Why I refused to rescue Bafta from a race row: Cynthia Erivo – who is up for the Best Actress Oscar – reveals how she had to leave Britain to find success and why she turned down an invite to the white-washed British award ceremony
As the cream of Transatlantic acting talent gathered at the Royal Albert Hall for the Baftas last Sunday, British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo was at home in Brooklyn, New York.
With Caleb, her Maltese-poodle mix, she was enjoying a ‘well-earned break’ from the rigours of work and the awards season so far.
Nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress for the film Harriet, in which she plays Harriet Tubman, the 19th-century abolitionist and American icon, Cynthia’s acclaimed performance has largely been ignored in the land of her birth.
As the cream of Transatlantic acting talent gathered at the Royal Albert Hall for the Baftas last Sunday, British actress and singer Cynthia Erivo (pictured in November) was at home in Brooklyn, New York
Indeed, Cynthia is probably the most successful and internationally lauded homegrown artist that you’ve never heard of — and that is a scandal.
Yes, Bafta did extend an invitation to Cynthia to make an appearance on the night but she declined.
She preferred not to endorse an event in which there were no non-white faces nominated in the acting categories, nor any female directors in the Best Director category. And if that sounds like sour grapes, it isn’t.
Bafta president Prince William and Joker star Joaquin Phoenix, who won Best Actor, were among those who took pot shots in their speeches at the woeful lack of race and gender diversity in the nominations.
Cynthia is nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress for the film Harriet, in which she plays Harriet Tubman (pictured)
‘It was so surreal because the Bafta people then asked me to sing and I refused to do it,’ Cynthia tells me. ‘They were getting all these other black actors to come on as presenters. Well, I’m not an accessory to make Bafta look good. It didn’t make sense to do that when no one [of colour] was represented [in the nominations].’
The judging panel at the Golden Globes certainly appreciated her turn as Harriet — rewarding her with another Best Actress nomination. She didn’t win but when I saw her in Los Angeles immediately after the ceremony in January and commiserated with her, it was clear that she didn’t see it like that at all.
‘Just being here is a win,’ she said. ‘Having Renee Zellweger ask how my Christmas was is a win. Joking with Brad Pitt is a win. We all watch out for each other and that’s a win. I’m portraying the title character of a film [Harriet] that has exceeded expectations at the box office in America, and that’s a win.’
Cynthia’s mother Edith (pictured) came to Britain from Nigeria when she was 24, intending to do a catering degree but knowing that her heart lay in nursing
Now, all her focus is on tomorrow when the 5ft 1in star will sashay down the red carpet to enter the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood as a double nominee at the 92nd Academy Awards.
For not only is Cynthia up for Best Actress, she has also been nominated for Best Original Song for Stand Up which she co-wrote (with Joshua Brian Campbell) and performed for Harriet.
If she’s lucky enough to take home a golden statuette — I fear Zellweger has a lock on Best Actress for her portrayal of Judy Garland in Judy but there is still Best Song — Cynthia will join the illustrious ranks of artists who boast an EGOT. That’s an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony.
And at 33 she would be the youngest to have achieved it.
‘I’m not banking on it but yes I do have to pinch myself,’ she laughs. ‘Who knew?’
Apparently, her mother Edith did. ‘My mum knew I was going to be in the arts long before I knew that’s what I was going to do. I was a shepherd in a nativity play when I was five and I sang Silent Night.
‘To my mother this was a sign. She didn’t push me like a stage mother but she gently guided me to drama classes. She couldn’t sing but she loved it when I did. My mother and my sister, I think, knew my path before I did.’
That close-knit family group has been key to her success — and it has been an extraordinary journey from the maisonette on a council estate in South London that the three of them shared to this point in her career.
In between criss-crossing the globe to attend film festivals and award ceremonies in recent months, Cynthia has been commuting back and forth to Atlanta, Georgia, where she has been portraying Aretha Franklin in an eight-part drama about the late Queen of Soul for the National Geographic channel.
(It is perfect casting because Cynthia’s voice is remarkable, although she jokes that ‘because I am so little I have to do something to make myself heard’.)
Her big break came in 2013 when got the part of Celie in a musical production of The Color Purple. She won a Tony Award for the role
And then there is an adaptation of Stephen King’s supernatural thriller The Outsider for HBO in which she plays private investigator Holly Gibney.
Oh, and on the day the Oscar nominations were announced last month, she was on a flight from LA to Tokyo where she did three concerts in front of 15,000 people.
‘All of the things that are happening now are just crazy,’ Cynthia says. And yet, and yet — she notes somewhat wistfully that she has received not a single offer from the UK. I’m not remotely surprised. I’m just not surprised any more and I’m not fighting for it any more. If something happens, it happens. I’m not chasing it,’ she says with resignation in her voice.
Which is a tragedy because she is an artist who was very much made in Britain.
Cynthia’s mother Edith came to Britain from Nigeria when she was 24, intending to do a catering degree but knowing that her heart lay in nursing.
