How ‘Harriet’s’ Cynthia Erivo found Harriet Tubman’s voice

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British singer-actress Cynthia Erivo brings civil rights icon Harriet Tubman’s life to the screen in “Harriet,” from director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”). The film tells the story of the legendary abolitionist’s journey from enslavement to becoming one of the most prolific conductors of the Underground Railroad.

“For me she was alive — desperately alive, because it was the only way that I could tell the story that needed to be told,” said Erivo, joined by Lemmons and co-star Leslie Odom Jr. this weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival. “I would ask her out loud for help and guidance, because I felt like she was like an angel watching over the whole thing.”

Researching Tubman’s story, Lemmons was struck by two revelations that informed her version of Tubman’s life. “What I learned is that integral to the Harriet Tubman story is her spirituality — and also her singing, her voice,” said Lemmons, who envisioned Tubman as a woman guided by faith who uses singing to convey messages to loved ones during dangerous missions.


“Cynthia’s singing voice is not Harriet’s voice,” said Lemmons, who also directs Joe Alwyn, Clarke Peters and Janelle Monáe in the historical drama. “But Cynthia found Harriet’s voice, and Harriet’s voice came through her.”

Erivo won the Tony and a Grammy Award for her performance in “The Color Purple” on Broadway and broke into film last year in “Widows” and “Bad Times at the El Royale.” “Harriet,” in theaters Nov. 1, marks her feature lead debut.

“For Harriet, the music was more about communication,” Erivo said. “It was a safety; it was a way to alert people, to let people know she was there. To let them know she was going, without bringing danger.

“For me it wasn’t really about finding tricks and trills on it; it was about finding the purest sound I could,” she continued. “The most innocent of sounds.”