HARRIET’s Cynthia Erivo on How Her Role as Harriet Tubman Required Faith in God
By Movieguide® Staff
Note: This story is part of our Faith in Hollywood series. For similar stories, click here.
Actress Cynthia Erivo said that her role as Harriet Tubman in HARRIET changed her life by forcing her to explore the famous abolitionist’s faith, courage and strength.
“I play abolitionist Harriet Tubman—a woman of great courage, strength and faith—in the movie Harriet. Taking on the role was a leap in and of itself. A leap of faith,” Erivo wrote in 2019. Her performance garnered her a nomination for the Movieguide® Awards’ Grace Prize®.
While the story of Tubman’s work to help the enslaved is renowned, Erivo noted that history books leave out one aspect of Tubman’s story: her faith.
“Most of us know the story. Harriet Tubman made multiple trips into slave-owning territory and brought out some 70 enslaved people on what was called the Underground Railroad, even though by doing so she could have been killed or returned to slavery herself. In the Civil War, she fought with the Union, the first American woman to lead a military expedition. She was celebrated for her valor. All of that can be found in the history books I read as a child growing up in England. (My mother had immigrated there from Nigeria.) What was really at the heart of Harriet Tubman’s bravery?” Erivo questioned when she took on the role.
Not only did Erivo want to portray Tubman physically, but the actress wanted to encapsulate Tubman’s character in her performance, as well.
“As an actor, you naturally study the character you’re playing, read all you can about them. One reason I was cast was that I’m short like Harriet Tubman, a little over 5 feet. I’m also a fairly physical actor. She was strong, powerful. To play this part, I knew I would have to work out even harder than usual to be able to do what she did. Lots of trips to the gym,” Erivo said.
“To really master a role, every actor tries to find a way into the character she’s playing. To play Harriet, I had to understand faith at its most elemental level,” Erivo said. “To understand her faith and courage, I needed to probe my own faith and call on it.”
Erivo found that Harriet’s faith, strengthened through prayer, was the driving force behind her life.
“Harriet never did anything without listening to God for guidance, being present to the dangers she faced and present to what could take her through them. ‘I prayed to God to make me strong and able to fight,’ she once said. ‘And that’s what I’ve always prayed for ever since.'”
Erivo said that prayer was a common occurrence in her family while growing up.
“My faith is always with me. It was my mother who taught me how to pray. We prayed over dinner, and she heard my bedtime prayers. I also heard her pray in the shower and in the bathroom when she was getting dressed before work,” Erivo remembered. “She prayed out loud, talking to God as though he was right there in the room with her. There were no restrictions when it came to prayer. You could pray at any time and all times. God was with you.”
Erivo revealed that her exposure to prayer as a child helped her express Tubman’s faith in HARRIET.
“I realized that’s exactly how Harriet survived, being in touch with God constantly. She could jump into that cold water because she prayed, ‘River of peace, flow through me. Lord, help me, help me through.’ She could rescue others without heeding her own safety and freedom because she believed God was always with her and for her,” Erivo said.
While on set and during the filming process, Erivo added that she relied on the same discipline of prayer to God.
“I would have to feel the same. To shoot scene after scene in frigid temperatures, I needed to be Harriet Tubman. Before I even left my house and got to the set, I prayed, ‘Keep us safe, keep our bodies safe, keep our minds alive and make the place safe for her to be in. Bring Harriet into this place.’ I asked God to give me the strength to get through the day and tell the story as truthfully as I could and to know that Harriet herself was watching over us,” Erivo said.
“The obstacles to the film were huge, but then the obstacles Harriet faced in her life were far greater,” Erivo continued, adding later: “Prayer was always with us on the shoot. We filmed in cold weather because Harriet often traveled in the wintertime. It was safer. People were more likely to be indoors, and she was less likely to be noticed. Facing the elements, I would prepare by singing to myself, listening to gospel music—Kim Burrell and Mali Music—the way Harriet would sing to herself to stay connected to her faith.”
In one scene, prayer in real-life and prayer in the movie intersected.
“I also prayed with the other actors right on the set. In one scene, Harriet meets with Reverend Green—the actor Vondie Curtis-Hall—and he prays for her, for her upcoming journey. We were in the church, I was sitting opposite Vondie, and we were two actors doing a scene. Yet the prayer was real and unrehearsed. It had to be,” Erivo said.
“She always called on God. She couldn’t have done the heroic things she had done without that,” she added. “It was such an honor to portray her, but I couldn’t have done it without my faith. Being Harriet meant being in God’s continual presence. There were times I couldn’t even separate myself from her. To know this woman who refused to let circumstances dictate her future, refused to cave to fear, who stood up to the evil of slavery. Guided by her faith, she changed the course of history. Playing this role changed my life too.”
HARRIET was selected as one of Movieguide®’s Best Movies for Families of 2019.