Cynthia Erivo on Making the Gritty, Emotionally Devastating Sundance Refugee Drama ‘Drift’

It’s Cynthia Erivo’s first time in Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. It’s a remarkably short trip — about 48-hours, not including flying time, as she takes a quick break from filming “Wicked” in London. But it’s a particularly momentous occasion: Erivo is celebrating the debut her latest movie “Drift,” the first film she’s ever produced.

“It’s really cool to go with a film that I’m in and producing — apparently that is a rare thing for your first film to do that — so I’m quite pleased,” Erivo tells Variety, sounding a bit like a proud parent.

“Drift” could be considered Erivo’s first child, as the inaugural film from her “Edith’s Daughter” production company, which she launched in 2020 and runs with Solome Williams.

Directed by Anthony Chen, “Drift” is based on Alexander Maksik’s critically acclaimed 2013 novel “A Marker to Measure Drift.” Erivo stars as Jacqueline, a migrant woman who scraps for survival on a remote Greek island, where she fled from war-torn Liberia. Jacqueline gets by on small kindnesses and her wits, offering foot massages to beachgoers at a resort in exchange for a few dollars and staving off her hunger by dipping her fingertips into sugar packets as she tries to maintain her dignity amid the challenging circumstances. But her solitary existence is upended when she meets an American tour guide named Callie (Alia Shawkat) and begins to consider what life would be like if she opened up to someone again.

“The movie is really ‘The Little Engine that Could,’” Erivo says, as she begins to recount the project’s circuitous route to the screen. About six years ago, her agent slipped her the script for “Drift,” which had been sent over by the late Bill Paxton, who’d originally optioned the book.

“I read it in the interval between shows in my dressing room for ‘Color Purple,’” she recalls. “I was really struck by the words and it kept playing over my in my head. I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I had no idea what I would do with her. I just knew that I wanted to play her.”

At that point in her career, “I was but a twinkle in most people’s eye,” Erivo notes. The three-fourths of her EGOT (the Emmy, Grammy and Tony wins for “The Color Purple” were yet to come), as were her two Oscar nominations for “Harriet.” So what made Paxton think of her for the part?

“I don’t know,” Erivo says as she pauses to mull it over. “I hope it’s because he saw something that felt a little like Jacqueline in there. I think maybe he saw this kid who was from London, who had landed in America and was a bit like a fish out of water, whose parents are also Africa. There are loads of connections between Jacqueline and I; there’s this wonderful fire in Jacqueline that I think is in me.”

Paxton’s sudden death in 2017 delayed the project. “I think it was just a little bit too painful to continue,” Erivo says.

But thanks for the forces of destiny — and with his wife’s, Louise Paxton’s urging and blessing — the project came back together. And when it did, Erivo was more than ready to take on a bigger role.

The successes of “The Color Purple,” “Harriet” and her growing filmography had given Erivo both the professional clout and confidence to truly shepherd “Drift” to the finish line in a way she hadn’t done before, splitting duties as both lead actor and producer.

“You end up trying to give 200% of yourself: 100% goes on into the character and story and 100% goes into how this thing gets made. What do we need? Who do I need to reach out to? How do we get funding? You have to compartmentalize what is needed in in each situation,” Erivo explains. “ I’ve learned I’m good at being patient, but I definitely had to grow my patience on this one.”

One of the calls Erivo and the filmmakers made was to reach out to Alia Shawkat, whose work she loved from HBO’s “Search Party,” for the role of Callie.

“I just thought she was really brilliant. She’s got a kindness that emanates out of her,” Erivo says of Shawkat. “When we asked her, and she said yes, I was really, really excited. To have her playing Callie was a dream come true. She was really wonderful to work with. When you can find another person who wants to throw the ball back, just as much as you do, it’s a beautiful tennis match the both of us were playing together.”

Chen, the Singaporean director whose debut feature “Ilo Ilo” won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and who makes his English-language debut with “Drift,” also proved the perfect collaborator.

