The acronym “EGOT” describes the rarest, most diversely talented Hollywood entertainers who, throughout their careers, managed to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony Award. As of now there are only 16 individuals worthy of this designation — including Mel Brooks, Whoopi Goldberg, Audrey Hepburn, and Andrew Lloyd Weber — but before long they’ll be joined by 34-year-old Cynthia Erivo.
After making her Broadway debut in 2015 as Celie in the critically acclaimed revival of The Color Purple, Erivo won the Tony award for Best Performance by a Lead Actress in a Musical, a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album, and an Emmy Award for Outstanding Musical Performance in a Daytime Program. Erivo then moved from stage to screen, and her portrayal of abolitionist Harriet Tubman in the biopic Harriet (2019) earned her two Oscar nominations. Most recently Erivo played a savant investigator in HBO’s thrilling miniseries, The Outsider, and then perfectly captured the magic of Aretha Franklin in National Geographic’s Genius series. Now Erivo is focused on releasing her debut solo album and growing her newly founded production company, Edith’s Daughter, with a mission to tell the stories of those who are often overlooked and underrepresented.
We caught up with Erivo to learn more about her splendidly meteoric career, and how she is supported by her three-year-old Maltipoo, Caleb, and 10-month-old Yorkipoo, Gigi.
DROOL: How did Caleb and Gigi find you?
ERIVO: Caleb, I got three years ago when I was on the set of Bad Times at the El Royale (2018). The line producer had two dogs, and I found myself constantly going to her oﬃce and saying over and over again, “I really want a dog of my own.” One day she said, “Let’s go get you a dog. There are loads of people around that can help you if you need it, and if the dog needs to stay with me, they can. So, what kind of dog do you want?” I don’t know why I wanted a Maltipoo, but I knew I wanted one, and we looked everywhere for the right dog until one day this Facebook ad pops up with this tiny little dog in someone’s backyard, and I was like, “That’s the dog. That’s him.” When we called, the lady said a couple was coming down that day to look at him, and told us that if the couple didn’t take the dog, she’d let us know. We waited and waited, and then a call comes from this lady. She said, “They liked him, but they’re not sure,” and I said, “Well, I’m sure.” We went the next day to meet him, and he was the sweetest, sweetest little thing — playful and quiet, but still wanted to be close to me. When I picked him up, he fell asleep, and I fell in love. He’s been wonderful. When you’re traveling a lot, and when you’re on set, and you’re by yourself a lot, it just helps to have a being that is only really made of love.
Gigi happened because I felt like Caleb should have a sibling. She was adorable and silly and playful, and still is … the total opposite of Caleb. Caleb needs to be in view, but he can be at some distance if he wants to be, but Gigi just wants to be right next to you all the time. They’re both really, really sweet beings who have changed my life for the better. There’s something about how they sense when I’ve gone through a rough time, they’ve been right there. They come up to you and they lean and they love you, and that’s that. They’re special, special beings. Everybody seems to fall in love with them, it’s ridiculous. My mother used to hate dogs, but then I got Caleb, and now when she calls, she asks about Caleb before she asks about me.
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DROOL: During the COVID-19 lockdown you recorded your debut album, which comes out this fall. Tell us a little bit about your writing and recording process.
Cynthia: There’s a song on the album that’s seven years old, and there’s a song on the album that is three or four years old, but a lot of it I wrote during quarantine over Zoom. I recorded everything, re-vocaled everything in my house or in the house I was ﬁlming at in Atlanta. Every song is a link to who I am, the people I’ve met, the people I love, and what I’ve been through. It all starts with a melody. Someone plays something until they ﬁnd a melody that sticks to me, and when it sticks, I’ll just ask them to keep playing it over and over again. That melody usually gives me the lyrics for the top line, or the lyrics for the verse… verse or chorus, I can’t tell you which comes ﬁrst, it depends on the day. Sometimes a song tells me that I need a bridge, sometimes it tells me that I don’t need a bridge; it always depends on the day. There’s a song that I wrote in an hour and 15 minutes, and no song took more than three hours to write. I don’t know why… maybe it’s because I’m impatient. It’s also because when I get an idea, it comes almost fully formed, and I don’t want to leave the space until I’m ﬁnished. I know what I’m writing about. I know the story I’m trying to tell. I just have to ﬁnd the words to tell it.
DROOL: In The Outsider, you played Holly Gibney, an eccentric investigator of the supernatural who is on the spectrum. How did you prepare for that role?
Cynthia: Building the character of Holly started with her hair. I wanted her to have braids, because it felt like something she could do herself when she’s on her own. It’s also a very speciﬁc thing about Black women that we learn how to do when we’re really young. I knew that I wanted Holly’s rhythm to be slightly diﬀerent because this was an opportunity to shed light on Black women who are on the spectrum — I just hadn’t seen that before. She is a quick thinker, but when she’s nervous, it stops her in her tracks, so she has to stop and start, stop and start, and go back again. I wanted her to have uniformity in the way she dressed. She’s usually in a button-up, with very speciﬁc colors, and she never wears jeans. Her nails are always pink nude, almond-shaped, and very tidy. I was very speciﬁc about all of those things because while they’re very small details, they informed how she moved, how she spoke, what she did. Right down to her shoes — shoes really matter, because it changes how you walk. You can tell a lot from how a person walks into a room.
DROOL: From Harriet Tubman to Aretha Franklin, how does it feel to portray such important, powerful, influential women of color, and are there any women of color you hope to play in the near future?
Cynthia: I feel like my particular mission in this life is to keep telling stories of the Black women who have either never graced this earth and are ﬁctional, or who have graced this earth with the work that they did and changed it because they were here. Aretha had nearly a 70-year career, and I got to tell a little bit of that. She really was one of the heroes of mine who taught me how to tell a story through music. Learning about her, learning about the way she used music to tell her story was a real journey, and one I’ll never really forget.
For me, it’s about those people who have left an imprint on my life. One woman who keeps coming up for me is Miriam Makeba, a South African star who crossed boundaries and was able to get into the American music world by just being who she was. I knew of her because my mom was obsessed with her music, and I loved her fashion sense and how she infused Eurocentric fashion with Afrocentric fashion, and the way she combined the two to make something that was very much her own. “Pata Pata” became one of the most famous songs we’ve ever heard, and it was sung in Zulu. Another story I want to tell is of Sara Forbes Bonetta — a princess by all accounts. She was a young Nigerian woman who, in the mid 1800s, was taken to London as a gift for the British queen, and because of who she was and how brilliant she was, became the goddaughter of the queen. These are the stories I’m going to keep telling.
Keep up-to-date on Cynthia, Caleb and Gigi: @cynthiaerivo
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