The fearless performer Cynthia Erivo has arrived at her no-nonsense SoHo gym with her Maltipoo puppy, Caleb, in tow. The risible idea is that I will work out alongside her, but I should have known better. After all, this is an actress whose dream it is to play Serena Williams (“There’s this fiery, determined champion, and then there’s this really gorgeous, almost Marilyn Monroe–esque siren—something really quite ethereal”) and some sort of fictional superhero (“I think I’d really enjoy being able to just go for it, to be honest”). Two exercises in, I’m a crumpled mess, but at the end of the grueling session Erivo, who has barely broken a sweat, shows off a bit, swinging about on the high bars with the power and control of an Olympic gymnast.
Erivo’s pugilistic skills and sumptuously muscled five-foot-one body are put to good use in Steve McQueen’s Widows, a taut crime thriller based on Lynda La Plante’s 1980s British television series of the same name, which showcases a stellar cast of powerful women playing powerful women—including Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, and Elizabeth Debicki along with Erivo. “No one had to be a shrinking violet,” Erivo says. Her character, Belle, feisty and tender, arrives late to the story but makes an indubitable impact. Erivo, who had longed to work with McQueen, is uplifted that it has happened so soon in her on-screen career. “He’s got this really gentle sensibility,” she says of her fellow Briton. “I felt that he really only wanted the best of us and for us.”
Her other new film, Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale, is set in the 1960s in a mysterious establishment that straddles Nevada and California. Erivo plays Darlene Sweet, a soul singer with a beehive wig, Barbie-pink nails, and a dark secret. (She didn’t know she was going to be the star until she was signing the contract.) And after that: the title role in Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet, about Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery to become a powerful abolitionist.
After the gym, Erivo goes home to change; I go home to collapse. A couple of hours later we meet again at her Brooklyn apartment building, where she has changed into an eye-popping dress from ?fuur? by Tehilah of brilliant cobalt-blue African cotton printed with neon-orange writhing vines. “There’s been an influx of really cool African designers making pattern and print modern,” explains Erivo, who was born in South London to Nigerian parents. She has a tiny Vuitton pochette slung on a lariat across her chest, shaded 1970s-looking sunglasses, orange Nike trainers, gold hoop earrings, and a galaxy of tiny studs nestling in her earlobes.
As we walk up the slopes of a nearby park, we pass throngs of hipsters milling about. “It’s Soul Summit,” someone explains helpfully. “House music, dance.” Soon the throbbing bass is kicking in, the crowd thickens, and every now and then, someone spots Erivo. “That voice, girl!” one woman cries out before telling her that every day she sings along to a YouTube clip of Erivo singing the powerfully assertive anthem “I’m Here,” from The Color Purple, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2016—and has the lyrics written down on a scrunched-up piece of paper in the depths of her purse. Erivo initiated the role of Celie for the musical’s U.K. premiere at London’s small but mighty Menier Chocolate Factory; when the opportunity came to transfer to Broadway, director John Doyle insisted that she come, too—and her electrifying onstage presence was rewarded with the Tony for Best Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical.
It was a triumphant arc for a woman who started out studying music psychology before realizing that it was not for her. On the advice of theater director Rae McKen, she applied to London’s storied Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and was accepted. “It was an accident I ended up doing this,” she recalls. “I just knew that singing was something that I could do—and that this was another way to express myself and to tell other people’s stories.”
She left RADA to perform in Simon Stephens’s Marine Parade in a regional festival, and worked more or less steadily before she was approached to read for the Celie understudy—but Erivo didn’t want to be an understudy; she wanted to audition for the part itself. “That was the role that was going to change my life,” she says, “and so I fought and fought and fought.
“People still message me about how it changed their lives—how they got the strength from Celie changing her life to change their own,” says Erivo. “If that is what a show, a play can do, it is astounding.” She channeled the transformative experience into work with the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which provides empowerment and education to LGBTQ youth, and has also lent her voice (literally) to other causes, including the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Robin Hood Foundation, which provides assistance and education to New Yorkers living in poverty.
Though Erivo admits that it is “surreal” to go from stage to film, it might be even more so for her boyfriend, actor Mario Martinez, whom she met the day after she won the Tony. Not only had he not seen her performance, he had no idea she could even sing until, some six months into their relationship, she took him to an Oprah Winfrey gospel brunch in Montecito, California, where she sang “Stand” with BeBe Winans. “I remember looking at him and seeing this What? look,” Erivo says. “It took him, I think, a couple of days to process what had happened,” she adds. “But he also hasn’t seen me act on the stage—he hasn’t seen any of this!” She’s looking forward to taking him to her film. “I’m going to be watching for his reaction,” she says. “I like surprising people.”
In this story:
Sittings Editor: Phyllis Posnick.
Hair: Vernon Scott; Makeup: Joanna Simkin. Manicure: Gina Oh-Parker. Tailor: Cha Cha Zutic.
Set Design: Julia Wagner.