It’s been almost a year since Cynthia Erivo first stepped into Harriet Tubman’s shoes in Harriet—a biopic about the historical heroine who escaped slavery and freed hundreds of slaves via the Underground Railroad. And it’s almost a year, too, since Erivo first felt the wrath of Twitter. As a British woman of Nigerian descent, she found herself the recipient of the hashtag #HarrietDeservesBetter, and was repeatedly told her casting was an affront to African American history. Now, on the eve of Harriet’s TIFF premiere, Erivo and director Kasi Lemmons can only wait. Will audiences be swayed by their work? Will it be enough?
In the coffee shop where we meet, passing customers pause and eye Erivo, unsure if she’s ‘someone’. This is the space she occupies just now: a person with an extraordinary career, whose latest casting may have caused some contention, but who has not yet fully entered the moviegoing public’s consciousness.
It was, in fact, that unknown quality in the relative newcomer that made Lemmons sign onto Harriet. The already-attached Erivo wasn’t, “somebody who would not be believable, some Hollywood starlet or something,” Lemmons says. “I don’t know what I was expecting, but when I saw her picture I said [to the producers], ‘All right, let’s talk.’”
What Lemmons saw was someone who hadn’t been shoehorned into the role simply for her bankable star power. Although Erivo is a Tony, Grammy and Emmy winner for her musical theater work in The Color Purple, her first ever film was last year’s TIFF premiere Widows, followed by Bad Times at the El Royale.
She had been plucked from The Color Purple stage by Harriet producer Debra Martin Chase. “We went to sit for a meeting,” Erivo recalls. “And [Debra] said, ‘There’s this project which I think you would be perfect for. It’s Harriet Tubman.’ I was overwhelmed and blown away, and I wanted to see a script. I wanted to make sure that it was given the right reverence; given the right life.”
Martin Chase, who’d been looking for “a needle in a haystack”, says seeing the pre-Tony Erivo in The Color Purple that night felt almost ordained. “This was before Cynthia had the hype and the more public persona,” she remembers. “I just was like, ‘This is it. I was meant to see this woman, because she is Harriet Tubman.’”
Martin Chase wasn’t focused on nationality or heritage, but on whether Erivo could play the part. “Finding the right actor is key,” she insists. “This movie lives or dies on the shoulders of that actress. And so, I didn’t think about British, I didn’t think about American, I didn’t think about African or Canadian, or whatever. It’s like, who is the right person? And she is the right person.”
Still, Erivo empathized with the dissent that came. “I still do think there are conversations to be had,” she says. “I think it is coming from a place of people not feeling like they are seen or feeling like they’ve had enough. And I understand that this is a person that means a lot to a lot of people.”
In late August, David Oyelowo—a fellow Brit who had faced similar backlash when he played Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s Selma—spoke out in Erivo’s defense. “For me, the conversation begins and ends with… she’s a great actress,” Oyelowo insisted. “What is my job as an actor? My job is to inhabit a character where I either convince you of the truth of that character or I don’t. And it begins and ends there.”
It was an issue heavily weighted against actors of color, Oyelowo said, noting that no such criticism had been leveled against Meryl Streep for playing Margaret Thatcher, Christian Bale for playing Dick Cheney, or Daniel Day-Lewis for playing Abraham Lincoln. “It’s because of limited opportunities we’ve been afforded historically,” he reasoned, “so there’s this scrabbling for the scraps. But I like to think that we are segueing into a different day where not only potentially is there enough for everyone, but we have the capacity to create a bigger pie for the rest of us.”
Martin Chase says she has discussed this issue directly with Oyelowo. “There are so many great white British and Australian actors working today playing all kinds of roles, and there’s been no flack about that,” she says. “If we—if black people—keep separating ourselves and making it harder, we only hurt ourselves. We are dividing ourselves and diminishing our chances of advancing together.”
As the debate raged on Twitter, Erivo focused on the work at hand. She felt the script needed work, and Lemmons turned her attention to drafting a version that filled in the blanks. “That was when it fell into place,” Erivo says. “I think it needed a woman to tell the story of another woman. It needed another woman of color to be able to really speak to the struggles, the life that Harriet had been through; to not treat her as though she were a woman trying to be a man, but as a woman who had extraordinary abilities, and an extraordinary fight, but still was very much a woman. I think it takes another woman to see that.”
