Jon M. Chu Discusses Meeting Cynthia Erivo for the First Time, Seeing Her Perform ‘Defying Gravity’ and Her Allyship to the API Community

This weekend, “Wicked” star Cynthia Erivo will receive the Gold Ally honor at the Gold House Gold Gala, and filmmaker Jon M. Chu will present the award to her.

Ahead of the Gala, Chu spoke with Variety celebrating his leading lady. He recalls the first time he met her over Zoom while casting for his upcoming movie musical  “Wicked.”

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Based on Gregory Maguire’s novel that inspired Broadway’s acclaimed musical of the same name, “Wicked” precedes Dorothy’s arrival in Oz and tells the legend of the world and the story behind Elphaba, (Erivo) the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda (Ariana Grande), who becomes the good witch.

Chu shares insight into the performance that blew him away, and why Erivo receiving the Gold Ally award has special meaning for him.

What’s your earliest memory of meeting Cynthia?

It was meeting her over Zoom. She was in a hotel room in New York. And I had already gone through a lot of auditions at that point. I was saving Cynthia for later in the process because I wanted to get to know the lay of the land before I brought her in. It wasn’t an audition, just a meet and greet for both of us, and she popped up on screen and I remember thinking, “Wow, she’s so cool.” She had the coolest glasses and nails. She had such a life and vibrancy about her that I didn’t quite expect. I had seen her performances and stuff on shows, and she is usually so regal and buttoned up. But on this, she was loose and felt so youthful. I thought, “Wow, to have that inner life of Elphaba would be so cool.” I remember being struck by her the moment she popped up on screen, and then we just started talking.

You received the A1 award in 2019, what does it mean to you that Cynthia is getting the Gold Ally award?

It’s very personal to me. When I think about allyship, Cynthia is quintessential to that. Even on set, in prep, talking about the script, talking about what kind of message we wanted to deliver through the characters of Elphaba and Glinda in “Wicked,” we met emotionally at a place of understanding each other’s experience and sharing experiences, in Hollywood and outside of Hollywood. We talked about what it felt like to be the other or be different than the community around us. So for me to be able to honor her in front of people, and thank her for listening to me, hearing me out and for her to be sharing her experiences with me and being more public about how we approach our place in Hollywood, definitely changed my life. To be able to honor her publicly like that, and give her the microphone is something that I have wanted to do for a long time. And to do that in front of the community of people that I know very well, the Gold House community, I’m very excited about it.

She lives by example. There’s no lecturing about it to me from her. It’s an example of standing up for what she believes in. It’s being brave, when you may be the only voice in the room to speak up to help guide the conversation and to make space for yourself. She really showed me how to do that.

So, the world has been teased a little bit of “Wicked” but was there a sequence of hers that blew you away?

Every time we were on set, because she’s singing live, blew us away. I would be in rehearsals with her, and it would be just me and her, or me, her and Ariana, or me, her and Stephen Schwartz and Marc Platt, and I would always wish that I had more people in the room to share it with. And now that we have it on film to be able to share that with millions of people all around the world is such a blessing. I can’t wait for the audience to experience it.  “Defying Gravity” is a gift. To hear her sing that. She’s singing that on wires, in the air while doing flips and spins. First of all, it’s difficult to see that on the ground, let alone in the air. But she has a masterful command over her air delivery, how she can breathe and execute those notes for that long. “The Wizard and I” shows such a huge range of Cynthia being vulnerable, young  and wide-eyed, and how we’re sort of yearning for something bigger. So the two together, “The Wizard and I” going to “Defying Gravity”  is the arc of this beautiful character of Elphaba that she so skillfully painted visually, emotionally, and musically.

 Was there a moment when she made you cry?

I think every day we were on set we cried at least once. But I think we were so emotionally connected to these characters because they were so tied to our personal lives. Even though it’s a big show with big sets, every day was healing and a true expression of something very real within her. The way she would take a line that I’ve heard a million times on the recordings on Broadway, performed by many people, but her specific way was very brutal and raw, and I appreciated that a lot.

 Can you talk about the importance of allyship to the API community?

Change doesn’t happen with just one community and one person. Allyship is extremely important for the movement as Hollywood changes, as the world changes into its next chapter of being a more open and diverse place with more points of view.

What is it like for you being here after all these years and the Gold House Gold Open movement for “Crazy Rich Asians”?

I’ll never forget when the Gold Open started in my family’s restaurant. Bing Chen (Gold House’s co-founder and CEO) called me up and brought allies from Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Hollywood together in my dad’s private room where he teaches cooking classes, where I had my fifth birthday party, and to see where that started. The seeds of how we could get whole communities to support the movie and many movies beyond that, it’s full circle to be back and to be honoring the next generation of leaders, movers and shakers. It’s a celebration of the progress that we’ve made, and to slap ourselves on the back and fist pump and say, “Let’s keep going.”

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