Not long after her Tony Award-winning performance in The Color Purple revival on Broadway, Cynthia Erivo stormed the screen, first with a scene-stealing performance in Widows and then with 2019’s acclaimed portrayal of Harriet Tubman in the biopic Harriet, which earned her dual Oscar nominations for Best Actress and Best Original Song. Now, she’s earning buzz for her role as Holly Gibney on the HBO series The Outsider.
Unlike this year's Oscars, where Erivo was the only person of color nominated for an acting prize, the actress is hopeful the 72nd Primetime Emmys won’t see a repeat of that situation. “If we weren’t going through what we’re going through right now, I would probably be holding my breath and I would be like, ‘Are we going to go through the same thing again? Or am I even going to be included? And am I going to see what we always see?’” Erivo says by phone, speaking with ET in the middle of June as support for the Black Lives Matter movement continues to surge and there are protests against social and racial injustices taking place all over the country.
“But I’m hopeful that this moment will open people’s eyes and hopefully we’ll see something different. I would love for it to change the way we see entertainment performances and open our eyes to all the possibilities,” she continues. “So yeah, I hope it’s different this time.”
Considering the critical response to her performance on The Outsider, it would be a shock if Erivo’s name is not listed among the nominees for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series this year.
In HBO’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel, the actress plays a telepathic private investigator who is brought in to help with a case involving the gruesome murder of a young boy killed by a suspect who appears to have been in two locations at the time of the attack. As she digs deeper, she soon realizes there are supernatural elements at play and that the boogeyman may indeed be the real culprit.
While everything Erivo has done on screen so far has been completely different from the last project (“The aim for me is to play as many different types of women as I possibly can,” she says), Holly was someone she’d never seen before. “Because, if I’m thinking about myself in the part, it was a Black woman on the spectrum with a really brilliant mind,” the actress explains. “Holly’s so interesting and complicated and complex in the way that she communicates and the way that she thinks. I was jumping at the chance to be able to play her.”
And what ultimately elevates The Outsider beyond another Stephen King adaptation or just another supernatural, horror series -- and made the series so fascinating to watch -- are the grounded performances by Erivo and an ensemble of reliable character actors, including Ben Mendelsohn, Bill Camp, Julianne Nicholson, Mare Winningham, Paddy Considine and Marc Menchaca. “The wonderful thing about working with everyone on this set was just everyone had this wonderful knowledge about how humans work,” Erivo says of her co-stars.
One example of this is seen in a particularly noteworthy group scene from episode six, when Holly outlines her findings -- a supernatural connection between their murder and others killings -- to the local cops and surviving family members. It’s one of the first times that all the main characters have to confront the supernatural elements on the show, yet it never feels anything less than real.
When it comes to filming that scene in particular, Camp praised Erivo for having to deliver a pages-long monologue. “The focus was on Cynthia having to present all of this information through the tapestry of Holly,” he said in awe, adding that the whole experience was like doing “a piece of theater.”
Joking that she’s “a glutton for punishment,” the actress reveled in the challenge of committing the entire speech to memory and delivering without the assistance of cue cards or an earpiece reading her lines. While she didn’t necessarily have it all verbatim in each take, she says what unfolds on screen is a genuine search for the words as Holly is trying to thoughtfully and dutifully explain herself. “There’s a moment where she takes her ring off because she gets a bit nervous and I didn’t realize it until I watched it back,” Erivo says of being in the moment.
And when getting so deep into the headspace of a character like that, having to perform a particularly lengthy scene over 10 takes to make sure all the camera angles are covered, Erivo says she would find herself getting lost in Holly’s head on set, in between takes or after filming was over. One example of this was when her hairstylist recorded a video of the actress walking across set. “When he showed it back to me, I realized that wasn’t me,” she says of her body and mind being so fully transformed in that of Holly’s.
While getting out of character was not easy at times (“It is difficult to let go because you’re so exhausted,” she says of long days like filming the ensemble scene in episode six), Erivo is interested in playing her again, should the series officially return for a second season.
“I’d love to explore what drove her to be where she is,” she says, adding she wants to know how Holly survived everything involving the boogeyman after the finale, which ends with a cliffhanger about her own character’s safety. “She went through a lot of traumatic things and I want to see how she deals with the trauma… and where she goes from here.”
Because Holly is what Erivo describes as “the ultimate outsider,” being a Black woman on the spectrum working in a male-dominated workforce, she may be a prime example of the types of characters -- and who is playing them on screen -- we need more of to exact change in the industry. But Holly can’t be the only person like her in any given series or film as the actress points to all the other voices still being marginalized.
“Too many people are being left behind and too many people being hurt and too many people aren’t being valued the way they should be,” Erivo says, believing that some real change will come out of the current movement and ongoing conversations around inclusivity and diversity in front of and behind the camera. “It doesn't make sense for us to be going through all of this and to experience no change. I think that people, thankfully, are starting to become aware of the fact that we cannot continue how we have been anymore. It doesn’t work.”
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