'Harriet' star Cynthia Erivo: 'It's important to know someone that small can be significant' (exclusive)

Tom Beasley

Harriet star Cynthia Erivo felt “a lot of responsibility” playing American icon Harriet Tubman in the historical drama.

Tubman was one of the most significant activists in the movement to abolish slavery and liberated dozens of slaves through the network known as the Underground Railroad.

Director Kasi Lemmons described Tubman as a “real American hero” and she has been honoured with numerous monuments and cultural depictions since her death in 1913.

Read more: David Oyelowo defends Erivo casting

As a British performer, Erivo said she had to tread carefully in embodying such an important American figure on the big screen.

“I felt a lot of responsibility because I wanted to tell the story well and I wanted to make sure that I did everything I could to tell it as fully as I possibly could,” the 32-year-old told Yahoo Movies UK.

Erivo said that UK audiences, in particular, only know the “broad strokes” of Tubman’s achievements and that she hoped Harriet would fill in some of the details.

Cynthia Erivo as abolitionist Harriet Tubman in historical drama 'Harriet'. (Credit: Focus Features)

She added: “I knew of her and I knew of her work, but I didn't know the detail, much like I think most people know.

“So I wanted to make sure that people got a full picture of who she was and what she did.”

Read more: Is it important for biopics to be historically accurate?

Lemmons, whose previous works include Eve’s Bayou and Black Nativity, said it was “a daunting and yet wonderful opportunity” to be invited to tell Tubman’s story.

“She became more vital to me as I did the research on her, honestly,” said the filmmaker.

“It was really doing the research that I came to know her intimately and then it became quite wonderful and urgent for me to do [the film].”

Kasi Lemmons and Cynthia Erivo attend the after party of Focus Features' "Harriet" premiere. (Photo by Rachel Luna/Getty Images)

The director said she “believed Erivo every day” in the role and described the moment she first saw the actor in costume as “magical”.

Erivo, who broke out last year with roles in Widows and Bad Times at the El Royale, said the role is among the most challenging she has taken on.

Read more: Movies that distorted their true stories

Historical accounts suggest Tubman was only around five feet tall, but this didn’t stop her from becoming an inspirational figure.

This image provided by Swann Auction Galleries shows an undated photograph of Harriet Tubman, the 19th century abolitionist. (Courtesy Swann Auction Galleries via AP)

Erivo added: “She was a small woman, but she had a strong presence both physically and mentally. There was something about her.

“I think it's important to know that someone that small can be that significant.”

Lemmons said Tubman was driven in her actions by the “powerful and exhilarating concept” of freedom for herself and for others.

Cynthia Erivo in 'Harriet'. (Credit: Focus Features)

She said: “She was willing to fight and die for [freedom]. She was a much more militant person than I imagined her.

“One of my favourite Harriet Tubman quotes, she said: ‘I prayed to God to make me strong enough to fight, and that's what I've prayed for ever since.’

“I love that quote. It's about resistance and what you're willing to do for freedom and what one woman could accomplish.”

Harriet will be released into UK cinemas on 22 November.