Erivo feels ‘bittersweet’ as the only actor of color recognized for the Oscars

JAY L. CLENDENIN/LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS – Cynthia Erivo is photographed on Oct. 26, 2019 before the Los Angeles Times’ Envelope Roundtable of actresses at Machinima Studios, in Burbank, Calif.

BY SONAIYA KELLEY
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

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. 

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

A: 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. 

Q: Did you know that if you win you’ll become the youngest and fastest EGOT winner in history? 

A: 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. 

Q: What was your reaction when BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television) asked you to perform despite failing to nominate any actors of color? 

A: 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. 

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

A: 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. 

Q: 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? 

A: 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. 

Q: 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? 

A: 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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