Noma Dumezweni and Cynthia Erivo on Spirituality, Broadway, and Made for Love
Noma Dumezweni has kind of done it all. In 2006, she won a Laurence Olivier Award for her role as Ruth in A Raisin in the Sun, the classic play by Lorraine Hansberry. A few years later, in 2015, she famously landed the role as Hermione Granger in the original West End and Broadway runs of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, for which she received her second Laurence Olivier Award and a Tony Award nomination. Most recently, she played the intense and passionate defense attorney Haley Fitzgerald in HBO’s The Undoing opposite Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. Now, she’s starring in the new HBO Max comedy series Made For Love, about a woman on the run from a toxic relationship with a tech billionaire, and is currently filming the live-action version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey of Chloe x Halle. To discuss her expansive career, Dumezweni hopped on a Zoom call with her fellow British actress and Oscar-nominated friend Cynthia Erivo to discuss the difference between theater and film, the joys of being an old soul, and learning to declare that you deserve love. —JULIANA UKIOMOGBE
NOMA DUMEZWENI: Well, we did it. Oh, Cynthia.
CYNTHIA ERIVO: Hi, hello.
DUMEZWENI: Look at you and your bloody Los Angeles weather. I’m in London.
ERIVO: Oh, what are you doing in London?
DUMEZWENI: I arrived yesterday. I’m here to start Little Mermaid-ing.
ERIVO: What are you doing in Little Mermaid?
DUMEZWENI: I can’t tell you. I can say that I’m doing it, and that’s what’s great. It’s now official.
ERIVO: Text me and I’ll text you what I’m doing in Pinocchio.
DUMEZWENI: Oh my god. I think I know. Thank you for doing this, because I’m going, “She’s fucking busy.”
ERIVO: But here’s the thing, it came up and I was like, “Yes.” I didn’t even think about it. Just because I know we haven’t had a good talk for a long time. I just want to know what’s been going on. I want to find out what your experience has been so far.
DUMEZWENI: When I arrived in New York, you were so bloody lovely to me. Finally, we finally met after years of snooping each other. You’d done The Color Purple two years before and you’d literally broken fucking barriers, babe. Are we waiting for the O to get the EGOT? We’re waiting for the O, aren’t we?
ERIVO: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
DUMEZWENI: I just got chills. It’s coming. You know it’s coming, don’t you?
ERIVO: Thank you. Oh my gosh. Well, now that you’re saying it…
DUMEZWENI: I just spoke a truth.
ERIVO: I’ve always been a fan of yours. You have this real understanding and certainty of everything you are. Whenever you step in front of anyone, there’s just no shame about it.
DUMEZWENI: Thank you, baby.
ERIVO: Did you have that for a long while and we were just waiting to see it? Or has it come in the last few years?
DUMEZWENI: It’s come in the last few years. I’ve met the universe’s ask. The universe is asking me to do this, whatever you want to call it. God. Allah. The Spirit. I call it Divine Source. I just go, “You’ve been waiting for me to arrive for you.” As I’m getting older, I’m getting much more certain in my spirituality. When I was younger, I was agnostic. But then, magical things have happened in my life to make me go, there’s other stuff going on here. That realization came at 44. I took a plane out to South Africa, and I saw my mom and my dad together for the first time since I was 12. That was a miracle moment. And then, all these stories I’ve told myself about being a child of a single parent, I went, “Not worthy, not worthy, not worthy, not worthy.” I made up this story. When I saw these people, I realized their story wasn’t my story.
ERIVO: It’s the humanization of our parents that makes us realize, “Oh, they’re on their own journey. And so am I.”
DUMEZWENI: Our gods and goddesses are human.
ERIVO: I also have gotten to a place with everything where I just want to be as transparent as I possibly can so people can understand my experience.
DUMEZWENI: You’re also doing it with love. That’s what I thought was great. And there’s no judgment.
ERIVO: I don’t believe in carrying around bad energy. Some people call it grudges, some people call it hate. I don’t think that’s good for our path. Sometimes we think that doing that is affecting the other person, and it’s actually doing the very opposite. I gained something from that experience so that I could carry it forward to where I am right now.
DUMEZWENI: I look back and I said, “I didn’t do drama school. They know something better than I do. I’m not bright enough.” All those things, putting yourself away. Then I look now, and go, “Oh god, I wouldn’t change my story for anything.”
ERIVO: I’m so excited for you. So you do Harry Potter in London. Do they already know it’s coming to Broadway? Or do they decide halfway?
DUMEZWENI: I think they knew quite early on. I know that we’d heard about it after it had just opened in previews as a potential that it might happen. So, it’s towards the end of finishing the show and it’s looking like it’s happening. That seven months was glorious. Because I went, “It’s a break, I can do other brilliant pieces of work.” So I did Black Earth Rising with Michaela [Coel], which was fantastic. And The Kid Who Would Be King, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. Those were lovely little practices of TV and film. I always call TV and film practice. And then, you arrive and you do Broadway. That’s where I got to meet you. You’ve just been so fucking supportive. You just check in, here and there, which I absolutely adore. Then I got The Undoing, which was fantastic.
ERIVO: I have to say, first of all, everyone is in love with you.
DUMEZWENI: Thank you very, much. It was a learning curve, but it really prepared me for everything else that’s coming after. Nicole [Kidman] and Hugh [Grant] were amazing. All of the actors were amazing. The piece was great. The writing was great. But, I was like, “I’m still on theater mode.” The first full week, I thought I was going to be fired. I thought, “I’m not good enough, I’m too big, they’re telling me to go quiet. I keep throwing to the back of the room. I just can’t do that intimate TV thing.” One learns it.
