It's mid-August, we're still in a global pandemic, and everyone has Zoom-call fatigue. The novelty is lost at this point: another day in which we're slumped into a chair, staring into someone's pixelated face, yearning for connection. But then Cynthia Erivo appears with a big smile that reveals a disarming gap between her front teeth, her smooth, ASMR-friendly voice filling your speakers, and suddenly video conferences are much less tedious.
She's calling from her home in Los Angeles, the closest we can get in our wretched time of coronavirus. If she is trying to appear casual, Erivo, who has propped herself up against her closet doors, still looks pretty glamorous. She is wearing an off-the-shoulder yellow tartan top; long, coffin-shaped nails in blacks and maroons; thick-rimmed brown geometric glasses; and a treasure chest's worth of gold and sparkly jewelry. Her vibe is relaxed, but she admits it's partially because she is safely ensconced at home. "I'm not really going to lots of places," she says while tugging at a string of freshwater pearls from her Iranian grandmother. "I still haven't been out to eat. I can't bring myself to go to a restaurant. I'm very specific about the places I visit."
VIDEO: Behind the Scenes at Cynthia Erivo's Cover Shoot
Whether you're watching Erivo onscreen, in the theater, or on her social-media feeds, you can look at her and see what's possible. She is a Broadway star, an Oscar-nominated actress, an activist, and an agent of delight. "I was 5 years old the first time I sang, and I noticed right away that it made people happy," she says. "You might not have the words for whatever you're feeling, but I might have the song for it. Let's do that. I'll keep doing that."
Born in London to Nigerian parents, Erivo didn't grow up in a musical household, but she found the notes anyway after she sang "Silent Night" in a Nativity play in school. Years later she started to work toward a degree in music psychology, only to change focus and go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London instead. There were a few spots on British television — like on Chewing Gum — and some stage roles and musicals. But then, in 2013, she played Celie Johnson in a London production of The Color Purple. By 2015, she was on Broadway, and a year later she was awarded a Tony, a Grammy, and an Emmy for playing Celie.
It's clear that Erivo's calling, release, and future are always connected to music. She has established her Instagram account as a space for comfort and kinship, whether it's through performing heartfelt songs like John Lennon's "Imagine" or Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll Be Free" or promoting the works of up-and-coming artists. "I always say that music is universal," says Erivo, who recommends that everyone take singing lessons at least once in their life for this very reason. "Whether or not you can sing, we all speak that language; we just have different dialects." Giving back to her followers is how Erivo has been able to find solace for herself as well. "After George [Floyd], after Breonna [Taylor], I was, like, deeply sad. I was just sad, tearful, crying. I couldn't really shift the feeling," she says. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if I could use this platform to spark joy?' If anything, that's my job."
Last year Erivo fully established herself in the Hollywood sphere following the release of Kasi Lemmons's Harriet, a biopic about abolitionist Harriet Tubman, in which she played the lead. She immediately netted Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for both best actress in a drama and best original song, respectively. Plus, she filmed The Outsider, a miniseries based on the Stephen King novel, which debuted on HBO in January. Now that Erivo has a hot minute to breathe, she says that she's "actually learned how to relax." She's buying plants, creating her own workspace, doing her nails, sleeping eight hours a night, and playing with her new toys: an Oculus VR headset that is loaded with dance games and an AromaTech diffuser that ensures her house always smells lovely. She's also devouring episodes of Michaela Cole's I May Destroy You because "it's brilliant and doesn't paint Black British women as monoliths."
In her latest project, to be released this fall, Erivo is stepping into the shoes of another larger-than-life icon of African American history: Aretha Franklin. "She just lived truly, fully," Erivo says of the famed Motor City songstress, whom she is portraying for National Geographic's "Genius" series. "I do think there has to be a point where we stop being afraid of seeing Black people be Black. And people are afraid when it's on display proudly. I don't know how to hide my Blackness, so I live in it as it is. I really love it."
When she describes Franklin's voice and skill, it's clear that Erivo is a singer's singer. She demonstrates how Franklin sang from the middle of the throat by dragging her long nails up and down the side of her neck while breaking out into a Cheshire-cat grin. "She just naturally had a really open sound, and so volume wasn't the thing she would use; it was just depth," says Erivo of Franklin's four-octave range. "She used her voice like a violin."
Erivo's activism is just as important to her as her art. She's currently co-leading a GoFundMe for DRK Beauty, a digital community that supports free therapy for women of color. "[Black women] aren't always given the opportunity to take a minute to discuss how we're feeling, to process our feelings, and to get other people's help to do that," she says. "I am aware of how brutal this time is, and some of us just don't have the space or the means to have people help us. So I want to help."
Helped, she has, and not just stateside. Earlier this year she came across a viral video of an 11-year-old Nigerian ballet dancer, Anthony Madu, twirling and plié-ing barefoot in muddy rain puddles. Using her connections, Erivo was able to secure a scholarship for Madu at the esteemed American Ballet Theatre in New York, essentially changing the direction of his life. "Anthony is going to work with ABT because a group of people came together to lift him up," Erivo says. "The beauty in all this is that we should always lend a hand when we can."
Speaking of beauty, it's impossible to ignore Erivo's colorful and chameleonic accents, which make her stand out wherever she goes. "I have never put limits on what I want to wear and what I want to look like," she says. "I love high femme, I love high glamour, I love all those things." She's as comfortable dyeing her hair green, loading on multiple piercings and assorted jewelry, and walking a red carpet in a big gown as she is in more traditional London street-style attire, like loungewear and sneakers. "I guess you can call it androgyny," she says. "It all feels very much like me."
Staying true to herself is what makes Erivo — who admits that she picks projects based on what allows her to access "her little tool bag of tricks" — such a hot ticket. She's focused on feeding her creative soul and singing the notes that get to the core of us all: "I'm arms wide open. What's next? If it works, then I'll do it."
Photographs by Joshua Kissi. Styling by Jason Bolden. Hair by Coree Moreno. Makeup by Terrell Mullin. Production by Kelsey Stevens Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Sept. 18.