So she ‘doubled up’ and studied for a nursing degree at night while raising her two young daughters. She’s now a director of community health visitors.
‘Whenever my mum needs something to happen, she just does it and I learnt from her. She wanted to learn to drive, so she taught herself how to drive. I remember my sister Stephanie and I would be in the car while she was learning. I don’t remember being terrified!’
Cynthia’s father, a civil servant, was ‘not in the picture’, she says, and she has seen him only once since she was 16. For her and her sister, there were too many ‘let-downs’ in childhood
She recalls living in a converted church — ‘we loved it’ — with five other families and then ‘one day my mum said she wanted to buy a house, so she saved and saved for a mortgage and she got us a house’.
Her father, a civil servant, was ‘not in the picture’, she says, and she has seen him only once since she was 16. For her and her sister, there were too many ‘let-downs’ in childhood.
‘I haven’t seen him for a long time. My mum did the work of two parents. We didn’t need him.’
Her mother instilled in her the importance of self-belief and from an early age Cynthia understood that getting what you wanted also required effort and commitment.
‘I knew what hard work looked like from watching her,’ she says.We have known each other for over a decade. While she was still a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada), I kept hearing about this ‘black girl’ who had gone to a strict Catholic school in South London, La Retraite, and who had wowed fellow pupils and teachers with her singing and acting talent.
But beyond acting workshops, school and local productions, she had never dreamed of a career in showbiz and took up a place at the University of East London to study music psychology.
One day, she bumped into a former acting mentor who was astounded she was not studying drama. Why wasn’t she at Rada, she was asked.
‘Initially I was reluctant because I didn’t know what this Rada was. I think the “Royal” bit scared me,’ Cynthia told me later.
She was one of only four people of colour in her year. I started tracking Cynthia’s progress and watching her in the occasional concerts she did in between bit parts in shows.
In the film Harriet, her character Harriet Tubman uses guerrilla tactics to free her fellow slaves
Her big break came in 2013 when got the part of Celie in a musical production of The Color Purple (based on the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker) at the small but influential Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre at London Bridge.
She was a sensation — described by one critic as a ‘pocket dynamo’ — but, incredibly, the show did not transfer to the West End.
Her next role was in the musical I Can’t Sing! at the London Palladium which tanked — but that turned out to be a blessing.
The Color Purple was heading to Broadway and she was now free to go with it. In 2015, as she was about to leave for New York, her sister Stephanie told her that she wouldn’t be coming back. ‘She somehow saw that I was going to succeed,’ says Cynthia. ‘I didn’t know that but she did.’
I saw the production at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre three times and Cynthia was an absolute knockout. Her big number, I’m Here, really did stop the show. People jumped up from their seats and applauded even before she had finished singing the ballad. She won a Tony Award for her Celie, a Grammy award for the show’s album and an Emmy for her performance on a morning TV show where she performed I’m Here. She believed that her success in the U.S. would be the key to great roles back home. It didn’t happen.
‘I was offered the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio at the National Theatre,’ Erivo once told me with a wry smile. ‘I knew what hard work looked like — and I’ve never shied away from it — but I wasn’t prepared to go backwards. To take that part would be almost like laughing at the people who’d invested so much energy in me.’
I thought of that ‘Blue Fairy’ snub last year while in the U.S. when I spotted Erivo’s face gazing down from massive billboards promoting the film Harriet.
I always knew she would triumph. It’s that ‘work thing’ she gets from her mother, a determination and dedication to the job in hand. For her role in Steve McQueen’s screen version of Widows, she trained by running marathons to play Belle, a hairdresser who uses her athleticism to help pull off a daring all-women heist.
In the film she is either running or riding bareback in many scenes. Cynthia’s supreme physical fitness made it all look effortless. Pictured Cynthia in the film
And I remember seeing her scoot along a New York street on a kick scooter on her way to the gym. She was always running or scooting, using energy as a source of performance.
In the film Harriet, her character Harriet Tubman uses guerrilla tactics to free her fellow slaves and is either running or riding bareback in many scenes. Cynthia’s supreme physical fitness made it all look effortless. As for the future, while she speaks to her mum and sister every day, and makes frequent trips to London, she knows it’s unlikely she will give up America.
‘I’ve had opportunities here that never came my way in England,’ she says simply. For the past few days, she has been in LA rehearsing to perform Stand Up — her Oscar-nominated song — at the ceremony.
Three years ago she sang at the Governors Ball that follows the Academy Awards. ‘This time I’m on the show! I’m this tiny black girl from South London and I’m singing at the Oscars!
‘My mum and my sister are my dates, and two friends are my guests. I have four outfits planned. One for the red carpet. One to perform Stand Up in, another for the Governors Ball and then something comfortable to run to all the other parties in.’
She cannot conceal her excitement — or her hopes.
‘All I want is for other black women — all young women, in fact — who are in the arts to see my face and go, “Oh, it’s possible.” ’
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