NEW YORK—Actors are rarely like their characters, but few actors these days are as far apart from them as Cynthia Erivo.
The English actress plays Celie in the revival of “The Color Purple” on Broadway, and she’s as different as can be from the passive, dominated and self-effacing character she plays onstage.
Erivo is a ball of confident energy, a self-described “fitness fiend” with the buff arms to prove it. She once ran a half-marathon only a few hours before starring in the first of the day’s two shows.
Sit idle as her woes mount? Not Erivo. So she has to hide it onstage.
“Inside of her, Cynthia is going, ‘Come on! Why are we still waiting? Why are we still not leaving?”’ said the actress. “I have to put Cynthia to the side and realize that these two people are not the same person.”
Her measured performance aging 8 to 50—as well as a voice that lifts the roof off the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre—has earned the actress—who few Americans knew a year ago—a Tony Award nomination on her Broadway debut. It’s a performance so good you could forget that Jennifer Hudson was also onstage.
“Cynthia Erivo is a force of nature,” said Scott Sanders, the lead producer. “An artist like Cynthia comes around a couple times in a lifetime. It’s just that remarkable. And she wasn’t on any of our radar. It almost makes it more delicious.”
The musical is a stage version of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in rural Georgia that covers a lifetime of events observed by Celie, a homely, uneducated farm woman whose dreams are repeatedly shattered by the cruelty of men until she stands up for herself at the end. It’s the part Whoopi Goldberg played in the film.
It’s Erivo’s second bite of the apple, having starred in the Menier Chocolate Factory production of the show in London in 2013. She said she dug deeper this time to bring Celie as a full person with flaws to Broadway.
“I wanted to make it clear that she is a survivor first and she’s a fighter first. She just has a different way of doing it,” she said. “I don’t think she feels sorry for herself in the slightest. Not that I did that the first time, but I think I’m more confident about that this time.”
Erivo, a 2010 graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, said she discovered at age 5 that she could make people happy just by singing. People would smile when she hummed.
“As far as I was concerned, whatever I was doing was making people happy. By making people happy, it made me feel happy. So I knew that I wanted to continue feeling like that and making other people feel like that.”
A bookworm who loves science, Erivo wanted to be a spinal surgeon and later studied music psychology, hoping to help people through music. Eventually, she was steered toward theatre.
Her first big break came in a production of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” followed by the lead role in the U.K. tour of “Sister Act.” That’s the second former Whoopi Goldberg role Erivo has tackled and it’s no coincidence: the younger actress is a long-time fan.
“I saw on-screen this woman who was unafraid of taking the bull by the horns and really going for these really cool roles, fully and truthfully,” she said. “I was just inspired by that and, for some reason, they keep coming at me.”
Erivo loves to go to restaurants and does yoga every week. She listens to a wide range of music, from British new wave to American soul.
“There are days when I’m completely obsessed with Kate Bush and there are days when I’m completely obsessed with the Eurythmics. Then it’s Aretha Franklin, then it’s Lena Horne, then it’s Ella Fitzgerald, then it’s John Legend, then it’s Michael Jackson,” she said. “Music to me is like food so I feel like whatever I need that day I can get from a song.”