Cynthia Erivo is a woman on the verge. With back-to-back breakout film roles this fall, Erivo’s talent will reach a wider audience. Not that she was any slouch before. Erivo, who can belt out a tune like nobody’s business, won an Emmy, Grammy and Tony award for her role as Celie in the Broadway revival of “The Color Purple.” With “Bad Times at the El Royale” opening Friday, and “Widows” bowing Nov. 16, Hollywood is buzzing about the possibility of the 31-year-old Erivo becoming the youngest person to earn EGOT status in history.
When it comes to film, Erivo considers herself a newbie. “Being in a film is challenging in different ways,” she says. “Theater is in the moment, it’s live. You can’t go back and try something again. You have the audience, which will tell you whether they’re happy or sad and whether they’re enjoying what they’re seeing. With film you have to go on your gut felling. Because I’m new, I wasn’t used to doing that and had to learn to trust myself. You have to have patience with yourself.”
“Widows,” Steve McQueen’s movie about a team of women who finish the complicated robbery started by their husbands, features Erivo as a single mother who drives the getaway car for Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez. “Belle is about 26 or 27, living in government housing,” Erivo says. “She works a lot. She has two jobs, she’s a babysitter and hairdresser. You don’t really learn that much about her personal life, but I loved playing her.” While she was shooting the Fox film in Chicago, Erivo auditioned for “Bad Times.”
In “Bad Times,” Drew Goddard’s stylish film noir set in a down-at-the-heels hotel with glimmers of a glamorous past, Erivo plays soul singer Darlene Sweet, who’s striving to succeed in a music industry rife with racism and sexism. Sweet is spending one night at the El Royale before a singing engagement in Reno. The other guests who check into the El Royale, played by Jon Hamm, Jeff Bridges and Dakota Johnson, all have dark secrets to hide.
Sweet is holding back something, but while the others scheme, she sings Sixties hits such as “This Old Heart of Mine,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” as if music is her religion.
“I think Darlene doesn’t know what anyone else is doing. It’s wonderful to have a storyline like that. Her double-sidedness is how much pain she’s hiding and the wall she’s put up,” Erivo says, referring to a flashback of Sweet in a recording studio being humiliated by a producer who recalls the notorious Phil Spector.
Music has a big role in “Bad Times.” When Hamm’s enigmatic character discovers a secret surveillance corridor at the hotel, he watches Sweet singing a song. The scene was shot 27 times. “Every time you hear me singing, I’m singing live,” Erivo said. “It was one shot, a five-minute shot. The difference is you have to do consecutive takes. You have to make sure that every time you sing the song, it remains fresh. I wanted to make sure it had the same immediacy. I loved singing in real time.”
When Sweet arrives at the El Royale, she’s wearing a yellow check jacket and yellow skirt, the sunny color a symbol of her (relative) goodness. “In the beginning, the clothes and makeup are perfect,” Erivo says, adding that as things get more dangerous, “with the breakdown of the look, she breaks down. Everything was made by hand. It was wonderful to be able to play a character who was empathetic and sympathetic.”
The actor Erivo shares the most screen time with, Bridges, plays Father Daniel Flynn, who’s not really a man of the cloth. “I spent a lot of time with Jeff. He’s a wonderful being, very kind and very giving. We were able to spend time with each other, which made it much easier. Our scenes have that added aspect of being comfortable with each other.”
Erivo has a big role to tackle: she’ll play Harriet Tubman in a biopic called, simply, “Harriet.” The Internet last month lit up with criticism of Erivo’s hiring due to her Nigerian-British heritage. Those crying foul said the role should have gone to an African American actress.
“I was really proud to be given the opportunity to play such a staple in history and such an inspiration to women and women of color,” Erivo says. “It should require a lot of physical prowess and mental acuity. I’ve been enjoying learning about her. Harriet will take me to the end of the year. In Harriet, I may be singing because that’s what she did.
“I relish any time I can sing,” Erivo says. “Whether I sing to one person or 1,000.”