Officially, this is supposed to be a series where we interview actors about “performances they’ve probably forgotten by now, but we definitely haven’t.” Today’s installment doesn’t quite fit that bill, as we’re talking about a film that’s only a year old. But with Cynthia Erivo making the press rounds in support of her Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet, we thought it fitting to ask her about her last trip through the fall prestige season, on Steve McQueen’s Widows. After a successful stage career first in her native Britain, then on Broadway, Erivo made her film debut in the crime caper, playing a hairstylist named Belle who joins the three titular widows as a last-minute sub in their scheme to steal millions of dollars from a Chicago mansion. It’s a muscular performance, both in terms of physical strain and emotional power: In her handful of scenes, Erivo makes it clear that this Belle won’t bend for anyone.
Thanks to McQueen’s Oscar pedigree, Widows originally seemed like it could become a player in the end-of-year awards race, but after the film’s rousing debut at TIFF 2018, nothing else went to plan. Though critics were generally kind, the film opened to a disappointing $12 million, fizzling any festival buzz. It quickly vanished from the awards landscape, with a BAFTA nomination for star Viola Davis as its only recognition from the major ceremonies. In a short phone conversation with Vulture recently, Erivo reflected on the entire Widows experience.
Widows was the first movie role you ever shot. What do you know about screen acting now that you didn’t know when you stepped onto the set for the first time?
I think the impression that I had was that you needed to be much quieter on a set than you would have to be onstage. But actually, sometimes that’s not helpful. Your vocal presence has to be a little bit bigger than I thought in my head. And it took me some time to get used to seeing myself onscreen. I’ll watch it once and then it’ll freak me out for a little bit, and I’ll need to take some time away from something and then watch it again. You need a break to see it with different eyes.
Is there a scene that struck you this way when you watched it for the first time?
There’s a scene I didn’t think was as powerful when I was doing it, until I watched it. It’s the scene where Belle comes in to meet the three ladies. She meets Viola’s character, and she says, “You have to watch how you talk to me.” There’s something about that moment, that I didn’t realize was possible. In the room when you’re filming it, it feels good, but you don’t know how it’s going to play. It played so much more fiery than I thought it would.
What kind of conversations did you have with Steve around that moment?
Steve wanted me to be as confident as possible. Nothing held back, because that’s not who Belle is. She’s been through enough to get to the point where she doesn’t have to pretend. He kept saying that she’s probably more versed in the thing that they’re afraid to do. She’s had to fend for herself for a while, and these ladies are just coming into it.
We interviewed Elizabeth Debicki back when the movie came out, and she mentioned how there were a ton of night shoots that put her in this weird zombie headspace. Did you feel the same way?
I don’t think I felt that way as much, just because I was moving around a lot on set. It felt cool, ‘cause whenever we would have the nighttime shoots, it was the four of us together, sort of this army team. But even when we were in those shoots, I was moving, whether it was when I was boxing or when I’m packing the boxes. I was seeing different things all the time and having to use my energy in different ways.
For those scenes where you have so much movement, how does that affect your performance on the day?
As human beings, when our body’s connected, I feel like the words become more grounded. Because when we’re moving, we can’t help but to breathe in the right way. Just because we’re human beings and we move — even when we’re still, there’s still movement going on, and I think that the more we can do that, the better it is on film. Then, when stillness does occur, it’s super effective.
Are you comfortable talking about what your fitness regiment was?
Oh, yeah. These films tend to ask of me some physical fitness, so I was training training. I was going crazy. I was doing a lot of body-weight work. I lifted a little bit, not very much because I had to stay lean. I was running a lot, so I could make sure that my speed stayed up. I was doing everything from CrossFit to jump rope. And when I couldn’t get to the gym, I had Skype sessions with my trainer. When I saw it I was like, Oh, it does show up. Because sometimes you can’t see it unless it’s shown to you.
Viola got really jacked, too! Did you all work out together, or did everyone just do their own thing?
She was also training at the same time, I know that much. And she was eating in a specific way. Viola, I just love her, I think she’s super cool, but I don’t think she gives herself enough credit. I don’t think she realizes how fit she looks.
