Cynthia Erivo is someone who can command the awe and attention of a room without saying a word. If you’ve seen her alongside Viola Davis in director Steve McQueen’s heist masterpiece Widows, or with Jeff Bridges in mystery drama Bad Times at the El Royale, you’ll be very aware of this already. But meeting Erivo moments after she was announced as one of the five nominees for EE Rising Star Award ahead of this year’s BAFTAs, I got to experience her warmth and charisma firsthand.
I ask the London-born actress which role she thinks defines her breakout into this level of attention in the industry and she says it’ll always be the on-stage musical adaptation of The Color Purple, for which she won a Tony Award and then later a Grammy (she’s an incredible singer and will be working on an album this year too, by the way). "It changed my life here [in the UK] and it changed my life when I went to New York," Erivo explains. "It’s the catalyst that made everything work when I was here, it’s the reason I ended up doing Broadway. When I did it on Broadway it’s the reason that people saw me for film, it’s the reason I ended up doing Widows."
It felt only right to confess to Erivo that Widows is one of the recent blockbuster films to puzzle me. Not because I didn’t anticipate how great it was going to be – it has a stellar cast, a sincere plot, and the masterful eye of McQueen behind it – but because I really had expected it to earn a fair few nominations in the upcoming awards season (the Golden Globes passed over it). And it didn’t. I confess I was surprised. "I was a little bit too," Erivo admits. "I felt like it had all the ingredients of something very special. It felt really special and we had such wonderful responses to it from everybody all over the place."
"I feel like it covered all of the points that we wanted to cover without being obsequious. You had the diversity but just because that’s what the film needed. It had the storylines because that’s what the film needed… it felt like it was really gritty and down to earth and grounded and really human," Erivo adds enthusiastically. "I love Widows, I loved being a part of it. I’m a little bit sad that it didn’t do as well. I think it did well in that people went to watch it, but I thought it would’ve been noticed more."
Though her last film may have been overlooked by the cinematic powers that be, today proves that Erivo herself certainly hasn't been. Erivo joins Letitia Wright, Jessie Buckley, Barry Keoghan, and Lakeith Stanfield in the running for BAFTA's Rising Star award and though she tends to go into awards season with no expectations, she says this moment feels pretty special.
"This year feels particularly big for British talent and for British talent of color, and I think that’s really special because you know we’ve worked really hard and we have to work in a particular way," Erivo tells me. "It means a lot when this sort of thing happens, and it doesn’t happen very often." That’s no secret. Though we may champion homegrown talent and accurate representation within those pools of chosen people, the fact that three of the five nominees for the EE Rising Star award are actors of color, two of whom are black women, is still a big deal because it’s still pretty rare within the industry.
Granted, it’s understandable that right now – the time of year when particular attention is drawn to the calibre of recent films – is when diversity and representation circles back around as the hot topic of conversation. Although it’s important and the necessity for it is unquestionable (not one woman was nominated for best director at the 2019 Golden Globes... again), I do wonder whether it’s as draining for performers to talk about it so much over the next few months as it is for journalists of color to write about it on behalf of the ongoing, slow-moving quest for a level playing field.
For the most part, Erivo seems to think so. She explains: "It takes a lot of energy to answer the questions, but I feel like it’s important to keep having the conversations. I’m glad people keep asking questions and that people haven’t decided that [diversity is] a fad thing and left it by the wayside. I’m glad that people are still talking about women, and I think that we need to talk about women of color more because that really is a conversation to be had. I’m glad that there are two women of color in this list because that’s very important and very rare.
"I’m willing to keep having the conversation if people are willing to listen and if we keep seeing changes like this because that’s when I know people are hearing us. If people aren’t hearing us then it’s pointless. At least, if things like this keep happening – which isn’t the case consistently – but if it happens more often, then at least we’re moving something forward."