for something really special,” she says. Erivo has not lost her passion for musicals and will certainly continue to perform in them — on “stage or screen,” she says. And yes, she would absolutely want to do a movie musical of “The Color Purple,” were there to be one. Erivo is determined to choose projects in which she plays “women who we don’t get to see very often. I want my career to be a really good example.”

Odom thinks she offers one already; Erivo is a selfless leader. “That’s what it’s like to act with her, that’s what it’s like to stand alongside her — as she fights Twitter trolls, dudes who press with her,” he says. “That’s what it’s like to hang out with her at my house when she’s kicking it with her goddaughter.”

She would love to play Serena Williams — anyone who follows Erivo’s Instagram knows she’s a fan — especially because she knows how hard she would have to train. “I’m a glutton for punishment when it comes to stuff like that,” she says. “Just anything that makes me have to work really hard is where I want to be.

“I want complexity!” Erivo says. “I want things that are difficult.”