As a Black actress standing at just 5 feet 1 inch tall, Cynthia Erivo knows what it’s like to be underestimated—even with a Tony Award for her powerhouse performance as Celie in Broadway’s The Color Purple: The Musical. So when producer Debra Martin-Chase asked her to play Harriet Tubman in the long-anticipated biopic Harriet, Erivo was determined to prove herself deserving of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The film (in theaters Friday), directed by Kasi Lemmons, depicts the life of the revered abolitionist who freed more than 300 slaves, including herself. “There’s always a part of me that’s like, Am I equipped enough to tell the story? Or Am I strong enough for it?” Erivo admits, days after Harriet’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September. “But I have taken on big challenges throughout my career, and the enormity of this role made me lean into it more, because I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. And when something isn’t easy, it becomes even more special.”
She’s keenly aware that after decades of waiting, this is the first-ever feature film about Tubman. Helmed by a Black female filmmaker, it’s also coming out during a critical time in our history, when there is renewed interest in her story. Just two years ago, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center was established in Dorchester County, Maryland. And supporters of the abolitionist’s courageous legacy have lobbied for a new $20 bill with Tubman’s face on it.
Soon after Erivo’s first conversation with Martin-Chase more than three years ago, she threw herself into preparing for the role. Her months of research included looking at old photos of the abolitionist and reading everything she could about her life beyond the Underground Railroad. She wanted to capture her body language and facial expressions and learn more about her heartbreaking relationship with husband John. The actress also worked out every morning before she arrived on set so as to match her body strength with that of Tubman. She had many discussions with Lemmons about how to portray Tubman singing, as a cappella songs are used in the film to illuminate some of the freedom fighter’s most intimate emotions and conversations.
Playing Harriet taught me that my actions can change the world.
“I desperately wanted to show her humanity, not just her heroism,” Erivo says. “I desperately wanted to show her as a woman. I don’t think we know enough about that. She was a fully realized woman who had love in her life and heartbreak and family she cared for and desperately wanted to be with. That was what drove her.”
The London-raised, New York City–based star also meditated and prayed each day to portray the larger-than-life woman who herself leaned on faith to get her through difficult times. “Sometimes showing your faith brings embarrassment because of where we are in the world now,” Erivo reflects. “But Harriet’s faith is what kept her alive. I don’t believe I could have been here without something much larger than me giving me health and strength and putting wonderful opportunities in my life, especially when I look back at the last four or five years.”
It was just last year that the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art alum made her big-screen debut in Bad Times at the El Royale and had a breakout role in Widows. Now she braces for the world to see her as a leading lady in a part that would be significant even for a more seasoned actress. As the activist, Erivo dons a cowboy hat and carries a gun as, beginning in 1850, she leads hundreds of slaves on foot through dangerous terrain from Maryland to Pennsylvania.
Erivo recognizes Tubman’s desire for freedom by any means necessary is particularly resonant today, with Black women especially fighting to protect basic rights like reproductive choice and a living wage. “We’re in a dangerous place right now when people who have nothing to do with us are making decisions about our lives and our bodies,” she says. “We’re watching changes that were made for our freedom getting rolled back. Having done this movie, I feel more impassioned than ever about making sure that we as women are able to preserve our rights.”
After receiving the validation of a standing ovation at the Urbanworld Film Festival last September for her bold portrayal, Erivo hopes to pay this feeling forward and show young Black women that they matter. “Sometimes I think I am literally the smallest, most unimportant thing in the room,” Erivo says. “But Harriet was small, like me, and was able to do so much. Playing her taught me that my actions can change the world. I want young women to feel like they, too, have earned a place in this world, and they should use it well.”
Candice Frederick (@reeltalker) is a film critic and writer based in New York City.
This interview originally appeared in the November issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands now.