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Cynthia Erivo has 'real' breakdowns in 'Drift.' Why she fought to get the film made

Erivo says she's "never seen" a character like the one she plays in the refugee drama.
Cynthia Erivo
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Cynthia Erivo has been waiting years to tell her refugee drama, “Drift.”

The project, which Erivo says “came to her” in 2016 while starring in “The Color Purple” on Broadway, is based on Alexander Maksik’s novel “A Marker to Measure Drift.”

Like the book, the film follows Jacqueline (Erivo), a homeless refugee, as she struggles to survive on a Greek island after a devastating loss. She eventually meets and befriends an American tour guide, Callie (Alia Shawkat).

The Tony Award winner, set to star in this year's "Wicked" movie adaptation, tells TODAY.com why she immediately “fell in love” with Jacqueline’s story.

“I’ve never seen a woman portrayed in that way,” she says. “I’ve never seen a Black refugee portrayed in that way, to be honest. I wanted to bring that to screen because I felt like it was important to show and give dignity to those people who were suffering that kind of circumstance.”

Drift, Cynthia Erivo
Cynthia Erivo in "Drift."Nikos Nikolopoulos / Memento Int'l

While Erivo had big hopes for the project when it was first brought to her, the actor says those plans were quickly halted when the first director, Bill Paxton, "sadly passed away" in 2017.?

“But then it came back again,” Erivo says. “Because his wife had asked us to continue on with the project.”?

That encouragement was all Erivo needed for her to become fully committed to the project and “stop at nothing to make sure that it happened.” That meant taking on multiple responsibilities, including producing, financing, starring and even writing an original song for the film.?

“I thought that to show a woman who was fighting just to make it to the next day, but to treat her with dignity, to explore what it looks like for her to find her feet again … was a really important story to tell,” she explains.?

But, Erivo will admit, wearing all those hats came with a cost.?

“I don’t know that I necessarily kept a cool head all the time,” she says with a laugh. “But I was lucky because I have a really wonderful producing partner, Solome Williams, who, when I was on set acting, would be the voice on the outside. She would come to me with anything once we were on set, and I could give it to her to then delegate. When I wasn’t on set, I could then delegate from behind the camera.”

While producing, financing and starring in “Drift” were all things she sought out to do to help keep the project afloat, Erivo says co-writing and singing the film’s theme song, “It Would Be,” was something that came completely by “accident.”

“I wasn’t intending to write the song,” she says. “I love songwriting. It’s one of my passions. It’s the job that I do well. And I’ve done it before for a film, but I didn’t know that was going to happen on this one.”

Erivo says she was inspired to create the heart-wrenching ballad while listening to “Father, Father” by British soul singer Laura Mvula. The actor says she ended up texting Mvula, who agreed to co-write the song with Erivo. “She connected with the piece in a way that I was really overwhelmed by,” Erivo says.

Drift, Cynthia Erivo
Cynthia Erivo stares out at the sea in "Drift."Nikos Nikolopoulos / Memento Int'l

When it came to her portrayal of Jacqueline, the actor found inspiration close to home. She credits the “conversations” she had with her mother, who was a survivor of the Biafra War in Nigeria, or the Nigerian Civil War, for helping her to better understand her character and what she was experiencing.

“She was 15 or 16 when it was happening,” Erivo says of her mom. "She was running and trying to be safe. I knew a lot of her story coming into this. Every one of the characters has a part of me in it because it’s me having to channel them.”

Drift, Cynthia Erivo
“Search Party” star Alia Shawkat and Cynthia Erivo in "Drift."Nikos Nikolopoulos / Memento Int'l

Acting, for Erivo, entails "diving back into things that have happened, things that will bring you to places that will allow you to be open emotionally."?

Erivo says that since she brings part of herself to her characters, that means part of herself is onscreen, too.

“When I’m in those situations, and I’m watching what’s happening, I’m feeling genuinely. Those moments when you see the breakdowns — are real breakdowns,” she says.

“Drift,” also starring “Search Party” star Alia Shawkat, opens in theaters on February 9.


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