Cynthia Erivo drew on her mother's experiences in Nigerian Civil War for “Drift”

Cynthia Erivo drew on her mother's experiences in Nigerian Civil War for “Drift”
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Erivo's mother was only 15 when the Biafran War broke out.

When preparing to portray a refugee of war-torn Africa for Drift, Cynthia Erivo didn't have to turn very far for research: Her mother was only 15 years old when the Biafran War, also known as the Nigerian Civil War, broke out.

"My mother was a child of war," Erivo tells EW. "She's not necessarily a refugee, but she, for a short time, had nowhere to be. Her home was ravaged, and they were on the run to find safety. She told me those stories many times, and I intimately understood what it could be like for her as a young girl. This is a bit of an ode to her having to figure out how to be safe and how to live."

Though she often spoke to her mother about her experiences growing up, Erivo says that Drift — in theaters now — gave her the opportunity to talk to her mom more directly about what she survived.

"We've been speaking over the years about her experiences," Erivo adds. "It is always hard to get information when trauma is involved...Over the years, I've been eking out bits of information from her to find out what she's been through, things that she might not spill out all at once. I'm really grateful that she's willing to have the conversations. They aren't always necessarily the easiest ones to have, but having some of that knowledge and having that information has been really eye-opening for me and helpful in telling the story."

EW caught up with Erivo to talk about producing the film (a first for her), why it became a passion project, and the joys of working with Alia Shawkat. Drift is now playing in Los Angeles and New York.

<p>Utopia /Courtesy Everett Collection</p> Cynthia Erivo in 'Drift'

Utopia /Courtesy Everett Collection

Cynthia Erivo in 'Drift'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This film is not just an acting role for you, but you also produced it. What made you want to wear that extra hat here?

CYNTHIA ERIVO: When the script first came to me, I was initially asked to just be in it. That was like 2016. I was still in The Color Purple [on Broadway], and Bill Paxton had sent the script to my agent and said, "Hey, I want her to be in it, and I want to direct." I loved the script. Immediately. I read it in my interval. I should not have done that. It was a bad idea. However, it did make me fall in love with this piece. Then sadly, Bill Paxton died, and I thought the film had gone away.

But then his wife asked my agent if I was still up for doing it and if they could still make the film happen. I wanted to make this film happen however I could. I was willing to do whatever. I'm a glutton for punishment. I want to do all the work I can possibly do, even if it's difficult. I knew I was not going to be a silent producer. I set about trying to find a couple people who could help us with financing. The role itself was not something I had seen before with this journey of this woman who has been through so much and is having to come back to herself. I have not seen it done with such dignity before. I really wanted her story to be told because I knew it could be the story of many who had not seen themselves before.

We get all of these glimpses of Jacqueline's past and what she's gone through. When her sister is raped, it's brutal and difficult to watch. Were you actually on set witnessing that be filmed?

I was. The scenes were all filmed in chronological order. We're all in those scenes. So yeah, I was witnessing all of that.

How were you able to get through that? Because it is difficult enough to watch as an audience member, much less as an actor experiencing it directly.

I don't even really know how I managed to get through all of that. It's a very thin line between you and the character. You have to tap into some of the hard stuff in your own life. It's hard to tap into those memories and come out of them quickly. So the thing that I found really difficult was going through those things and then switching off. It was really hard to switch off once I was in it. Sometimes the only thing that can help is a bit of time and patience. The further in you go, the more you do it, the harder it is to come out of.

The first time, the pain is on the skin, it's like a cut, and then, the second time it goes beneath the skin, and then the third time, it's in your chest, in your stomach, you feel it. That's really hard to come out of. I was lucky because I had people who were paying close attention to where I was and what was going on and how to get out of it and giving me time and giving me space.

Jacqueline forms this very tentative, fragile connection with Alia's character. How did the two of you forge that bond?

We had some really lovely conversations. I was already a big fan of hers from Search Party. When we knew that she was coming on board, I was really, really excited just because I love her work. Alia is such a free spirit and has such a lovely, light energy. When we met, I felt like she was open and generous about what was needed and what could be given. When two people are open enough and generous enough to receive what the other has to give, it forges a really lovely, genuine energy that people get to watch. There's a scene toward the end where she comes to where Jacqueline lives. At that moment, she gives her a hug from behind. When we were shooting that moment, we would sit off to the side in silence together. It's one of those memories that's stuck in my mind. We just sat with each other and nothing had to be said. I will never forget that as long as I live because it was such a kind moment.

Throughout your career you have played a lot of women who are really cautious in forming bonds because of their past trauma, whether that be Celie in The Color Purple, Jacqueline in Drift, or Elphaba in Wicked. What keeps you attracted to characters like that? 

Because they all want something different and something that's the same. They all want to be seen for who they are. They all are slightly lost and searching. They all are indomitable spirits, some more vulnerable than others, some scared to be vulnerable. Some can't help being vulnerable. They're all women I have never met before, but somehow kind of intimately know. If I've never met this person and I want to have a conversation with them, but I know that there's an aspect of myself that I haven't necessarily shared, then that's something I'm drawn to. I want to keep meeting people that I've never met before. I want to keep meeting people that I want to know more about. And these are those people. That's why I pick them. It's the same with Jacqueline. I was interested in her silence and how quiet she was. But it's her willingness to try to keep going day by day that's really interesting to me. For some reason, she just keeps going.

There's this really strong metaphor of water in the film, and we end on this image of her in the water. What did that mean to you, or what was the importance of water for Jacqueline in terms of your acting choices? 

Water encompasses so many different things. It is cleanliness, it's rebirth, it's danger, it's vastness, it's solemnity, it's a oneness with nature. That's the crux of her life. She is searching constantly, and we find out that she used to swim a lot and hasn't done it since. To come back to the water by the end is a rebirth for her, a rejoining of herself to herself. It's the beginning of her starting again.

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