Cynthia Erivo On the 'Powerful, Powerful' Role Music Played in Her Embodying the Spirit of Harriet Tubman

Illustration by Britt Spencer

Cynthia Erivo, the Tony, Emmy and Grammy-award winning artist, says the Oscar buzz around her most recent performance as Harriet Tubman in the film Harriet is "very overwhelming" and she "genuinely didn't expect it."

Already nominated for two Golden Globes for the role, Erivo breathes life into the often mysterious public image of the famous abolitionist and unofficial leader of the Underground Railroad.

Erivo says she hopes people learn more about the life lived before and after the period for which Harriet (born Araminta Ross, Erivo's Tubman takes her mother's name—Harriet—in the film after running to freedom) was famous. In order to tap into Tubman's soul, Erivo used a skill she knows a thing or two about: singing, a "powerful, powerful" tool to tap into the spirit of Tubman, and ultimately into the film's message of freedom.

"I think we need to use this film to inspire us to do good things and see the strength we have in ourselves," Erivo told Newsweek. "We as people have agency and the ability to bring about really good change."

Why do you think it's important for people to know Harriet Tubman's various names?

Getting to meet Araminta Ross, we get to humanize her and watch her grow. It took time to get from Araminta to Harriet.

What is often left out of Tubman's story is her military service and her work in the women's suffrage movement. Why are these parts of her story so important?

I don't think many people realize she worked in the army and the suffragette movement—much of that in the script we didn't have time to delve into. It's very exciting that a woman, particularly a woman of color, was one of the first women full stop to lead an armed raid and was a general in the army. There's a life story there that continued for a really long time.

Did the music in the film impact your performance?

Yes. It's a connection to the spirits. Negro spirituals were a way to send a message to one another. It's a powerful, powerful thing.

What sort of impact do you hope Tubman's story has on people?

To help or to make change should be a duty of ours. I hope it gives young men and women the courage and the confidence to see a woman who is the center of her narrative and to be strong and fast and mysterious and have this wonderful heart. It's an example that women can do anything.