Acclaimed Actress & Singer/Songwriter Cynthia Erivo Talks About Her New Movie, Drift, Her Movie Harriet, And Writing “Stand Up” And Other Songs

Cynthia Erivo
Cynthia Erivo (from her film, Drift).

For almost a decade, Cynthia Erivo has been known as a multi-faceted actress and singer/songwriter who has received accolades in several fields. Impressively, she is a Tony Award, Grammy Award and Emmy Award winner, and she has been nominated for two Academy Awards. Notably, she has performed in lead roles in movies, on Broadway, and on TV. On top of this, she’s a singer/songwriter who’s released an album on Verve Records.

Erivo, who was born in London, is perhaps best known for playing the lead role of Harriet Tubman in the 2019 movie, Harriet. Tubman was a former slave and abolitionist, who helped other slaves gain their freedom as a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad. For her performance, Erivo was nominated for two Academy Awards: for Best Actress and Best Original Song (for co-writing “Stand Up” for the film).

Prior to working on Harriet, in 2015 Erivo had a breakthrough on Broadway, starring in the musical version of The Color Purple. The following year, she won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, and an Emmy Award. In addition, she has played Aretha Franklin in the American TV series, Genius, and in 2022 she co-starred in Disney’s new live-active movie of Pinocchio.

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Cynthia Erivo, who discusses the making of her new movie, Drift.


Currently, Erivo is focused on her latest movie project, called Drift. She stars in this film and serves as executive producer. Also, she wrote and sang the song “It Would Be,” collaborating with R&B/soul/jazz artist, Laura Mvula.

Drift premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past January to excellent reviews. It’s a powerful drama where Erivo plays Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee who flees to Greece and develops a relationship with an American (Alia Shawkat), while continuing to cope with the cruel reality of her past. The film just been released with an awards qualifying run in December.

Here’s the trailer of Cynthia Erivo’s new movie, Drift.

Cynthia Erivo Interview
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Cyuthia Erivo. She discusses her role and involvement with Drift, and how she wrote the song “It Would Be” for the film. She also talks about her other key projects, including her acclaimed performances Harriet and The Color Purple.

DK: You’ve had great success with acting, singing and writing songs. What came first for you—acting or singing?

Cynthia Erivo: I’ve been singing since I was five. With acting, I fell in love with the idea of playing characters when I was in primary school. Then I went to drama school when I was 20, and I started professionally after that. But I’ve been singing for a real long time, and I wrote my first song when I was about 16, which I loved doing.

DK: In 2016, you won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, for The Color Purple. Can you talk about your experience of being in this show?

Erivo: It was a massive experience; it changed my life and the music was wonderful. But it’s hard to describe my experience of being in The Color Purple, because it was 14 months of my life, and a lot happened in that time. I learned a lot…I gained a lot. It completely changed the trajectory of my career, and I was really grateful to be a part of it. It started because I did the version of The Color Purple in London. Something in my gut told me that I was meant to be doing this piece, so I fought to be seen. And then the rest is sort of history. I was beyond proud to be part of the Broadway show, and it was a wonderful experience. It was tough, because it’s a tough subject matter and it’s hard to play, but it was really rewarding.

DK: I liked your powerful performance in the movie, Harriet. How did you get involved with this film, and what was it like to portray Harriet Tubman?

Here’s the lyric video of Cynthia Erivo’s song, “Stand Up,”
from the movie, Harriet.

Erivo: I was doing The Color Purple when Debra Martin Chase, one of the producers of Harriet, and the writer of the piece (Gregory Allen Howard) had come to see me in the show. Then Deborah Martin Chase asked me to meet her. I met her at a hotel for tea, and she talked about the movie she was going to be doing about Harriet Tubman, and she thought I could play this role. I was surprised because I wasn’t expecting this…I was still doing a show on Broadway. It was scary, but I knew the story of Harriet, and I felt like I could lend my talents to it. Then, as the script was being slightly rewritten, they were looking for a director, and it was when Kasi Lemmons came on that I knew that we had something special.

It was a tough shoot because we were shooting in the middle of winter in Virginia, but it was so connected…so heartfelt. Everyone was there on one accord, and it was a special project to be a part of. I had no idea what it would become or how people would respond, but I’m glad that people are still responding to it today.

