Cynthia Erivo sure likes to keep audiences on their toes. When it comes to teasing her upcoming Kennedy Center concert, set for Dec. 6 at the Eisenhower Theater, a performer celebrated for her towering vocals remains ironically tight-lipped.
Here’s what Erivo can share: The 70-minute performance, billed as Cynthia Erivo & Friends, will feature two of her fellow Tony winners in Joaquina Kalukango and Ben Platt. The actress and singer promises a through line, without handing out hints. And Erivo — who has won an Emmy, Grammy and Tony and been nominated for an Oscar — notes the set list will be “very different” from her usual material.
“It’ll definitely be fun,” Erivo says. “There will be some pieces you’ll know, some pieces you won’t. And I will give you great outfits, that’s one sure thing.”
It’s the same kind of unpredictability Erivo brings to her stage, film and television roles. Her eagerly anticipated portrayal of the wicked witch Elphaba — in Jon M. Chu’s two-film adaptation of the stage musical “Wicked,” the first part of which is due out next fall — feels like a prototypical Erivo showcase.
But the 36-year-old shows off a more restrained side in her next film, the contemplative refugee drama “Drift,” which arrives in theaters Feb. 9. The English-language debut from Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen, “Drift” casts Erivo as a timid Liberian refugee coming to terms with unspeakable trauma while forging a new friendship on a sumptuous Greek island.
During a recent video chat from Los Angeles, Erivo teased her Kennedy Center concert, discussed her internalized performance in “Drift” and opened up about shooting the “Wicked” films.
(This interview has been edited for length in clarity.)
Q: Your Kennedy Center concert is a one-night event. How would you describe the process of putting together a show like this one?
A: There’s definitely an amount of stress because it’s all working toward one day and hoping everything comes together in this one moment. But it’s really, really fun. I can kind of do whatever I want to do, so it feels like the sky’s the limit in these situations. Doing these performances always feels really like a kid in a candy shop. What do I want to do? How do I want to do it? Sometimes I end up getting really anxious because there’s lots to pick from, but then somehow it all just sort of comes into focus. And I love singing live. There’s nothing like it.
Q: What do you like best about performing at the Kennedy Center?
A: It’s always a lot bigger than I think. Every time I think, ‘Oh, I’ve covered the whole grounds,’ but then I haven’t and there’s another place I haven’t performed in. It’s just one of those places that keeps on giving. Some of my first concerts with orchestras were at the Kennedy Center, and it’s just lovely to be able to keep returning to a place because it feels familiar. And it’s also stunning. It’s a beautiful, beautiful building, and it feels like it’s built for people to perform. Those rooms, those halls are really set to allow for an optimal performance, which I think is really special. Not many places have that.
Q: How did you line up Kalukango and Platt as your guests?
A: There’s very few people that I like to sing with — I can count on both hands those people — and these two are some of the people I can count on my hands. Ben I know very, very well, and we haven’t had a chance to sing together on a stage like that. And obviously Joaquina was Nettie when I was placing Celie in “The Color Purple” on Broadway and has gone on to do some of the most amazing things. I love her voice. She’s got the most unique sound, and I want to hear her sing with a beautiful band in front of people and be around her again.
Q: This kind of spectacle is so different from your understated performance in “Drift.” What initially drew you to that role?
A: It was that quiet, knowing nature, and an understanding that she had come from something before. I think it’s just the idea that someone can be more than one thing. Just because you see them in a certain place, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a past and they haven’t had a life or they haven’t had experiences. I guess I just love the idea that she was so layered.
Q: As someone known for powerhouse performances, how did you approach playing a character who leaves so much unsaid?
A: I strangely think that she’s just as loud as the other characters. She just doesn’t say it with her words. Most of the things that she’s speaking or expressing, I think it all comes through her body language, the way she looks at someone, her eyes. She has this way of communicating without really using any words, and I still think that’s just as loud as a person shouting, sometimes louder, because as human beings that’s what we do. The best way to communicate is the way we use our hands, the way we communicate with our bodies, what we say with our faces. We can say one thing, but our face is saying something completely different.
Q: You also produced “Drift” and co-wrote and performed the credits song “It Would Be” with Laura Mvula. Having earned an Oscar nomination for songwriting with “Harriet” (2019), what would you say is the key to composing a song to accompany a film?
A: You have to know whose point of view you’re speaking from, and I think that you also have to know what you want to convey. You need to understand the story you’re talking about. And if it’s for a film, you need to know what that film is trying to speak about. For us, I think we decided that we would come from the character’s point of view, and maybe our point of view looking at the character, so that we could speak on the experience. I feel like it needs to give the listener an understanding of who this character is and what the experience has been.
Q: Production on the “Wicked” movies is set to resume soon now that the SAG-AFTRA strike is over. How did you feel about stepping back from the project when you were nearly finished?
A: This film, it takes a lot to do. We’re working long hours. We’re working every minute that we can get and we’re not necessarily taking a lot of breaks, and that is everyone from Jon to me to [co-star Ariana Grande]. So I think this gave us a moment to just sort of stop and breathe. It’s very strange to not be finished with a character and to be so close to the end of a run with a character. You’re holding onto some of the things that you may have picked up, so you don’t have to start from scratch. I don’t know what it’s going to be like on the first day of shooting. But I think I lived in her long enough to know who she is and where she is, and hopefully it won’t be too difficult to just jump right back in.
Cynthia Erivo & Friends
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-5600. kennedy-center.org.
Date: Dec. 6 at 8 p.m.