Multihyphenate Cynthia Erivo brings famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman to life in Focus Features’ Harriet: along with playing the titular role, the 32-year-old British actress co-wrote and performed closing-credit anthem “Stand Up.” Erivo, already the recipient of a Tony, Emmy and Grammy, could become the third artist in three years to receive a nomination for acting as well as best original song for the same film, following Mary J. Blige for 2017’s Mudbound and Lady Gaga for 2018’s A Star Is Born. This had never happened prior to 2017.
What responsibility did you feel to portray Harriet Tubman, and how did that inspire the writing of “Stand Up”?
It was a huge responsibility, because you don’t see those kinds of movies at all — or very often. I wanted to make sure that young actresses who look like me are inspired to know that there is hope in the storytelling for us. I wanted to make sure that the song we wrote served as a thank you and an homage to Harriet, and also a version of the journey that she had been on. It meant a great deal to be able to tell the story through song and in my voice.
How did you end up working with Joshuah Campbell, who has gained recognition recently for writing songs about the Black Lives Matter movement?
The production company found Joshuah’s song about civil rights activist [and congressman] John Lewis on YouTube, and asked him to submit a song for the movie. I liked it, but I knew there was something that wasn’t quite right. I sat with Joshuah to work on it; he was lovely and open to changes in the melody and lyrics. We had a choir come in and worked together to create the song that we wanted.
Was there a particular scene that you drew from when writing this song?
We recorded the song maybe a month or so after shooting. I drew on the whole experience to create a full picture of who she was. I wanted to bring the “then” to the “now,” to see ourselves in her shoes — to inspire people.