It’s fair to say that by this point in her career, Cynthia Erivo could be a blockbuster-only girlie. In a relatively short time, Erivo, whose first role on camera was on Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum in 2015, has nabbed a Daytime Emmy, a Grammy ("The Color Purple," 2017), and a Tony ("The Color Purple," 2016), making her just one Oscar-winning role shy of EGOT status. All that might make some curious about why Erivo would take on her latest: the low-budget indie flick "Drift," likely to play only in small artsy movie houses. Yet for Erivo, producing and starring in "Drift," which has her playing a homeless refugee trying to survive on a Greek island, was about much more than accolades or awards: it was about story, connection, and its message.
“I had never seen the subject matter handled with such dignity,” Erivo tells BET, speaking of the way "Drift" depicts an African refugee searching for safety and connection in a foreign land. “It sort of stays with you. It connects so deeply. It's a little bit of medicine for folks.”
An adaption of Alexander Maksik’s novel, A Marker To Measure Drift, the film has Erivo playing Jacqueline, a young woman very much awash, as the title implies. "Drift" opens with a mystery as Jacqueline casually roams a posh seaside resort. As the minutes tick by, it’s clear Jacqueline is not the middle-class vacationer she appears to be, but trying to blend in, scrounging for scraps of food and, we soon understand, pining for some recognition of her humanity. She doesn’t even speak for a significant portion of the first act. “There’s something about the way she communicates through body, through eyes that I thought was a lovely challenge I wanted to explore,” Erivo says.
Through flashbacks, we slowly learn that Jacqueline is also educated and middle-class––a young Liberian woman who’d studied in London. "Drift" is hardly a thriller in terms of pace and action but rather a slow, hushed movie that’s captivating in its simplicity. Yet "Drift" simmers to a ferocious boil in places, particularly in a flashback that shows Jacqueline on a visit home from London with her wealthy, government-adjacent family, after which she witnesses an unspeakable, horrifying act of violence. Those scenes play out mid-way through "Drift," and it’s then that the audience understands how Jacqueline ended up adrift and understands the trauma she wears on her face in the first half. Those scenes also remind us that Erivo is an absolute force of an actor.
“It's one of those roles that doesn't leave you quickly,” she says. “You put your body and mind through a lot to tell the story as truthfully as you can. It sticks to the bones. I think we forget sometimes that [actors] bodies don't know that we're pretending; our bodies don't know that what we experience is not real. So whatever trauma is happening is happening in the body. I can remember feeling very unhinged by the end of this. I had my therapist on call and I was definitely talking to him a lot.”
Flashbacks aside, most of the action takes place in the present with Jacqueline drifting through the town like a ghost––until she befriends a tour guide named Callie (Alia Shawkat). As they form a bond, "Drift" shows two people finding solace and comfort in each other, and impresses upon viewers how transformative it can be to be seen simply. Ever so subtly, Jacqueline becomes less a nameless vagrant and more a human being simply because Callie offered Jacqueline dignity, care, listening, and acceptance.
“They find each other,” Erivo says. “I think they need each other for the loneliness that both of them are experiencing. That's how they can convene, and find a friendship.”
Though Jacqueline’s story as a refugee is specific and is certainly resonant now as countless people worldwide have found themselves displaced, "Drift" is still a universal story that reminds us of how we're all looking for belonging, connection, someone to see us. And though Erivo knows "Drift" won’t sell out to packed theaters like some of the big-budget end-of-year flicks with A-list ensemble casts, the project has immense value for her because of how it challenged her, and what it says to people who see it.
“I would love for people to reconsider how we see each other,” she says. “You could pass Jacqueline by and not even notice she’s there. You could take for granted that she's just another person walking down the street. But we don't know what people are going through. We don't know what they've come from. And so hopefully, we'll have people think about how we consider one another. And treat each other with a little bit more care.”
"Drift" opens in New York on Feb. 9, with a national expansion to follow.
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