Tom Beasley chats to Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale star Cynthia Erivo as she takes a well-deserved spot on the shortlist for the EE BAFTA Rising Star Award…
As rookie years in the world of film go, Cynthia Erivo’s first 12 months have to go down as pretty impressive. She was a crucial cog in the finely-tuned machine of Steve McQueen’s female-led heist thriller Widows and also shone amidst another A-list ensemble in the uneven Bad Times at the El Royale. She has since filmed a key supporting role in sci-fi blockbuster Chaos Walking and is set to play the abolitionist Harriet Tubman in an upcoming biopic.
The cherry on the top of that year is a nomination for the EE Rising Star Award at this year’s BAFTAs. Erivo is joined on the shortlist by Black Panther standout Letitia Wright and Sorry to Bother You leading man Lakeith Stanfield. Completing the field is Jessie Buckley fresh from her role in the terrific drama Beast and Barry Keoghan, who followed up a crucial turn in Dunkirk with leading man work in Bart Layton’s genre-bending American Animals.
Flickering Myth got the chance to chat with Erivo just after her nomination was announced…
First of all, congratulations on the nomination. What’s it like to be included in such a strong shortlist?
It’s pretty special actually. I’m very proud to be part of that list. Letitia, in particular, is a friend of mine and so to be sharing something with her is very special. She deserves it.
As starting out in the world of film goes, with two enormous movies, it’s very much running rather than walking, isn’t it?
I think so, but I feel like that’s how I do most things and it’s what my last couple of years have been like. It’s like jump in the deep end and float until you can’t float any more. Then, start swimming. That’s basically what has been happening and I’m okay with that. It keeps things interesting.
You look at your stuff in the world of music, on the stage and now you’re taking over film as well. Give someone else a chance!
[laughs] I think I have just been lucky to, for one, have an amazing team around me and, for two, have amazing people who have some faith in me. I have been given a chance to look at some amazing scripts and pick some great roles to play. I relish them and I throw myself into them and hopefully people see something that they like.
One of the things that sticks out on this shortlist is that it’s majority female and majority people of colour. You look at recent winners, with two of the last three being black. It’s a massively diverse award. Is that something you’re proud of?
Very much so. I think it means we’re moving towards a place where we can start changing things a little bit and making this represent what we see on film across the board and in society. We’re here, we’re part of this and we’re proud to be a part of this. I think that, as long as the conversation keeps going about diversity and keeps it open and rounded, then we’re good.
It’s wonderful particularly to see it be majority women up there. That’s very special.
I imagine it’s particularly special for you given Widows, which is a tremendous female-led movie. That film had a strange time because it has received plaudits from critics and awards bodies, but it struggled a bit to find an audience. Was that something that was disappointing to you?
The thing is that I didn’t know it struggled to find an audience because the response I have been getting from people who have watched it is that they have really taken to it. They know that it’s badass and they love the representation of women in it, who are all very different and very real as well. Every single one of them is steeped in reality.
I think the disappointing thing is that it may have struggled a little at the box office. But it feels like people are now going to see it. I don’t think it’s the end of it. It’s one of those films that in a year or two, or three, people will start going “I’ll watch that again” and it will find its renaissance.
I’m definitely proud to have been a part of it and I think I’m more disappointed for everyone who worked in it. Within it, it felt really special and I felt like we were doing something very special. I still do think that, so I do hope people take the time to watch it when they can.
You have had recognition for Widows from various awards groups, but does it feel extra special to get it in Britain?
Yeah, it’s definitely extra special. I’m a Brit and I’m from London and I’ve worked a long time and this is really wonderful to be a part of this. It’s such a short time that I’ve been in film, but to be noticed like this is really cool.
One of your next massive roles is as Harriet Tubman in Harriet, which is obviously a massive thing to take on.
It was huge to take on and it changed my life permanently. It was a wonderful thing to be able to tell that story. It’s one that people don’t know completely. I think they know of the work that she did, but they don’t particularly know about her – the woman, the human. That’s where we come from. That’s the viewpoint we’re going in with. We want people to know about how she became this person who saved the lives of many.
We want people to understand that this was a real human being who did this, who ran a hundred miles on her own, with little or nothing to support her, and made it. I don’t even know what kind of feat you can call that and to be that person is a huge honour.
The Color Purple is obviously something you’re enormously connected with and there’s talk of it being made into a musical movie now. You’ve done it in every way possible. Have you heard about the movie yet?
I have heard about the movie…
Have you been asked?
I have not been asked… yet.
We’re treading very carefully here.
[laughs] If I were to be asked, it would be wonderful and I would happily do it because it changed my life. I’d drop everything in a heartbeat to do it.
The word EGOT, I imagine, is something that is said to you probably more often than you’d like to hear it. But the prospect of possibly winning it for the same role is pretty special. I don’t know if that’s been done before.
I don’t think it has been done before. It’s crazy. I can’t even think about it because it freaks me out a bit too much, but the prospect is really wonderful. For it even to be in the ether is lovely. I think it’s really weird to be three quarters of the way anyway and I think I’m still trying to deal with that. Every time someone mentions it, it’s like: “Oh crap, I do have those things. This is so crazy. What is happening? How did that happen and when?” It’s so strange that that stuff is even close to my name.
You worked with Steve McQueen in Widows. Are there any other directors you’d like to work with as you move more into the film world?
Luca Guadagnino. I’d love to work with him. I’d actually like Shonda Rhimes to direct me in something because she’s really special. I’d love to see if Lena Waithe could direct me in something. I think she’d make an incredible director. I think she’d be brilliant.
I’d like to see what Spielberg would do, because he’s Spielberg, for goodness sake. Has Meryl Streep ever directed anything? Don’t you think she’d be brilliant?
I think she’d be annoyingly good at it!
This is what I’m saying! So I would love to see her do something. And Ava DuVernay. I really want to work with her.
That’s a great list. Luca Guadagnino is an interesting one. His Suspiria is another very female-focused story. The main male role is played by Tilda Swinton!
This is why I love him! Obviously, Dakota [Johnson, Erivo’s Bad Times at El Royale co-star] in Suspiria, and she’s amazing. He just paints beautiful pictures with wonderful characters and wonderful actors. I’m still reeling from Call Me By Your Name because I thought that was just divine and I just want to be in his space.
So if he were to come calling for Call Me By Your Name 2…
Oh my god! Yes, of course I would, without a shadow of a doubt.
My final question, and I think you’ve already hinted at your answer, is if you don’t win this, who from the list would you like to see win?
Letitia. Of course!
And she’d be a deserving winner! Everything I’ve seen her in, she’s just fantastic.
She’s amazing and she’s a really, really good person. She’s a sweetheart and she works really hard. Nothing exudes from her but goodness, so she’s deserving of this award.
Thank you so much for your time!
The 2019 BAFTA ceremony will take place at the Royal Albert Hall in London on February 10.
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.