Cynthia Erivo Interview: ‘The Outsider’
“I’ve never really met anyone like her,” admits Cynthia Erivo of her character Holly Gibney on “The Outsider.” HBO’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel provided the award-winning actress a chance to showcase herself in a way that audiences had yet to see her. For Erivo, the stark contrast to her previous roles was a reason to be excited: “I knew she would be a challenge for me to take on.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.
Holly is a private investigator and on the autism spectrum. In “The Outsider” she’s hired to track down a mysterious child murderer, but her brilliant mind allows her to discover that the actual culprit is supernatural in nature.
The character debuted in King’s Bill Hodges trilogy of novels before he plopped her into “The Outsider.” That trilogy has also been adapted into a series called “Mr. Mercedes,” but Erivo chose not to watch that show or read the books in preparation. Her goal was to present an interpretation “purely based on the script.” Of course, when the scripts are from Oscar and Emmy nominee Richard Price (whom Erivo praises for being “willing to listen” and collaborate), it’s just as well to dive into the given circumstances of his adaptation. “I wanted to create a version of her that maybe people hadn’t thought of,” suggests Erivo.
The actress was highly specific and thoughtful in her portrayal, down to small costume details. “The clothing felt like a shield,” Erivo notes of the pressed button up shirts, long braids, and rows of perfectly matching earrings. “I was trying wherever I could, to put uniformity in her.” Holly’s visual presentation signals the different way in which she thinks.
Erivo leaned into the idea that the series’ title refers to her character. “In my head, she’s the Outsider,” she explains, “not just because she came from somewhere else… she’s just sort of on the edge of it all the time.” Holly’s work style, behavior, and communication all set her apart, in addition to the fact that she’s often the only woman of color in a world of mostly white men. For the actress, that dynamic “made sure I never got too comfortable…she never quite settles.”
That unsettled feeling is most obvious when Holly walks into a room of skeptical strangers and attempts to convince them that a supernatural boogeyman is killing children in town. “I only had about two days to learn it,” Erivo reveals of the massive eight page scene. Holly has to stand her ground when the anger and outrage flares from the other characters. Erivo thinks of the moment as “a tennis match between eight people.” “I relish moments like that,” she exclaims, because the high stakes give her the chance to dig into “the meat of the character.”
Most audiences first discovered Erivo thanks to her acclaimed performance on Broadway in “The Color Purple.” That musical quickly got her three quarters of the way to an EGOT. She picked up a Tony for her performance, a Grammy for the original cast album, and an Emmy thanks to the (now defunct) Musical Performance in a Daytime Program category. She nearly completed the quartet of major awards thanks to two Oscar nominations this year for “Harriet” (Best Actress and Best Song). The rapid acceleration of her career has been “daunting at times,” according to the actress. But she lovingly describes her journey as “standing in the middle of a dream.”