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Cynthia Erivo, who discusses her acclaimed movie, Harriet.


DK: For the movie Harriet, you co-wrote the song “Stand Up,” which is empowering and dramatic. How did you and Joshuah Campbell write this song?

Erivo: I think (composer & musician) Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons were looking for different people who could write a song, and I had put myself forward to co-write. Then they found Joshuah and told me about him. They sent me a piece that Joshuah had written, and when I liked it, I knew that we needed to work together to make it what it became. So I met with Joshuah and we sat for a few hours with a producer friend of mine, Will Wells, and we worked on writing “Stand Up.”

Here’s a video of Cynthia Erivo performing her song, “You’re
Not Here.”

DK: Two years ago, you released your solo album, Ch. 1 Vs. 1, on Verve Records. Can you talk about the making of this album?

Erivo: Yes, that was an interesting experience because I did it all the way through the pandemic. We had to work remotely. I was recording at my home, and my producer (Will Wells) was working in his home. He was living in .N.ew York or New Jersey, and I was in Atlanta because I was shooting (the TV series) Aretha at the time. So I had a makeshift studio in Atlanta and in my house in L.A., and I would do the vocals there. He would do production in his home, and he’s a genius, so he was able to take over my computer and make sure that all the stacks were in place where they needed to be, and he helped me set up my recording from where he was. Then I would record the vocals from where I was. We wrote most of the song together, plus with a group of other writers on different songs. I’m really proud of that project.

DK: You have a new movie coming out, called Drift. Can you talk about this movie and how you got involved with it?

Erivo: I got involved with it from the very beginning. The script was sent to me in 2015, when I was still doing The Color Purple, and I was meant to read for the character of Jacqueline. The director, Bill Paxton, sent it to my agent, and I loved it and wanted to do it. I fell in love with the character, and her story. But unfortunately, Bill Paxton passed away, and his wife very kindly asked if we could continue later on. But when they came back to do that in 2019, I had moved on a lot. And so this time they asked me if I wanted to be a producer. I said yes, because I wanted to do anything in order to make it happen. I  wanted it to come to fruition. Then in 2021 we went to Greece and shot it there, and now we have a film.

DK: For Drift, you wrote and sang the song, “It Would Be.” Can you talk about writing this song?

Erivo: Once they were shooting, I was on a run and I sometimes make playlists for the films that I’m doing. There was a song called “Father, Father” that started playing by an artist called Laura Mvula. I loved it, and it felt like that was the language of the piece that I was shooting. So something in me knew it was meant to be, that she would be the person to write this piece with. So I contacted her and asked if she would write it with me, and she said yes. Then I sent her the movie, and she immediately sent me an idea. And I loved the direction she was going, so we set up some time to sit together and write. And it sort of flowed out of us and we recorded it together.

Here’s a video of Cynthia Erivo performing her song, “Alive.”

DK: You released an album (Ch. 1 Vs. 1) two years ago, and you wrote this new song for Drift. Are you working on a new album?

Erivo: Yes, I am working on a new album, and I’m in the studio writing, Thankfully we’re not in the pandemic, so I can be in the same space as my producer. And it’s been a really pleasurable experience. We have some time before it will come out, but I’m excited about what we’re doing.

DK: You’ve worked on many great projects. Besides Harriet, The Color Purple and Drift, what projects are you most proud to have worked on?

Erivo: I’m proud of all of them, because I pick very specifically. Playing Aretha Franklin was a huge honor. I got to really learn about her—the way she thought, her mind, and the experiences she’d been through to make her who she was. Also. playing Holly Gibney in The Outsider (TV series) was unlike anthing that I’d played before. She was different and unique, strange and beautiful, and to this day I get people who have watched this piece and were moved by it. Also, playing a blue fairy (in the new movie version of Pinocchio) is cool, because how many times do you get to say I played a blue fairy? (laughs). And I got to re-sing a song that everybody knows (“When You Wish Upon A Star”). I’m also shooting (the movie version of) Wicked at the moment. So I never pick the pieces I do lightly, and I hope that’s something that I can continue to say.

Here’s the link to Cynthia Erivo’s site:

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima