The highly anticipated biopic, Harriet, is set to release in theaters on November 1, 2019.
From the start of the film’s promotion, the filmmakers and producers made it very clear that Harriet is not a slave movie. It’s a story about a resilient woman who was born a slave who fights against accepting that.
The movie follows Harriet Tubman’s 100-mile journey to freedom and the insistence upon going back to free her family along with many others. Harriet’s humanity shines in each scene as we also get a refined glimpse of what it was like bearing the pain of love.
We spoke with stars Cynthia Erivo (Minty/Harriet Tubman), Leslie Odom Jr. (William Still), and director Kasi Lemmons about personal connections to Harriet Tubman and William Still respectively, and about working on the project.
I think one of the most powerful scenes to me is when Harriet is crossing this Pennsylvania border, but to my understanding, there were a few challenges during that day of filming, so could you talk about how you got from this rainstorm to this beautiful image of hope?
Kasi Lemmons: “There comes a point with every show where everyone is having a bad day. It was raining, it was miserable, people were having a bad day. Cynthia had four changes and we just started thinking that we were not going to get it and I was being told, I don’t think you’re going to get this. And I was like no, we can do this, let’s go to the top of the mountain and it was so muddy that we couldn’t bring certain carts up. We get up there, we build a crane, Cynthia hustles through the change, makes it up to the top of the hill and at that moment, the sky parted and this beautiful sun broke through and it was really a magical moment because it was as we were rolling. It just parted, it was like rolling, one take, got it.”
Cynthia Erivo: “Yeah, it was amazing.”
For you Cynthia, we know that you have done several marathons. I’m just curious to know about the physicality of this role. You were doing your own stunts, right?
Cynthia Erivo: “Yes, very much so.”
And what was that like telling this part of the story?
Cynthia Erivo: “It was necessary and challenging. There were things I hadn’t done before, things that were new, but I knew that it was important to be connected to the physicality of her. So I wanted to do the stunts because I felt like it would inform the storytelling and I’m stubborn like that. I want to be able to, I guess, soak up and feel everything I need to in order to fill it in the story. So that’s what it felt like. I tried my best, I did my training beforehand to prepare before we got on set, and that’s what happened.”
And for you Kasi, this is the first feature film on Harriet, which is so unbelievable, but I’m wondering where did you draw your inspiration and research from?
Kasi Lemmons: “A lot of places. There are three really great biographies. We had a historical consultant who is a premiere Harriet scholar and she wrote a wonderful book on Harriet Tubman. Her name is Kate Clifford Larson and her book on Harriet is wonderful. And there were two others that I used that were a great source of inspiration, along with William Still’s book on the Underground Railroad, scholarly works on the Underground Railroad, so lots of research.”
And another thing I loved about the story was Harriet’s faith. She’s literally walking by faith and not by sight and so, I’m wondering for you Cynthia, was there any personal connections in terms of spirituality.
Cynthia Erivo: “Yeah, I have faith myself, I believe in God and what that did for me, what working with this person beside me did was open my eyes to my own faith. It sort of allowed me the space to explore it a bit more, be a bit louder about it because I think Harriet was unashamed of it, quite brazen about it, no one was in any doubt about the fact that she believed in God, or believed that God was her guide. So that meant that I could also pray unabashedly, which allowed me to sort of explore something that I hadn’t explored in depth before.”
Can you tell us how you got started, how you got involved with this film?
Leslie Odom Jr.: “Well, I got a text message from my friend, Cynthia Erivo, and then I was having lunch with one of our producers, Debra Martin Chase, we met at some big, grand event in New York, and she said, ‘let’s have lunch,’ and I knew exactly who she was and about her legendary career as a producer and so we met and at the end of that meeting, she also told me about Harriet and so, a few days later I was signed on.”
Take us back to that first day of shooting. What was that like for you?
Leslie Odom Jr.: “First day of filming for me…I know they had been filming for a while. They had been filming for two and a half, three weeks already. They had already bonded. They had been through some hardships as a crew already. There’s an infamous story about the production. There was like a wasp nest. They had already been through some stuff, so I came well dressed, thanks to Paul Tazewell. And in my office on the set, there’s already just a little bit of ire that’s thrown his way, but I think it works best to great effect in the movie because Harriet and William, while they both spent their time side by side doing their life’s work together pursuing their passion, they came from such different perspectives in black life in America at that time.”
And it’s wonderful for us to see you and Cynthia working together because you’re such great friends. And it’s just a great relationship that we see on film. Did that help you bring that story to life?
Leslie Odom Jr.: “It does help. You see, I hope you see, Harriet and William, but that you also see some Leslie and Cynthia because there’s some of that in their relationship, too. While they came from different perspectives, different realities of black life in America at that time, they were there to support one another and he was there to see to it that Harriet got her work done. The work that she was called to do.”
How much about William Still’s story did you know before signing on?
Leslie Odom Jr.: “I knew about his work with the Underground Railroad for sure, but I didn’t know about all the chapters before the Underground Railroad. I didn’t know about the childhood, the family trauma and all that stuff, so that was really helpful to me in learning maybe what was the impetus for him to start that work.”
And there’s a portion of that story where William Still’s mother who is separated from some of her children. Do you think that’s what creates this sort of fear that William has when it comes to Harriet escaping and going back to get more people?
Leslie Odom Jr.: “For sure. That’s involved. Right? But I also think that—when I was investigating it—that was really central to me in imagining sensitivity… You know, I used my relationship with my own mother and that thing that a son has with his mom, a sensitivity to her pain can really give you a purpose and a thrust in your life about who you want to protect and what’s important to you because you’re kind of maybe trying to heal that thing that you could never heal with your mom.”