Cynthia Erivo and Vanessa Bell Calloway both believe in signs.
Erivo plays Harriet Tubman and Calloway her enslaved mother in the new film “Harriet.” As depicted in the movie — which opened Friday in North America — historians believe Tubman suffered from some form of epilepsy after being hit in the head with a heavy weight. Tubman believed she received visions from God.
While Erivo and Calloway can’t confirm or deny whether Tubman was led by the divine, they do suspect some sort of cosmic force cast them as mother and daughter in the film.
“We bumped into each other randomly on the street just after she auditioned,” Erivo recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s that then. This is what’s gonna happen. It can’t just be a clever coincidence.’”
At the time, both women were wearing their hair short and blond. (Erivo’s is, at the moment, dyed a striking shade of aqua.) “I felt that we look quite similar. When you look at us in a picture, it’s a bit strange.”
Calloway was also struck by the serendipity, and recounted that unexpected meeting last year on Manhattan’s 125th Street with more awe than her younger English co-star, who was unaware that Calloway was in the running to play Tubman’s mother until they crossed paths.
“There are no mistakes in life,” Calloway said. “125th Street is the hustle bustle. Five minutes later, two minutes earlier, there would have been a different outcome.”
Calloway was in the neighborhood helping her daughter move and had a “long, leisurely lunch” with a friend. She came out of a restaurant, crossed the street to go to CVS and noticed a white fluffy dog that resembled her daughter’s. “I look at the dog and I look up at the leash and who’s holding it? Cynthia.” Calloway said. “I took that as a sign.”
The two women spoke fondly of that encounter recently at a Washington, D.C., hotel where both were staying before “Harriet’s” U.S. premiere at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Oct. 22. Erivo spent most of the day doing interviews, while Calloway and her husband toured the museum. The two women first met a couple years ago at an event sponsored by Essence magazine. Both performers launched their careers in musical theater: Calloway was in the original cast of “Dreamgirls” in 1981, while Erivo won a Tony Award for her Broadway debut in the 2015 revival of “The Color Purple.”
And yet Calloway almost didn’t buy a ticket for the musical based on the Alice Walker novel, given her devotion to the original 2005 production, which she saw three times.
“I ain’t gonna lie, I was really hesitant,” Calloway said. “I was like, ‘Why did they need to bring in a white director? And why is this little British girl playing Celie?’”
Now she knows.
“I was blown away,” Calloway added. “In fact, I liked the new production better. Me and my girlfriend Starr Jones were sitting there crying like babies.”
These days, Erivo, 32, and Calloway, 62, are friends and colleagues, but being black women who launched careers in musical theater and successfully branched out into film is where their similarities end.
“We have that in common,” Calloway said, sighing. “But kids these days have no idea. In the 1980s, you just didn’t get a starring role in a film like this.”
Calloway went from “Dreamgirls” to supporting roles in film and television. Onstage, she continues playing writer Zora Neale Hurston in a one-woman show. In her most memorable film role, Calloway played comedian Eddie Murphy’s objectified African fiancee, Princess Imani Izzi, in “Coming to America.” (Anyone who’s seen the film will likely recall her character’s iconic, skintight gold dress.) She is also slated to appear in a “Coming to America” sequel next year, and critics are urging producers to thoughtfully improve how women are depicted in the film.
In mid-1980s, Calloway broke a major barrier for African American actresses when she played the black girlfriend of a main character on “All My Children.” But once the writers wanted to get Calloway’s character’s boyfriend back with his ex, that was that.
“Once the black story line died, I had to leave Pine Valley,” she recalled, using the fictional name of the soap opera suburb. “If I was a white actress, I could have stayed in town and moved to the next man. That’s the truth.”
Three decades later, both she and Erivo know that journeying so quickly from Broadway to Hollywood stardom represents a sea change for black actresses, one that should never be taken for granted.
“When Vanessa was coming up, it was different. I don’t know that we had the choice, as women of color, to be in the leading role,” said Erivo.
While her rise from Tony winner to projected Oscar candidate may seem unprecedented, it was not unplanned for this graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where Erivo was born to Nigerian parents.
“I’ve always wanted to be in film,” she said. “I think the way in which it’s happened and the speed at which I’ve been able to play these incredible roles is probably the thing that is disorienting to people — and disorienting for me.”
No one warned Erivo that “Harriet’s” producers were coming to scout her in “The Color Purple.” The film went through a series of creative team changes, however, so in the interim, she booked roles in “Bad Times at the El Royale,” and “Widows,” supporting Viola Davis. Up next: She’ll be playing queen of soul Aretha Franklin in the National Geographic television series “Genius.”
All this success is possible, Erivo says, because early in her theater career, she made a “conscious decision” not to play a white character’s black sidekick.
That wasn’t an option for Calloway, the younger actress acknowledges. “For some people, if you made that decision, you didn’t work. And so I’m lucky that there were women like Vanessa who were even on screen in the first place. That’s what made it possible for me to even look at film scripts.”
In “Harriet,” Erivo proudly plays one of the most prominent women in American history. The biopic opens with the title character barely out of her teens, and having one of her “spells” as she lays fallen in a plantation pasture. She’s troubled by recurring visions of her older sisters being sold, carted off crying to another plantation farther south. Once Harriet escapes and connects to the Underground Railroad network in Philadelphia, she is harbored by Quakers and mentored by members of a black free class that includes a boardinghouse owner (Janelle Monáe) and abolitionist publisher William Still (“Hamilton’s” Leslie Odom Jr.). At a time when even most free black women sat demurely in parlors wearing hoop skirts, Tubman returned to plantations herself, alerting slaves to her presence by singing spirituals in the shadows.
“Moses” is how Tubman came to be known, and yet historians aren’t entirely sure how many slaves she led to freedom: The documented number is between 70 and 80, but could be as high as 300. In the movie, what motivates Tubman to continue returning to the Eastern Shore of Maryland is love: She longs to rescue her mother, her father (a free woodworker played by Clarke Peters), and other siblings, nieces and nephews still laboring on a Dorchester County plantation. So Tubman bravely crosses rushing rivers and steep ravines until they’ve all been brought safely to a new home.
Those familiar with the terrain between Philadelphia and the Maryland and Delaware beaches know there are actually few rushing rivers and ravines there; writer-director Kasi Lemmons took license with the topography. But even though filmed in a hillier region of central Virginia, the plantation scenes feel gravely authentic. On her return trips, Tubman finds her father blinded by vengeful slave hunters and her mother afflicted with a form of dementia. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Erivo cradles Calloway in her arms, and promises her a life of rest and rocking chairs north of the border.
“She’s the one who’s seen the most pain,” Calloway said of her character, tearing up as she talked. “She’s lost children. I have two daughters. How would you even want to imagine how that would feel? She thought she lost another daughter until she sees Harriet again. She had lost all hope.”
To recover emotionally once the cameras stopped rolling, the actors playing members of a family beaten and torn apart by slavery had to support each other like blood relations, Erivo said.
“We choose the families around us,” the actress mused, “wherever we are.” “Those are the things that get you through,” she added. “So it was really important, even off set, to lean on those people we were in scenes with, because we wanted it to feel like we were all taking care of each other.”
On premiere day last week at the African American history museum, that nurturing spirit still seemed to flow between cast members, even as many actors have moved on to other, often lower-profile, roles in theater, film and television. They still continue to text Erivo “Hey Sis,” jokes, the actress said. And as for her and Calloway, they won’t need to rely on random encounters on New York City streets to remain mutual admirers, supporters and friends.