For Lemmons, it was about grounding the script in the historical Harriet Tubman. “It couldn’t be some kind of adventure film about a woman who happened to be Harriet Tubman,” she says. “It was the Harriet Tubman story. I said to Cynthia, ‘Let’s really try to bring her. Look at pictures of her, look at her eyes, look at her mouth, look at her face.’ It was clear to me the very first day we shot, she had done all the preparation in every way that she could possibly, and she was absolutely ready to inhabit that role.”
That first day on set was exhilarating for Erivo. “It was the scene of us running up a hill,” she says. “It’s on the poster. I had that hat with the skirt and the boots on. It was a really great way to start. I felt really badass. We were ready.”
The costume—by Hamilton’s Paul Tazewell—was the armor Erivo needed. “Our main goal was to allow the costume to tell as much of a story as the piece did,” she says, “so that we could see her growth through what she was wearing. The first time she puts on the stately dress as a free woman. The first time she has the jacket on and how it feels. The first time she wears that amazing hat. The first time she’s in a general’s uniform. It feels like a progression of her story.”
Erivo got so much into character that she stopped looking in the mirror. “The lady who did my hair and the makeup said to me one day, ‘You never asked to see yourself. You don’t ask to see your face. You don’t ask to see any of it. You don’t correct anything.’ I didn’t realize that I was doing that. I wasn’t interested in what the hair looked like, or the makeup looked like. I was more interested in what was happening, what story was being told.” This was, she says, the legacy of her other iconic role—Celie in The Color Purple. “That vanity disappears when you’re playing roles like that, because it’s not necessary.”
Running around the wild woods of Virginia in the rain, wearing a corset and a heavy, full skirt, and toting a weighty gun in her hand, Erivo needed every bit of her physical strength. “I was training every day, then going to work. I needed to, because I had to make sure that my fitness was up all the time. My pickup could have been at 4am and I was still up at 2am.”
Another scene required her to climb a cliff. “It’s a small cliff,” she says, “but it was still rock climbing. In my corset and boots and skirt.” After around 15 takes, Erivo broke down. “I didn’t realize that I would be that tired when we shot it. And then, my body gave out.”
But it was the emotional side that really cost her. “When we finished, I went to London with my other half. And we were lying in bed and he was like, ‘Are you OK, babe? What’s going on?’ I just realized that I felt like I was drowning. I felt like I hadn’t let go of it, up until that point. I just burst into tears, because I think I had been holding onto it so tightly that my whole body was in protection mode for ages after.”
But Tubman’s emotional landscape had been Erivo’s most powerful way in. “The loss that she felt, she could have used to completely back off and go the other direction, but she used it as a force. She used it to help more people. Because she was so deeply connected to God, it didn’t make sense that God would bring her to this place and then she leaves with nothing. She knew it had to be for a reason.”
Now, as Erivo awaits the premiere, she knows she gave it her all. “I’m proud of what we’ve done,” she says. “I’m proud of what we have. I’m nervous. I want people to see her, you know?”
And her focus is on this positive: Tubman’s story is finally being told. “I want her to come to life,” she says. “I want her to not be this idea of a person, just a superhero by name. I want people to know that she put her life on the line. I want them to see that she was a human being that did that for no other reason than she didn’t believe that it could be possible any other way. That’s what she believed that she was put on the Earth to do.”
Erivo hopes the film will be embraced as a way to honor Tubman’s legacy. “I hope that kids get to see it,” she says. “I hope that schools get to see it, and get to use it as part of teaching, and just get to see more of her, because it’s time.”
Celebrating Tubman isn’t just overdue on screen. Her face was originally supposed to debut on the $20 bill next year, but that plan has now been delayed until 2026. In the meantime, a renegade do-it-yourself Tubman rubber stamp has emerged on the market. Erivo is headed to New York next, and has one such stamp waiting for her there—a gift from a friend. “I love it,” she says, “It’s a wonderful way of resisting. We know it’s right, and whether you print it or not, it’s now inescapable. She’s going to be there anyway. And so now there are these $20 bills floating around the world that have her face on them.”