Cynthia Erivo turns 32 in January, but she’s already this close to EGOT status. With a Grammy, Emmy, and Tony on her mantle, this London-born singer and actress just needs that Oscar. And, following her revelatory, star-making lead role on Broadway’s The Color Purple, her journey to cinematic dominance is well underway: This fall, moviegoers can see her hold her own with Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm and others in the thriller Bad Times at the El Royale, and alongside Viola Davis and Liam Neeson in 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen’s Widows. And, yes, pre-production has already begun on Harriet, in which Erivo plays none other than Harriet Tubman.
It all began with music, and a bit of prophecy from her mother, who predicted in little Cynthia’s baby book that her daughter was going to be a singer and/or an actress — all because she hummed when she ate. “She knew before I did that I was going to be a performer,” Erivo tells R29’s co-founder and global editor-in-chief Christene Barberich in this week’s UnStyled.
Erivo learned this herself — felt it — when she sang “Silent Night” to a rapt audience at a Christmas pageant at age 5. “I don’t know that I registered was making a good sound, I just knew that whatever sound I was making was making people happy,” she says. (Note: This is true. After last week especially, do yourself a favor and watch or listen to Erivo sing anything, and, indeed, you’ll likely beam out of sheer astonishment.)
Since then, Erivo has developed and perfected her preternatural gifts as a performer, but she still chases that same high she got at that Christmas pageant. “There’s always a moment when I go on stage as a character, or just singing a song, where it feels like being filled with sunshine. I just feels good. I love what I do, genuinely.”
She has also discovered the political power of her work. After excellent notices in London (including bold, disruptive roles in all-female productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Henry IV), her Broadway performance as Celie in The Color Purple (a character created in Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel) changed her life — and the lives of others, too, particularly women of color.
“I don’t ever want anyone to think that I’m just playing the role,” Erivo tells Barberich. “I wanted people to see themselves on that stage,” she says of Celie, a Black woman in rural Georgia who perseveres through unimaginable obstacles and suffering in the first half of the 20th century. “I wanted women who felt like they weren’t being heard to know that they were, to know that someone was listening, and to know that their voices are valid.”
Listen to Cynthia Erivo’s full conversation with Christene — more on her beginnings, her “very awesome” single Nigerian mom, and her now infamous Met Gala 2018 look (those NAILS!!) — by subscribing to UnStyled and listening via Apple Podcasts today.