'Harriet': Cynthia Erivo on Her 2(!) Award-Worthy Performances as Actor and Singer (Exclusive)

The actress and director open up about Erivo's transformation into Harriet Tubman and singing the film's original song, 'Stand Up.'

In Harriet, from director Kasi Lemmons and writer Gregory Allen Howard, Cynthia Erivo stars as the American hero, whose long life saw her escape from slavery to become a conductor on the Underground Railroad to later play a role in the Civil War and work as a suffragette until her death in 1913. The biopic is a historic undertaking that’s been decades in the making, making Erivo the first woman to portray Tubman in a feature film and only one of three -- after Aisha Hinds on Underground and Cicely Tyson in A Woman Called Moses -- to play her in any significant role. 

The project also marks the 32-year-old actress’ first leading role after making her big-screen debut in the fall of 2018, and is putting her on the path toward her first Academy Award nomination. No stranger to accolades, Erivo has won a daytime Emmy, a GRAMMY, and a Tony Award for her performance in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, leaving her one Oscar away from a coveted EGOT. And thanks to Harriet that could all change in February 2020, if she's recognized in the Best Actress and Best Original Song categories.    

“It feels a bit like a dream,” Erivo tells ET’s Lauren Zima, adding that winning an EGOT would be amazing. “I mean, I didn’t expect that would happen. I came here to do a Broadway show. And I didn’t know that you could get all that from a Broadway show because that was the dream. And to be here now is amazing.” No matter what happens, the actress says she’s “just trying to enjoy it and ride the wave and just be present as much as I possibly can because it’s new and I want to make sure that I remember [it all].”

Making her path to an Oscar nomination all the more likely are recent nominations for the Critics' Choice Awards and the Golden Globes. For the latter, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association recognized her in two categories: Best Original Song - Motion Picture for “Stand Up” and Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama.  

And when it comes to all the awards season buzz that is seeing her name shortlisted among the likes of Charlize Theron (Bombshell), Renée Zellweger (Judy) and Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story), Lemmons says, “I really think that she’s as good as any actress who has ever played anything.”

“She came to a role that in some ways fits like a glove and in other ways that doesn’t,” the director continues. “I know Cynthia and there are times when I watched the movie and I can’t find her, you know?”

While sitting down with ET, Erivo and Lemmons open up about the actress’ transformation into Tubman and the original song she co-wrote and performs in the film.

Cynthia Erivo’s Transformation Into Harriet Tubman 

At 5’1’’, Erivo is only one inch shorter than Tubman. So, there’s already a physical stature that the two share. However, because there are very few photos and concrete information about the way Tubman looked, the filmmakers were able to take a few necessary creative licenses with the costumes, hair and makeup, including recreating a scar on her forehead from a teenage head injury. As a result, Erivo’s transformation into the abolitionist was more about making choices that went toward creating an onscreen presence that spoke to her spirit of resistance. 

“We did a lot of meditation on Harriet and just evoking her,” says Lemmons, who had Erivo focus on two things: her face and her voice. “I said, ‘Look her face, look at her eyes, look at the downturn of her mouth and ask, How did she get this face?’” she recalls. “It helped us feel her and tell us what she’s been through. Also, where her voice was placed because we knew her voice wasn’t Cynthia’s voice. Even her singing voice is very different that Cynthia’s singing voice. And Cynthia is just so available to that.”

For Erivo, that meant “mapping” what she could from the few photos of Tubman. “To see it in my mind’s eye and then sort of place it on mine, that was a key, a way in for me,” she says. “Looking at her eyes, seeing where the sadness is, seeing how her lips were downturned. Asking, ‘When did that happen?’”

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From there, it was a matter of figuring out where Tubman’s voice was placed because the actress didn’t want the character to sound like her. “So Kasi and I worked on finding out what the breath would feel like, whether we would place it in the solar plexus or in the gut,” says Erivo, who is a natural soprano, while they decided Tubman was more of an alto. “[Hers] feels like it’s deeper, grounded. And that was a really good exploration. When you find someone’s voice, you can find someone’s rhythm as well.” 

In the film, not only do audiences get to hear Erivo sing as Tubman, who uses spirituals to communicate with other slaves, but they also get to watch her run as Tubman travels up and down the Underground Railroad. 

“I knew that we would have to access a physicality that wasn’t like mine, but still had the strength and speed and power,” says Erivo, who is now famous for her running scene in Widows. “I had to keep reminding myself this is not a woman who trained to run this way. She has learned to run and learn to move the way she moves for necessity. And so I wanted to make sure that came naturally.”

During the film’s first shoot, Lemmons observed Erivo’s run across set and realized she had come prepared. “Here it’s completely different,” she says. “So what you realize about Cynthia is that Widows wasn’t Cynthia running. That was that character.” But because the actress’ run was so specific, the director says they “couldn’t stunt-double her because nobody could run like that.”

Lemmons adds that Cynthia “took all vanity out of her performance.” And to her credit, when Erivo first observed herself as Tubman, “it was a really strange moment when it came together because it was like, ‘Oh, I’m not there,’” she says. 

Channeling Harriet Tubman’s Spirit in “Stand Up”

Written by Joshuah Campbell and Erivo, “Stand Up” is an inspirational new song performed by Erivo that plays over the end credits. It’s one of those songs that’ll keep audiences in their seats, allowing them to process the emotional journey they just experienced. 

Knowing that she wanted a “really powerful, culminating song” to close out the film, Lemmons says she listened to various demos before settling on one submitted by Campbell, who had come to the attention of the filmmakers after a performance of his song, “Sing Out/March On,” at Harvard University’s 2018 commencement ceremony went viral. 

Liking what she heard, Erivo went back to Campbell and asked that they work on it “to make it feel of this particular project,” she says, adding that she enjoyed the experience of working with the second-year Master of Divinity student at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. “So we set to work rewriting and rearranging and moving some things around it.” 

What they came together on was the central idea of “trying to tell Harriet’s story through song and, almost in a way, pay homage to the work that she’d already done and give her a bit of a thank you,” she explains.

While a dedication to Tubman, it was also important that it “fit the both of us,” Erivo says of being able to perform in her own voice after spending the entire production using someone else’s. And selfishly, Lemmons “wanted to hear Cynthia sing as Cynthia,” she says, adding that Erivo “made it her own.”  

“It just meant a lot to be able to use my voice to give voice to her,” says Erivo, who describes the recording as an emotional experience that will always have a piece of her heart in it.