How a Broadway star and film newcomer landed one of the most buzzed-about roles of the year
CYNTHIA ERIVO WAS already having quite the year when the script arrived. It was 2017, and she was on the set of Steve Mcqueen thriller Widows
— her first film — when she received the sides. Reading hungrily, Erivo was immediately moved by what was on the page. “I was really taken by all the twists and turns,” she tells Empire. “I thought it was a really special piece.”
There was just one snag. The word was that filmmakers were seeing several actors. And specifically, some very big names. But what Erivo lacked in a rich film CV, she made up for in one vital element: the singing. And that’s what the role demanded specifically: an actor who could sing live during filming, with director Drew Goddard determined to add nothing in the edit.
The character was Darlene Sweet, a down-on-her-luck singer and one of six strangers who check into the El Royale one rainy night in 1969. Brit Cynthia Erivo had dominated Broadway, landing a Tony Award for Best Actress In A Musical for her performance as Celie in The Color Purple. She didn’t just have a voice; she had the voice.
An audition followed, as did a workshop and face-to-face meeting with Drew Goddard. At the end of the process: the role was hers, a role she by then craved.
“She really is a different character,” says Erivo. “It was a world I could step into and be someone else. I loved the fact that she had to sing live. It was going to be a challenge to do it take after take after take, but I wanted to see if I could do it.”
Do it she did, blowing away filmmakers and the rest of the ensemble cast — which features Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson and the man she’d be sharing the most scenes with, Jeff Bridges, who plays Father Daniel Flynn, a priest who may not be entirely as he seems. For his part, Bridges can’t speak highly enough of the actor he’d never met before turning up on set in Vancouver.
“Oh God, it was just terrific,” he says. “She’s such a wonderful singer and wonderful actress. She has a lot of joy,” he says. “We had a great time together. It’s a lot like a play — playing together. There’s a lot of emotional intensity in the film.”
Widows may have been shot first, but Bad Times At The El Royale is the first out in cinemas. And that role being opposite your new biggest fan, Jeff Bridges? It’s quite the first job.
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE IS IN CINEMAS FROM 12 OCTOBER
Cynthia Erivo spoke to Empire on 20 July, on the phone from New York. Above: Stick ’em up: Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) threatens Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges).Left: Sweet (Erivo) gets an unwelcome soaking.