January 31, 2023

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Cynthia Erivo makes her Sundance debut with ‘Drift’

7 min read

Cynthia Erivo’s first time in Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. It’s a remarkably short trip – about 48-hours, not including flying time, as he takes a quick break from filming “Wicked” in London. But this is a particularly important occasion: Erivo is celebrating the release of his latest film, “Drift,” the first film he’s made.

“It’s really cool to go with a film that I’m in and producing — apparently that’s a rare thing for your first film — so I’m pretty pleased,” says Erivo. diversitySounds like a bit of a proud parent

“Drift” can be considered Erivo’s first child, as the opening film of his “Edith’s Daughter” production company, which he launched in 2020 and stars Salome Williams.

Directed by Anthony Chen, “Drift” is based on the critically acclaimed 2013 novel “A Marker to Measure Drift” by Alexander Maksick. Erivo plays Jacqueline, an immigrant woman who scrapes by to survive on a remote Greek island, where she fled war-torn Liberia. Jacqueline gets by on small kindnesses and her wits, giving foot massages to beachgoers at a resort for a few dollars and staving off her hunger by dipping her toes into sugar packets in an attempt to maintain her dignity in challenging situations. But his lonely existence is turned upside down when he meets an American tour guide named Callie (Alia Shaukat) and begins to wonder what his life would be like if he opened up to someone again.

“The movie is really ‘The Little Engine That Could,'” says Erivo, as he begins to describe the project’s circuitous path on screen. About six years ago, his agent slipped him the script for “Drift,” sent by the late Bill Paxton, who had originally optioned the book.

“I read it between shows in my dressing room for ‘The Color Purple,'” he recalls. “I was really struck by the words and it kept playing in my head. I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I had no idea what to do with him. I just knew I wanted to act with him.”

At that point in his career, “I was the apple of most people’s eyes,” Erivo notes. Three-quarters of her EGOTs (an Emmy, Grammy and Tony win for “The Color Purple” were to come), as were her two Oscar nominations for “Harriet.” So what made him think of Paxton for the part?

“I don’t know,” Erivo says as he pauses to discuss it. “I hope because he saw something that felt a little like Jacqueline there. I think he might have seen this kid from London, who landed in America and was a bit of a fish out of water, whose parents are also African. Jacqueline and I have loads of connections; Jacqueline has this wonderful fire that I think I have.”

Paxton’s sudden death in 2017 delayed the project. “I think it was a little painful to continue,” Erivo said.

But thanks to a twist of fate — and the urging and blessing of his wife, Louise Paxton — the project came back together. And when it did, Erivo was poised to take on a bigger role.

The success of “The Color Purple,” “Harriet” and his growing filmography gave Erivo both the professional clout and confidence to truly shepherd “Drift” to the finish line in a way he hadn’t before, splitting responsibilities as both lead actor and producer.

“You try to give 200% of yourself: 100% goes into the characters and the story and 100% goes into how this thing is made. Huh? Who should I reach out to? How do we get funding? You have to divide up what is needed in each situation,” explains Erivo. “I learned that I am good at being patient, but I must increase my patience in this regard.”

A call from Erivo and the filmmakers was to contact Alia Shawkat, whose work she liked for the role of Callie from HBO’s “Search Party.”

“I just thought he was really brilliant. He’s got a kindness that oozes out of him,” Erivo said of Shawkat. “When we asked him, and he said yes, I was really, really excited. It was a dream come true to have him play Cali. It was really wonderful to work with him. When you find someone else who wants to throw the ball back, just like you, It was a beautiful tennis match that the two of us were playing together.”

Chen, the Singaporean director whose debut feature “Ilo Ilo” won the Cannes Camera d’Or and who made his English-language debut with “Drift,” also proved the perfect collaborator.

