Cynthia Erivo’s name is no stranger to theater buffs, her performance in The Color Purple won her a Tony Award. To West End fans, they would have seen her in Sister Act. The singer, actress, performer already has a Grammy Award and Daytime Emmy Award which puts her just an Oscar win away from earning EGOT status.
Film fans are getting a double dose of her. First in Bad Times at El Royale and in Widows, the electric new film from Steve McQueen. Erivo and I catch up during the Widows press tour, swapping secondary school names – something that’s necessary when you’re both from South London. Erivo says she went to meet McQueen for what she thought was an audition, little did she know that three weeks later, he would offer her the role of Belle. Widows was her feature film debut, Belle. We talked about how she crafted the character right down to imagining the scent Belle would wear. Read our chat below:
You had an interesting meeting and chat with Steve McQueen
I don’t know if he’d even seen the play, but our casting director saw the show and told him about me and then he decided he wanted to have a sit-down and chat about Belle. We talked about our life, where we’ve been in London, and her life and what she was about. We talked about how she pulls no punches. She’s not afraid of anything and she’s already been through it herself. She’s well accustomed to being by herself and doing things for herself. He for some reason said, “I feel like you understand it, you get it, and you’re perfect for that.” I thought he was going to call me in to read. That meeting was it.
A month later, I got the call from my team saying I’d gotten the role. I don’t know that he’d seen anyone else for it. I think he said that was it.
You are ultra fit, into health and your character is boxing and running. Did you craft that into the role or was that in the script?
It was in the script, but I think the more he knew what I was like. There were pieces like the running and the boxing that were not there, but he added that in. It was off the cuff. We were filming something else and Steve asked if I had done boxing before. He said he had this image of Grace Jones in a bandeau bra, it was an album cover and he said, “I have this image of you boxing with a bandeau bra on. I feel it’s a powerful image.” I told him I could box and that’s what happened and it was in the scene. I think he knew the role lent itself to my physicality and he went as far as he could with it. I really enjoyed doing that and I went for it.
What was it like on set with Elizabeth, yourself, Michelle, and Viola in this film about empowerment?
It was amazing. To have four women at the front of the story is unusual and to have them at the front of the story that isn’t about men is another thing, and to have no apologies to them not being perfect or not being likable or not being their stereotypical ideal of a woman that you tend to see in film. It was amazing. I think we relished every moment of it.
Steve has this wonderful way of knowing how much you can give and wanting the best from you because he wants the best for you. He also is in touch with both his masculine and feminine side and he sees that in us as well. There’s no, “You can’t do that so let’s make it easier.” There’s none of that with him. There’s just a real trust in the way we are and the things we can do. It was really refreshing and it was my first film, so it was possibly the best way to begin which was great.
I loved how you craft characters building them from the ground up. How did you craft Belle?
I read the script and thought, she had to be fit. I wanted people to see that and I wanted it to be obvious so when she walks on the screen it looks like she has been working out. That was what I wanted. I worked out like a crazy person and that was an extensive thing. I was working out every single day.
I always find a scent for each character because sensory memory is one thing that reminds people of who that person is. I can’t remember what I used for her. I think it was something sweet because it’s the opposite of who she is. I don’t think Belle is sweet and I think that’s probably why I chose something that was that way for the scent that she’d be wearing. I start from the way people remember you, and then, I work on the physicality. I work on the way she walked. I worked on her voice and the rhythm of the way she spoke. You build this person and they come to life. I like when you get to talk about what she wears because that’s also indicative of a person and their personality. When we were doing fittings it was great because it was really collaborative and we decided what her wardrobe might be. Her arms were on show almost all the time, her midriff was on show. I wanted her to have real pride in her body so there wasn’t ever any moment where she was hiding it.
You have your Broadway background and music background? How did Belle and Steve push you as an actress?
Music is something I’m super proficient in and it’s something I do. Steve had the confidence in me to know that I could tell the story without having to sing. To have him put me in a role where there was no singing was great. I think there was one scene where there was some singing but then he decided we didn’t need that at all. Trusting myself and knowing that I can tell a story without having to sing a song was how that pushed me.
She’s just a cool role really.
You’re a role model to young women. What would you tell young women to find their confidence?
I don’t know why, but it’s the thing we do a lot, but we apologize for being in the room. I think we have to learn that we don’t have to apologize for being there and that it’s OK to be your authentic self without apologizing for it. If you’re a rambunctious character, then you are that. You’re saying there’s something wrong with that part of you when there isn’t. My thing is never apologize because everything that you are is enough. We just have to get used to showing it.