Film

Cynthia Erivo on identity, migrant crisis and what she's learned playing Elphaba in Wicked

The star of Drift and Wicked finds parallels between her characters in the two much-anticipated upcoming films

Cynthia Erivo. Image: Suki Dhanda / Guardian / eyevine

In Drift, Cynthia Erivo plays Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee trying to piece her life back together on a Greek island after experiencing unspeakable trauma. A tourist asks her: “How did you get here?” “Same as everyone else,” Jacqueline responds, “Plane, ferry, boat. Luck.”

It’s more than luck that has taken Erivo to Hollywood, where she’s speaking to the Big Issue. It’s a couple of days after the Oscars where Erivo – a two-time nominee herself – presented awards with Ariana Grande, her co-star from the feverishly anticipated adaptation of stage smash Wicked.

“There’s a little bit of luck but I definitely used a plane to get here,” she smiles. “It’s having the curiosity to pick different things that challenge me and to make brave choices.”

It’s more than just this too.

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Drift is a film that’s both ferociously brave to make, but intensely personal too. Cynthia Erivo first read the script in 2015 when starring in The Color Purple on Broadway, for which she’d win a Tony Award (the year Hamilton swept most of the other categories). Bill Paxton, better known for his work in front of the camera, was attached to direct. After his death in 2017, Erivo was determined to see the project through to completion. 

She says: “I cared about the way her story was told. I was curious about her incessant and determined nature and need to survive. If a person can go through all of this and keep finding ways to make it to the next day, even when she’s petrified, I am curious about what makes that person tick – because it’s not the same as anyone else.”

The script may be close to a decade old, based on the book A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik, set in the early years of this century, but as the migrant crisis continues it’s more relevant than ever today.

“But I think it’s always going to be relevant,” Erivo says. “It will always be something that we need to step back and take a look at – the way we treat people who are displaced, who are running, who need safety and how we ignore and dehumanise them.”

Cynthia Erivo in Drift. Image: nikos nikolopoulos

Living in the character of Jacqueline gave Cynthia Erivo new perspective on the journey her mother Edith took as a teenager from Nigeria to the UK during the Biafran War. “Nothing has ever stopped my mum from doing the things she wants to do. Nothing. And I think it stems from that moment in her life. She kept saying [to me] whatever I wanted to be, I could be. I just had to work hard for it. And that adage has never left me.”

After being Oscar-nominated for her lead role in 2019’s Harriet, a biopic about slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Erivo founded her own production company called Edith’s Daughter, which helped Drift finally get made.

“There are stories that I haven’t seen that I want to see,” Erivo explains. “I’ve always been a person who is hardworking and determined – and not necessarily the best when it comes to taking no for an answer. I was like, this film has to be made, what do we need to do to get made? I’m like that about the things that I love.”

Drift is about connections. Jacqueline is lost and alone – physically but spiritually too. She develops a gradual, delicate friendship with US tour guide Callie played by Alia Shawkat, who is lost in her own way too. Together, they may not reach a happily ever after, but some hope returns. This is the power of connection, Erivo believes.

“Other people are reflections of ourselves. So the thing that annoys us about someone else is probably
something in ourselves we haven’t come to terms with.”

In society today there seems to be a crisis of connection, an inability or unwillingness to emphasise and understand others.

“People can’t see people,” Erivo agrees. “We’re disconnecting ourselves from everyone and I think that’s the thing driving us in the wrong direction. 

“We are scared of the other because if we allow ourselves to get to know them we might realise we have more in common. I’ve met many types of people in my life and every single one of them is intriguing to me. I have learned much from people who are not like me. More than anything, I’ve learned that people who are not like me are very like me.”

Cynthia Erivo was born and raised in Stockwell, South London, but her identity is shaped by many places.

“I feel very nomadic. My parents are Nigerian, so I know I’m Nigerian. I was born and raised in London so I’m a Brit. I moved to New York when I was 27. And now I live in LA.

“Each of these places has left an indelible mark on the person I am. There’s a particular kind of pride and love of self when you’re Nigerian. The love of colour, music, food.

“Being a Londoner there’s a sort of go-get-it attitude. I was raised Roman Catholic so I have a belief in God. I don’t necessarily think that’s tied to religion, it’s tied to my faith that there is something bigger than me.”

Erivo says that it’s only now, helped by lessons taught by Jacqueline, that she is comfortable enough to be “me me” on a film set.

“I’ve started to learn how to find ways to feel comfortable, really comfortable, as myself there. People underestimate the bravery it takes to just be yourself. I know I’m very different. Even just to look at me, I’m different. And I’m OK with that. In fact, I’ve become more than OK with that. I enjoy it. I enjoy it because it encourages other people to just be them.”

As well as acting, producing and being one of the most acclaimed singers in the country, Erivo recently become vice president of her alma mater RADA.

“I’ve discovered that the students are all holding onto their own experiences and some of them are so afraid to share what they’ve been through. They don’t realise that what they’ve been through is like gold. That’s where they can connect the dots between themselves and the music.

“That’s what the best of us are doing on film, just being as open and as vulnerable as you possibly can.”

Cynthia Erivo with Ariana Grande in Wicked. Image: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo

This is why Cynthia Erivo is naturally drawn to characters who are true to themselves no matter the cost. The ultimate icon of defiant outsider is Elphaba, the green-skinned Wicked Witch of the West given depth and dynamic power ballads in Wicked. The first half of the two-part adaptation is out this November.

Although Drift and Wicked are complete opposites in many ways, Jaqueline and Elphaba have much in common.

“Very much so. [Elphaba] is an outsider from the moment you meet her. She’s been an outsider since she was born and we watch her work towards acceptance of that fact. I think that’s a really beautiful thing to explore.

“When someone says I’m an outsider, we immediately believe that they want to be on the inside, but actually a lot of the times it’s OK to be on the outside. Because you see things differently. You just do. You can’t help it. So there is a beauty to being slightly outside of everything.

“If I think about the women I’ve played, I think that applies to all of them. They’re all people who are good with being them. 

“Do they find it difficult sometimes? Yes. Does that mean they’re going to go to change? No.”

Drift is in cinemas from 29 March.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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