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Cynthia Erivo on How She Learned to Tell Stories That Hollywood Has Overlooked

Cynthia Erivo
Caitlin Cronenberg for Variety

I’ve been lucky enough to play women who have marked history with their brilliance, and at the same time have somehow changed the way we see the world.

Like many of the Black women in history, they sort of get forgotten. Harriet Tubman was one of the women that I was astounded by, after realizing that her story hadn’t been told for a wider audience and that there are still so many people who don’t know who she is.

I have this passion to want to make that right. Whenever the opportunity comes up, and it feels like I’m equipped to tell it most truthfully, I take the opportunity and I’m proud to be able to.

Playing Harriet in 2019’s “Harriet” was a huge responsibility. I felt responsible for trying to tell the story as fully as I could because she’s just relegated to a paragraph in our history books. In some history books, she doesn’t exist. You don’t get to realize how much work she did from the age of 26 to 91.

With Aretha Franklin, who I played on the TV series “Genius: Aretha,” that story was pressure-filled. Not just because the world knows who she is, but she’s a hero of mine. I learned a lot about storytelling through song from listening to her. I wanted to do Aretha justice and make sure that she was made proud, which is a huge pressure to put upon oneself.

That experience really solidified the kind of storyteller that I wanted to be. It’s one thing to be able to be on the screen or be on the stage and say the lines or the words that you’ve been given. It’s quite another thing to be able to help to create the world. I didn’t realize that there was a space for me as an actress to take hold of my power in that way and that I could be the creator of worlds and characters I had always dreamed of seeing.

I love Black women — from my soul I do. I want Edith’s Daughter, my production company, to normalize the story of “the other” and be a source where people can go to watch stories that they might overlook from time to time. People whose stories have often been trivialized or relegated to certain archetypes and stereotypes. See them live in their fullness and in genres that have historically not been meant for them.

Maybe it’s the story of a security guard at an airport who you’ve brushed off, but that seemingly ordinary person has an extraordinary life — one you’ve never bothered to see because you don’t see them. The reason why you’re able to get on your flight and go wherever you go is that they exist.

Or it might be a paper clipping, and there’s a woman in it, and she’s lived a storied life. Most people would flip past the page, but when you read it, it’s a fascinating story. That story of what’s boiling underneath the surface of the unconventional protagonist is at the heart of the stories I want to tell.

Or you get to Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who I discovered maybe seven years ago. I was tired of seeing costume dramas that didn’t include women who looked like me. I know that we existed [earlier than] the ’60s. I know that we existed as more than help, or slaves. It’s like there’s a part of history where we are just erased, and it was worrisome.

I Googled Black women in the 1800s. Sarah Forbes Bonetta showed up, and I was obsessed because there was this woman in the 1800s, as part of the royal court [of England]. Pretty much born an African princess and then given as a gift to Queen Victoria and treated like a goddaughter. But she still was a foreigner in a foreign land trying to contend with who she was.

There are other stories. There are so many stories about us that we haven’t explored. That’s what I want, to normalize seeing us in spaces that we haven’t been seen yet.

Where is the Black woman spy? Who is the Black female superhero? Who’s the Black fencer? Have we discussed her? No. And we know she exists. Where’s the queer Black female love story?

I want to be a place where we can make that. That’s what this place is for. That’s what this company is about.

— As told to Jazz Tangcay

Cynthia Erivo is a Tony and Grammy award-winning and Oscar-nominated actress and singer. Up next, she will appear in National Geographic’s “Genius: Aretha.” Erivo runs Edith’s Daughter, a film production company.