Glen Wilson/Focus Features

The Tony winner transforms into the legendary abolitionist for the biopic, opening later this year

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February 06, 2019 09:00 AM

Harriet has arrived!

In an exclusive first look at Harriet, Broadway and Widows star Cynthia Erivo steps into history as abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who brought hundreds of slaves to freedom in the 19th century.

“I don’t think she set out to be a superhero,” Erivo, 32, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I think she just set out to do the right thing.”

Growing up in the U.K., the actress-singer says she knew “pretty much what everybody knows” about Tubman, plus one detail that stuck out to her.

“I knew she was small like me,” the 5-foot-1-inch Tony winner says. “I knew she was 5 foot, or 4’11″. It fascinated me because I realize this woman was extraordinary because she was small and like me in every sense of the word.”

Erivo in Harriet.
Glen Wilson/Focus Features

Erivo dove into history to learn even more about Tubman, and even paid a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“What surprised me the most about her — and it shouldn’t have really — was how much she loved John Tubman,” Erivo says of her character’s husband. “That was the love of her life. And essentially, it was heartbreak that got her on the road to doing all the good things that she did. Most of us normally, if we find out we’ve been cheated on, we take a minute to wallow in self-pity. She did the complete opposite and decided that she was to help others.”

RELATED VIDEO: ‘The Color Purple’’s Cynthia Erivo Slays Cover of Beyoncé’s ‘Sandcastles’!

Revealing her take on Tubman during Black History Month “means a lot” to Erivo, she says. “It’s a new way of looking at Harriet. She was a hero, and now we get to really tell her story because we haven’t really heard her story. It’s been long overdue.”

  • For more on Cynthia Erivo, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday

Harriet, also starring Joe Alwyn, Janelle Monae, Jennifer Nettles and Leslie Odom Jr., opens later this year.

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