ERIVO: You have to learn. And here’s the thing, when I was doing The Color Purple, [Celie] is small by nature. So I wasn’t acting to the back of the room, because for me, the idea was that you have to come to her. She’s not an outward person. When I did Widows with Steve [McQueen], he was like, “It’s too small.”
DUMEZWENI: Stop it.
ERIVO: Yeah. And I still sometimes fall into it, where it’s like, “You can give me more than that.”
DUMEZWENI: Oh, wow. I love that that’s your default and it’s easy for you to get bigger. It’s a practice, and I do feel like a newbie at this age. That’s what The Undoing taught me. So then going onto Made for Love, it was like, “Oh this is easy, I’m doing my own accent for a start. I’m doing a nice little supporting role. Cristin [Milioti] and Billy [Magnussen] are going to be our leading actors.” It’s my first time in L.A. It’s been amazing, baby. Because I will say what The Undoing taught me was to not need validation from a director, but to get on. I will walk to another job going, “Okay, how can we make this work?” Not, “What do you think of me? Do you like me, do you like what I’m doing?”
ERIVO: It’s a shift that you have to make when that happens. It’s more of a collaboration. “Here’s what we can do, here’s how we can maybe try and figure this out.”
DUMEZWENI: Yes, absolutely.
ERIVO: I wonder if that’s to do with the person on the other side of it. It’s one thing to say, “I’m collaborating with this person,” but if the other person isn’t collaborating with you, then you can’t. Neither one of us will learn how to if you don’t actually meet in the middle.
DUMEZWENI: Absolutely. That’s a very astute way of putting it. That’s exactly it.
ERIVO: What are you looking forward to? I feel like you have this new stretch of life in front of you that I’m not sure that you knew was coming.
DUMEZWENI: When we met, it was like, “Well, I’m going to be doing this on Broadway and then going back to London, and let’s just see what happens.” But it’s changed my life. I’m enjoying the TV and film exploration. In theater, I know exactly how to present it—where I vibrate, where I resonate. I realized that I want my daughter to know that she can.
ERIVO: I love that. Again, you’re creating freedom for people to create. It really is your mission.
DUMEZWENI: You are witchy. Yes you are.
ERIVO: Do you pick your roles specifically?
DUMEZWENI: It’s my body. My body either goes “yes” or it goes “nah.” It’s very clear. I’ve learned to trust my body, not my head. When my head starts weighing in, then I know there’s something wrong. If it’s trying to reason, my head’s got to be out of the way. I am in a position now that things are coming towards me, that I can, “Oh, yes.” Because it’s not usually the actual piece, I want to see who is playing. That’s what I’m interested in. I have to feel my way through it, and if you’re not on that, if I can’t play with you, we’re not going to create.
ERIVO: I’ve enjoyed watching your journey through it all. Because I know how much you deserve it. I know how much you’ve put in. I know how much you’ve worked. So I know how much you have earned the space. There comes a point where you go, “I could keep waiting to be accepted for the things I bring to the table. Or I could make it myself.”
DUMEZWENI: But society teaches you a certain thing. You’re the generation that goes, “Fuck society, let’s get on with it.” And I love that. Fuck’s sake, that’s exactly what it is. That’s brilliant.
ERIVO: I know that we never really get asked this question. Love. How do you feel about it? What do you want from it? Have you found it? Are you looking for it?
DUMEZWENI: All of the above. But I haven’t found it. That’s one of the things I went low with. That’s been in the air for me. And I think I’ve concentrated on work and baby, and that’s been my safe space as I’m getting vulnerable, as I’m opening up in my creativity. You go, “Oh, girl. What does love look like?” I know, for me, love looks like loving people. I love energies. I go, “How can I serve you, how can I make you feel better?” It’s interesting because you’re a Capricorn, and I’m a Capricorn moon. Whoever I’m going to love, I go, “You’ve got to be amazing.” Whoever that person is has got to be amazing.
ERIVO: Yeah. I know we always think it’s some big ask to find someone who is everything you want, but everything I want might not necessarily be the same as you want. Your everything is very different from my everything.
DUMEZWENI: Very different, but that’s the beauty of love.
ERIVO: I wonder if you’re in a space to say to yourself, “I deserve it now.”
DUMEZWENI: I just had this conversation recently with a friend in exactly those words. “Do I?” And I realized I haven’t felt that I deserved it. Let’s leave that for a moment because I’m feeling a bit… [Pause] Oh, baby. It’s huge. Thank you for opening me up and letting me say that. Because I don’t speak in that way. I don’t do that. But I think it’s so important, and I think everyone wants to connect. I love you, thank you for that.
ERIVO: I love you, too. I’ll say it. You deserve it. And when you’re ready, you can say you deserve it, too.
DUMEZWENI: You know what? I’ll say it right now. I deserve it. Thank you, baby.
ERIVO: Congratulations on everything. I’m so excited about all of the things that are coming your way. Because they are.
DUMEZWENI: They are. I do feel that. You’re an old soul. Fully grown.
ERIVO: Thank you.
DUMEZWENI: I’m so excited for you. Fuck off. Go on with your bad self.
Art Direction by Daniel Arroyo.
Production by Boom Productions.
Retouching by Atelier Ninety Nine.
Makeup by Tara Lauren using Danessa Myricks Beauty for Epiphany Artist Group, Inc.
Hair by Ro Morgan.