“Anthony has a deep desire to learn and lean into the human experience,” Erivo said of Chen. “He has a kind of sensitivity to finding beauty in the most obscure places. In someone else’s hands, this piece might seem really dark; Somehow, he manages to find serenity and light. I thought it was really important that something like this didn’t feel gray, that it still felt like there was color and sunshine.”

With all the puzzle pieces in place, the production began filming in March 2022. Switching between his producer and actor hats while doing Chen’s “action” proved to be a bit tedious, but Erivo quickly found the balance.

“You have to learn what helps you turn one off and turn the other on, because this piece is really heartfelt and difficult and painful at times,” she says. “I really had to learn how to let my colleagues lead the production and direct things, so that I could really shine on screen and in the role of Jacqueline. Even though he’s quiet and unassuming, he’s a big, big presence, so I had to make sure there was enough room to make sure he could sing a little bit.

When it came to building the character, there were many small decisions to consider, such as which of her own piercings she would keep or take out. Erivo wanted to ensure that there was a connection between these characters and the modern world; That you could pass a “Jacqueline” on the street and be none the wiser about her refugee status, her homelessness, or the trauma she experienced.

“The thing that’s really important to me is that Jacqueline feels like every woman. That Jacqueline does not seem like a single case,” he explained. “I wanted people to look at my face and go ‘There are people who look like you, just like her, just like me, who can go through these horrible things.’

It was perhaps more important to spotlight a black woman in this scene.

“I think people don’t really tap into the experience of displaced black women, because a lot of us hide it really well,” says Erivo. “I wanted to make sure that voice was heard, and that face was seen, and to understand that this person had a life and existed before these horrible things happened to her. This horrible thing doesn’t make her, that doesn’t make her. It takes patience from other people and help from other people to process the pain and try to come out on the other side.”

For Jacqueline, that person is Callie, whose friendship forces her to process her trauma, as the two women engage in an emotional tennis match as they learn to trust each other.

“Jacqueline and Callie are both looking for something,” says Erivo. “They are both looking for understanding. They both experienced loss in very different ways. And they’re both looking for ways to share that experience with people who will connect and listen.”

As the story unfolds, viewers learn why Jacqueline fled Liberia, where her father was a government minister, and witness the PTSD she suffers from after a series of traumatic events. Chen carefully designed the revelations to give insight into Jacqueline’s condition through flashbacks.

“What I loved about the structure is that you have to get to know him first. Instead of dropping everyone on what happened, you travel with him,” says Erivo. “You feel what he feels; You see through his eyes, before you really learn what his experiences were.

In this way, the audience will be helped to understand “what the full scope of his existence was,” he explains. “The damage is even greater because you know what he’s coming from. At any point in his life, it wasn’t necessarily easy. He keeps changing until he can’t change anymore.

Erivo shot the flashback scenes at the top of the production schedule, giving him memories of what Jacqueline felt leading up to the emotional climax at the end of the film.

“It’s a hard thing to put into your body, through your brain, through your heart, but the reward is being able to hopefully connect with them when they see it,” Erivo said of filming those scenes. “Hopefully they feel the same way he does.”

Jacqueline’s story represents an example of what thousands of people experienced during the Second Liberian Civil War, which lasted from 1999 to 2003 and resulted in more than 50,000 deaths and the displacement of thousands more.

“It was really special, because I think there are moments in history that are completely forgotten or somewhat erased, and in doing that, we diminish the experience of a lot of people,” Erivo said, bringing some reality to the experience on screen. “There were a lot of people who went through this, a lot of loss, a lot of pain. I hope we get people to see this moment in time and go back to learn about what people were going through.”

Now, as he sends his first film to the world, Erivo looks back on the experience with great satisfaction

“I’ve gotten to a point where I can say I’ve made a movie that I’ve been in, which is a milestone for any filmmaker, but it’s a huge, huge moment for me,” says Erivo. “I don’t know if I could have seen it in 2015 or 16. I don’t know that I was ready for that at the time. But being here now feels like a huge step forward in my life. I hope there are more films like this in my future and I feel really proud.”

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