In your final scene with her, neither of you says anything.
It’s just a look. I was like, This is gonna be quite nice, but I’m not sure whether it’ll read. You’re thinking the things you want to say, and hoping it comes through your eyes and your senses, but you don’t know until you see it. And when I saw it, I was like, Oh, that. I’m pleased about that.
How do you interpret that look?
Obviously it’s a good-bye, but I also think it’s like, Take care. One of us is deathly injured, and we’ve just about escaped from near death, and we’ve managed to get everything, but it’s sort of like, This is a mess, but okay. What else do we do? Nothing else. And the look I get back from her, I always feel like it’s like, We can’t have this conversation. But take care of yourself. There’s a deep understanding between the two of them that something has gone on, but we can never really speak of it again.
What did you learn from Viola?
To be a little more confident on set. For my first film, you can’t help yourself being nervous. To be able to watch her work, she works with a real sureness. If she doesn’t know something, she’s not afraid to say, “I don’t know something.” If she needs help with something, she’s not afraid to ask for help. If she doesn’t like something, she’s not afraid to say, “I’m not sure about this.” I loved seeing that. I think it’s really helped me in the past couple of films. Being sure in the “I don’t know,” being sure in the “I really do know,” being sure in the “This feels uncomfortable,” being sure in the “It’s great,” being sure in the “I’m gonna break my ankle if I do this.” You know what I’m saying? It might take a while to learn that, but I was lucky because I had her.
You don’t sing in Widows, but you do in Harriet and Bad Times at the El Royale. Does getting a musical scene make you more comfortable taking a job? Or does it make you more nervous because it’s an additional thing that you have to do?
It doesn’t make me more nervous. Does it make me comfortable? I’ve never really thought of it making me comfortable. I feel lucky that I’m able to have something else to give. It always excites me when more is requested of me. Singing is part of the language I speak, so I am always excited when I get to use it. I feel it helps infuse the character with more of me, but I also get to explore: Am I sounding like me, or should I change it so I can sound a little different? So I guess it does make me more comfortable. It gives me more of a task to do, but I like that. I like when there’s work to do.
I heard there was originally a scene in Widows where you did sing, but it got cut.
Well, yes, but I think it was there and then done quite quickly, to be honest. I don’t think we needed it. Steve, very cleverly, was like, “People need to see you as pure as possible, no singing, no anything.” And I really appreciated that. What’s really fun now is that some people are just discovering that I sing because they came to me through Widows.
I also read that part of the backstory you and Steve came up with was that Belle was bi. How did that come about?
You just don’t see that onscreen very often. And I think that it meant that all her life wasn’t based on a man. Yes, she had to have had her child with someone, but it meant that that wasn’t the entire story, you know? I feel like it makes her complex. The way she loves is different. I don’t know, I just like that about her. It gives her something different, like an edge that no one would see coming.
It’s another little thing that makes her different from the other three, who are defined even in the film’s title through their relationships to the men.
I think so, yeah. I also think it leaves the possibility that, instead of being left, maybe she decided that that wasn’t the right relationship for her. It gives her that choice, almost.
I was there when Widows premiered at TIFF, and I remember there was so much electricity in the room that night. And then the movie came out, and while it did okay, it didn’t have the same kind of journey that people maybe expected. How do you look back on that experience now with a year of hindsight?
I was sad for Steve, and I wanted more for Viola ‘cause I thought she was exceptional in it. I hadn’t seen her in anything like that, where she got to show this fierce, tough, ready, take-no-rubbish-from-anyone type side of her, and I absolutely adored it. And I think that I had a great time doing it, and I wish everyone got to really see it shine because I think it’s brilliant. But I think maybe it’s coming into its own. I always think that it will be one of those things that people will go back and think, Oh my gosh, this was really, really good! There’s something that’s super messy about Widows, which I loved. There’s an expectation of a heist movie to be slick and tidy, and it just wasn’t that. I think that was its charm, but I’m not sure that everyone quite understood that. But maybe we’re getting to a place where people will.