Cynthia Erivo has won a Tony and a Grammy — and she’s not slowing down
The star of Broadway’s ‘The Color Purple’ talks about her favorite music — and the best advice Oprah ever gave her
In January, on the night of her closing performance as Celie in the Tony-winning Broadway revival of The Color Purple, Cynthia Erivo had a declaration to make.
While singing “I’m Here,” which marks Celie’s emphatic turning point, Erivo, overcome with emotion, struggled to push out the song’s lyrics, then became unable to say anything at all. For half a minute she paused as the sold-out audience at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre roared in support. In this moment, in a role that she has played for years both on Broadway and Off West End in London, and which earned her a 2016 Tony for best performance by a lead actress, the powerful words of the show’s climactic anthem were no longer being sung by Celie, but instead by Cynthia.
The words had always resonated with Erivo, but now, the lyrics summed up her growth over the course of her 450-show run. An impassioned Erivo said goodbye to a role that she says changed her life. And she announced to all what Celie’s character had done so emphatically night in and night out: I’m here.
To place a final bookend to her Color Purple experience, Erivo and the original cast of the musical recently won the Grammy for best musical theater album. And since her final curtain, Erivo has wasted no time. When it comes to the next phase of her career, she is making the jump from the stage to the big screen, making new music and even pursuing a doctorate at Harvard. She’s also set to star in the Steve McQueen-directed film Widows with Viola Davis and Moonlight’s Andre Holland. It will be McQueen’s first feature film since 12 Years a Slave, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2014. Erivo will also be starring as Harriet Tubman in an upcoming biopic directed by Seth Mann.
What are you looking forward to in 2017?
All the traveling I’m going to do. It’s so amazing to do these films in places that I’ve never been to before and really experience something completely different. I’d love to go to Bali. I’d love to see what it’s like.
What do you do before a big performance?
We always prayed. I do it anyway whenever I’m performing. I always take a moment and key in and breathe, stand to myself and say a prayer because I want to clear my mind and be ready in that moment.
Who are some of your musical inspirations?
I love Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Elton John, Lauryn Hill and I still listen to Brandy. Now, I listen to Janelle Monae, I listen to Beyoncé — I thought [Lemonade] was amazing. Kate Bush, Lionel Richie, Sting — just people with really good melodies and good lyrics.
Favorite Beyoncé song?
I love “Sandcastles.” The lyrics and the melody. There’s a lot of pain in it, and story in it.
You played the role of Sister Mary Clarence on a touring show of Sister Act in London. Which movie did you like more, Sister Act 1 or 2?
Can I cheat? The first part of No. 1 and the end of No. 2. I love the first song, the part where you first meet Sister Mary Clarence and the whole end of the second film, yeah.
What’s something you will always be the champion of?
Women’s education, always. It’s really important that women are allowed to be educated. That’s not the case all over the world, and it’s not always seen as the most important thing. I think when we are better educated, all of us across the globe can help to change things.
What is your favorite karaoke song?
I’m studying for a Ph.D. [at Harvard], so I’m reading a lot. One of my favorite books is Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. It’s about all the different syndromes you can have that can affect the way you hear music or understand music or feel music. It’s really interesting. I’m reading another book called I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi — she’s a friend of mine. Her book is incredible.
Who would you want to play you in a biopic?
I think I’m being biased, but I’m good friends with Michaela Coel. She has a series on Netflix right now which is incredible. I think she’s the only one who understands me enough to be able to play me. I would love her to do it — she gets me.
Where does your courage come from?
I’d say my mother, she’s made of courage. She probably wouldn’t tell you that herself, but I feel like she really is. She left Nigeria when she was 20, came to the U.K. on her own and made a complete life for herself. She’s the one that has given me my stubbornness to do all the things I’d like to do. She’s never told me not to do anything. She just told me to work hard for them.
Where do you get new music?
I might be listening to an advert and Shazam it — that thing is really, really useful. Often someone asks me what kind of music I want and I just tell them to play what they like because that’s the best way of learning different types of music.
What is the last song you found on Shazam?
It was “You’re Taking Up Another Man’s Place” by Aretha Franklin. Someone played it and I was like, what is that?!
Who do you listen to when you run?
The only time I listen to music when I run is when I’m on a treadmill because I hate the treadmill, so I have to take my mind off it. I listen to Leslie Odom Jr. He has a jazz album which is amazing. Or I listen to, specifically, “Hold Up” by Beyoncé. I don’t know why, but it makes me really happy. When I’m running outside, I listen to my breathing and my body.
What is the best advice Oprah [a producer of The Color Purple on Broadway] ever gave you?
To breathe in the moment and be in the moment. If it’s meant for you, then let it happen, if it’s not meant for you, let it go. Don’t hold on to something tightly if you think it’s not for you.
Who was the last person that left you starstruck?
Stevie Wonder. I get starstruck quite often because I’m still getting used to being in these places. I’m still not used to people actually recognizing me. So there’s a small child inside of me wanting to jump and down and be like, ‘You’re that person! Oh, my God,’ but I can’t really do that because I am in a working environment.
Has the progression of your career feel like it’s happened quickly?
It was a slow burn up until the moment I got to Broadway. Then I did the show and then all of a sudden it’s like someone put me in a rocket and shot me out of it. That’s what it feels like right now. It was like slow, slow, slow, slow, and blastoff. I think the harder I work, the better it becomes. I’m ready and willing to do that whatever it is.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.