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Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo feels ‘bittersweet’ as the only actor of color recognized

Actress Cynthia Erivo promoting her film, ‘Harriet.’
Actress Cynthia Erivo of “Harriet.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Cynthia Erivo reacts to her double Oscar nominations and being the sole nominee of color in the four acting categories.

British actress Cynthia Erivo received her first two Oscar nominations on Monday morning for her performance as the iconic freedom fighter and abolitionist Harriet Tubman in Kasi Lemmons’ "Harriet” and for co-writing that film’s anthemic original song “Stand Up” (with Joshuah Brian Campbell).

In the wake of notable snubs for the likes of Jennifer Lopez (“Hustlers”), Jamie Foxx (“Just Mercy”) and Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”), Erivo was the only person of color nominated for an acting Oscar this year.

Hours after the nominations announcement on Monday morning, Erivo got on the phone from Japan, where she’d just landed to discuss her nominations and the legacy of #OscarsSoWhite.

First of all, congratulations! What were you doing when you got the news?

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Cynthia Erivo: Thank you. I was however many feet and miles in the air on the way to Japan on a plane.

Who gave you the news?

I found out that I had WiFi on the plane, hooked up my phone to the WiFi, and I think this was like an hour or so after it had been announced. And many people gave me the news because a bunch of tweets, messages, texts, voicemails and DMs started coming through. I can’t remember which was the first text message I got, it just all happened.

Who was the first person you responded to?

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Who was the first person I responded to? I have no idea, I can’t even remember. I think I probably messaged my mother first because I don’t know that she realized it was happening. She’s in London so it wasn’t in the news until much later. I must’ve messaged my mother and my sister first and then I probably messaged my agent and my PR because we had to have conversations. I may be wrong because I can’t even remember.

Do you mind me asking what you’re doing in Japan?

I’ve got a concert. I’m singing at three concerts that I’m going to be doing with two other artists.

How are you going to celebrate? Are you going to do it there or wait until you come back?

I think I’m going to wait until I come back so I can do it with my friends and family. Here I’m going to be working. I may purchase something nice for myself [laughs].

How does it feel to be the sole acting nominee of color?

It is bittersweet really and truly because while I worked very hard for what was happening I also would have loved to be able to celebrate with other people of color who worked really hard this year also. I believe there has been incredible work this year and beautiful pieces that have come out not just by people of color but women directors as well. So I’m hoping that I can represent us well once that celebration happens.

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman in ‘Harriet.’
Cynthia Erivo stars as Harriet Tubman in “Harriet.”
(Glen Wilson / Focus Features)
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Did you know that if you win you’ll become the youngest and fastest EGOT winner in history?

I have been told that, yes. Which is crazy. But no I didn’t think that it would be at this point [in my career] because I didn’t even know it was possible to do all those things with a Broadway musical. So it’s just wonderful to even have it discussed in this way.

What was your reaction when BAFTA asked you to perform despite failing to nominate any actors of color?

It was a no, really, because I just felt like it was indicative of what they thought of performers [of color] like myself. I just thought it didn’t make sense to go and perform when there were literally none — none, at all.

How does it feel to achieve this recognition for playing such an iconic historical figure?

It feels great because hopefully it means that people will start learning about her and wanting to be interested in the work that Harriet did. I hope that it makes her proud, I hope it makes her family proud. I hope that people see this and want to know more about her and I’m glad to be one of the representatives of her history. And I hope that it encourages more people to tell the story.

You’re just the 11th black woman to be nominated for a lead actress trophy in the Oscars’ history. Does that create pressure being in such a potentially history-making position so early in your career?

I don’t think it creates pressure [but] I do think it’s sad that there’s only one woman of color who has won that award. I do hope that that changes at some point. I hope it stops becoming an anomaly when it happens. There are so many women of color, black women, who have been working in this industry who deserve and have deserved to be celebrated in that way and I hope it starts becoming more of the norm, to be honest. To be only the 11th is staggering and so I’m hoping that changes at some point.

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Since the academy so often overlooks artists of color, do you think that we should continue to take stock in their opinions of the best movies and performances of the year?

Yes and no. It’s a hard question to answer because I do think that there are people in it that do believe in good moviemaking and good actors. But I think that sometimes it’s subjective. I think it’s also up to us to celebrate the pieces that don’t necessarily get celebrated at award ceremonies in our own way because not being nominated does not make it not a good movie. Something can be beautiful and not be celebrated but that is then up to us to make sure that it is. That’s what I think. Yes it highlights some of the movies of the year that are great but if it misses some of these films, I think our job is then to highlight those movies to make sure people see them.


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