Two-time Academy Award nominee Cynthia Erivo talks to Awards Daily about going from Harriet to Holly Gibney on The Outsider, that intense shoot-out in Episode 10, and what’s going on with Season 2 of the HBO series.
Of Cynthia Erivo’s many talents as an actress, she’s also musically inclined, able to write music (she was nominated for Best Original Song for Harriet in addition to her performance) and of course sing (she won the Tony for The Color Purple). But on HBO’s The Outsider, it’s what she does with her voice when she’s not singing that’s especially impressive.
Watching the series, it’s sometimes hard to believe that you’re watching Erivo, as her voice is completely different from other performances. Holly has a staccato, childlike cadence that contrasts the Southern drawl Erivo honed as Harriet Tubman. The voice helps ground Holly in a reality beyond the screen, where you know her history and pain without exposition.
Erivo delivers one of the most captivating performances of 2020, and I talked to her about what it was like filming the HBO series after her Academy Award-nominated turn as the leader of the Underground Railroad and whether Holly Gibney will have more adventures in the future.
Awards Daily: I was blown away by your performance in The Outsider. And you don’t appear until the third episode—which is so rare for a main character. How did you feel about Holly showing up later in the series?
Cynthia Erivo: The way they made up for me coming in much later is how I came in. There’s something really cool and real about this moment. She’s looking out this window and counting the cars and telling you the information about the cars and she’s having a conversation with herself, and then when she finally sits down, to really tell you who she is, it’s such a wonderful speech that I was given. I couldn’t wait to come into the third episode, because I felt like I landed with a bang.
AD: You did, totally! You give the whole series a charge. How much filming overlap was between The Outsider and Harriet?
CE: Almost back to back. I finished Harriet December [of 2018]. And then December 7th, I was on the phone with my agent and that’s when they told me it was coming. Then the weekend, probably like the 8th or 9th, I had a call with Jason Bateman [director and actor on the series]. And then by March or April of last year, we went through to August. Not a lot of time between the two.
AD: I was wondering because I was thinking about your voice work as Holly. She has such a distinct way she talks. You’re such a chameleon. With Harriet, you had a distinct voice. And Holly has a completely different way she talks. How did you develop that tone and cadence for her?
CE: There was something cool about the way Richard [Price] had written her, and I was trusting in the work he had already done. I wanted her to feel individual. I wanted to find the rhythm that felt different enough that when people would hear it and people were around it, it feels different. Not like an exhibition, not like when it’s obviously different and almost cartoonish. For her, I wanted to make it feel ever so slightly uncomfortable, but without really realizing why. It took me some time to land on where I wanted her to be atonally, but once I found her, the more I did it, the more it felt natural. She’s a fun thing to try. She’s so different and cool, desperately trying to connect and desperately trying to make herself fit, but it never quite works. It took me some time to land on it, but once I did, it felt right.
AD: One of the frustrating things about the police on the series is that you completely outline events that make sense, even though they are extraterrestrial, but still, no one believes you—even if some weird, unexplainable stuff is going on and everyone knows it. Why do you think characters like Ralph simply refuse to believe Holly, even though they hired her knowing her expertise is in the unexplainable?
CE: Because I think in nature naturally, we find it hard to believe things we cannot see. We find it hard to believe the things we have’t heard of before, things that are new, that are different, things that are outside of the ordinary. And for her it’s not necessarily about making people believe in the extraordinary or the different or the strange; it’s just about believing the truth. For her, if she could have it be a normal, everyday occurrence, she would have loved to have had that. She has experience in those things, but because she is open to the suggestion that things may not be as they seem and knows that is truly the way to go, she has to put her job on the line to explain to everyone. I think people are not used to that in this part of town. The police guys have their specific way of working and have their specific way of believing and their procedural way of doing things, and she just doesn’t do it that way. We just find it hard to accept things that are different. She doesn’t mean to be; that’s just who she is. Until they run out of options and they have to let her do her job, that’s when they realize. She’s very good at not standing for the nonsense. When she’s realizing that they’re not leaning toward what she’s saying, except maybe one, Sablo (Yul Vazuez), she has to know—if you don’t want to join, get out of the way, because you will get hurt.
AD: Speaking of getting hurt, that shoot-out scene in Episode 10 is so intense. And after your love interest Andy (Derek Cecil) dies, you put yourself in the line of fire in front of the possessed Jack (Marc Menchaca), who’s shot everyone else at this point. But why doesn’t he shoot you?
CE: Because I think she’s the only person he had a connection with. She’s the only person who listened. Even when she was kept hostage, she was listening. She understood that he is a person who’s in pain. Even when she goes back to explain what’s happened, she’s in no way angry or upset with Jack for what happened, because she realizes he’s a pawn in the grand scheme of things. So I think because he sees that in her and actually comes to her defense when she’s trying to explain what’s going on, I think there’s a connection. And he can’t hurt her because she’s the one person who has connected at seeing him, at seeing the fear in his eyes, seeing the hurt and pain, and has accepted that. Again, it comes down to her being also an outsider and seeing when someone feels like they are on the outside.
AD: Do you think Holly feels any kind of remorse for having to partially pin the murder on Jack?
CE: Oh, I think so, yeah. The one thing I really enjoyed about Holly is that she’s tender-hearted. She gives everyone an opportunity to just be. And I think because she has the connection with Jack, it hurts to have to pin it on him. She finds a place for everyone. She finds a place for Ralph, who’s stubborn and different, but she still finds respect. She found it for Andy, who’s awkward and strange and weird, but funny and sweet and she gives him a space. And she gives Jack space, who’s the outsider, who really is seen by everyone else as a villain, but really is a victim as well. She sees all of that. She’s so used to being misunderstood that she has an innate understanding of everybody else.
AD: After Holly stabs the creature, Ralph says something along the lines of, “Now we can exonerate Terry,” and she says, “Who’s Terry?” in reference to Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman), whose case started this whole thing. Does she really not remember Terry? What does she mean by that?
CE: I think it becomes a personal thing. So that moment, when she stabbed him, it’s not about anybody. I think she loses where she is at that moment. For her, this is a personal moment of getting rid of the thing that has hurt both her and the people she cares about. She generally loses track of who that person is. For her, it stops being about trying to exonerate Terry and starts being about exacting revenge in that moment.
AD: Is there going to be a Season 2, because there has to be?!
CE: (Laughs) I love that. ‘Is there going to be a Season 2, because there has to be?’ I hope so. Hopefully all signs point to yes. I loved playing her and I would happily play her again. So let’s hope. Fingers crossed. Put some good thoughts into the ether.
The Outsider is streaming on HBOGo and HBOMax.