“Anthony has a deep want to keep learning and leaning into the human experience,” Erivo says of Chen. “He has a sort of sensitivity to finding beauty in the most obscure places. In someone else’s hands, this piece could feel really bleak; somehow, he manages to find the levity and the light. I thought that was really important that something like this didn’t feel grey, that it still felt like there was color and sunshine.”

With all the puzzle pieces in place, the production began filming in March 2022. Switching between her producer and actor hats when it was time for Chen to call “Action” proved to be a bit exhausting, but Erivo quickly figured out the balance.

“You have to learn what helps to turn one off and turn the other back on, because this piece is really heartfelt and gritty and painful at times,” she says. “I had to really learn how to let my colleagues take the lead in production and handle things, so I could really show up on on screen and as Jacqueline. Even though she’s sort of quiet and unassuming, she’s a big, big presence, so I had to make sure that there was enough room to make sure she could sing a little bit.”

When it came to building the character, there were just as many little decisions to consider, like which of her own piercings she’d keep in or take out. Erivo wanted to ensure that there was a connection between this character and the modern world; that you could pass a “Jacqueline” on the street and be none the wiser about her refugee status, her homelessness or the trauma she’d experienced.

“The thing that that was really important to me is that that Jacqueline feel like every woman. That Jacqueline didn’t feel like a singular case,” she explains. “I wanted people to see my face and go ‘There are people that look just like you, just like her, just like me, who could be going through these terrible things.’”

It was perhaps more important to spotlight a Black woman in this scenario.

“I think people don’t really tap into the experience of Black women who are displaced, because a lot of us hide it really well,” Erivo says. “I wanted to make sure that that voice was heard, and that face was seen, and the understanding that this person had her life and existed before these terrible things happened to her. This terrible thing does not make her, that is not the only thing that makes her. It takes patience from other people and help from other people to help process the pain to try and come to the other side.”

For Jacqueline, that person is Callie, whose friendship causes her to being to process her trauma, as the two women engage in an emotional tennis match as they learn to trust one another.

“Jacqueline and Callie are both looking for something,” Erivo says. “They’re both looking for understanding. They’ve both experienced loss in very different ways. And they’re both searching for ways to share that experience with someone who will connect and listen.”

As the story unfolds, the audience learns why Jacqueline fled Liberia, where her father was a government minister, and witnesses the PTSD she suffers following a series of traumatic events. Chen carefully designs the reveals to offer insight into Jacqueline’s condition via flashbacks.

“What I loved about the structure is that you kind of have to get to know her first. Instead of dropping everyone into what has happened, you travel with her,” Erivo says. “You experience what she experiences; you see through her eyes, before you really learn about what her experience was.”

Thus, the audience will be helped to understand “what the full scope of her existence has been,” she explains. “The loss rings out more because you know what it is that she has come from. At any moment in her life, it’s not necessarily been easy. She’s been shaped shifting a lot until she can’t change anymore.”

Erivo filmed the flashback scenes toward the top of the production schedule, which gave her the sense memory of what Jacqueline had been through to carry into the emotional climax toward the end of the film.

“It’s a tough thing to put your body through, put your brain through put your heart through, but the reward is to be able to hopefully connect with people when when they see it,” Erivo says of filming those scenes. “Hopefully they feel it just as much as she does.”

Jacqueline’s story represents one example of what thousands of people experienced during the second Liberian Civil War, which lasted from 1999 to 2003 and resulted in the deaths of over 50,000 people and the displacement of thousands more.

“It was really special, because I think there are certain moments in history that sort of get completely forgotten or slightly erased and, and in doing that, we minimize an experience of many people,” Erivo says of bringing some of the realities of this experience to the screen. “There were a lot of people who went through this, lost a lot, had a lot of pain. I hope we’ll have people look at this moment in time and go back to to learn about what people were going through.”

Now, as she sends her first film out into the world, Erivo looks back on the experience with great satisfaction.

“The idea that I’ve gotten to a place where I can say I produced a movie that I was in, it’s a milestone for any filmmaker, but it’s just a huge, huge moment for me,” Erivo says. “I don’t know that I could have seen this in 2015 or 16. I don’t know that I was ready for that back then. But to be here now feels like a huge step forward in my life. I hope there’s more films like this in my future and I feel really proud.”

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