The blue fairy that sent Cynthia on her way to Hollywood
AFTER Cynthia Erivo won a Tony award for her performance in The Color Purple on Broadway — in a role she originated in her home town of London — she thought she might be asked to do something exciting in the West End. Or land a juicy TV role.
But it didn’t happen. ‘I was offered the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio at the National Theatre,’ Erivo told me.
‘I knew what hard work looked like — and I’ve never shied away from it — but I wasn’t prepared to go backwards,’ she said.
‘To take that part would be almost like laughing at the people who’d invested so much energy in me,’ added the actress, who studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Erivo had been on the UK tour of Sister Act when she mentioned to her cast mates that she wanted to audition for The Color Purple, based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. They asked if she was aiming to be an understudy. ‘I said “No! I want to play the lead”. They thought I was crazy,’ she recalled.
Fast-forward a few years and I’m in the U.S., where I spot Erivo’s face gazing down from massive billboards promoting the scorching film Harriet.
The movie tells the story of
Harriet Tubman, the freedom fighter who used daredevil tactics to free slaves. I saw it for a second time this week (in London) and I was struck by how gripped a group of youths were as they watched Erivo’s nononsense heroine, pistol in hand, enter a plantation to free members of her family.
The actress has come a long way since she turned her back on the NT’s Blue Fairy.
She appeared in Steve McQueen’s Widows, and is presently portraying queen of soul Aretha Franklin in a TV drama called Genius, that’s filming at the moment.
ERIVO puts her success down to her mother, Edith, who moved to London from her home in Nigeria when she was 24.
‘She has a streak of stubbornness in her,’ she said of her mum, who put herself through college, studying for two degrees.
‘She decided to learn to drive; so she did. I was in the car! I don’t remember being terrified,’ she said with a smile.
Erivo trained for months to have enough stamina to carry off the more athletic moments in Harriet.
The film’s director, Kasi Lemmons, wanted to present Tubman as a woman of action, and not ‘a humble old lady who wore old lady clothes’.
‘She had no fear and we wanted to show that,’ Erivo says. Two years ago after her Broadway success she sang at the Oscars Ball. There’s a lot of chatter that in February she may be walking the Academy Awards red carpet . . . as a best actress contender.
I hope her mother gets to be her date.
Golden touch: Cynthia Erivo