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Interview: Cynthia Erivo Talks Portraying the Legendary Aretha Franklin in ‘Genius: Aretha’

Actress and singer Cynthia Erivo is a master at anything she takes on. She has almost completed EGOT status with a Tony, a Grammy, and a Daytime Emmy for Broadway’s The Color Purple, and in many ways, she’s just getting started. Given her versatility as an artist, it’s a no brainer that she would take on icon Aretha Franklin, a legend whose music and soulful voice spanned across decades and genres.

Erivo plays Aretha in Genius: Aretha, and unlike a film, Aretha’s life story is told compellingly in the Nat Geo mini-series. The narrative resembles a jazz song as the series flashes back and forth through different periods of the singer’s life. Episodes dive into her childhood, her troubled marriage, and how the performer navigated the intricacies of finding her voice as an artist, juxtaposed with those who thought they knew what was best for her. Of course, the real highlight is Erivo, who weaves through the many versions of Aretha with ease. For Erivo, having the icon’s life told within the frame of a series was appealing. 

“It’s the idea that you got to see the whole human being. I think that was always a really wonderful thing to go through—to learn about a person, whether they be real or imagined,” said Erivo. “Her whole arc and story and what it is she has to say. Aretha’s life was full and storied and vast, and exploring all of that was a real pleasure.”

Cynthia Erivo was kind enough to speak to Awards Radar twice about her role as Aretha Franklin. Specifically, capturing Aretha through song, her Screen Actor Guild nomination, and her role as Elphaba in the highly anticipated film, Wicked.

Niki Cruz: You sing and act in Genius. Is it the dream when you get to do both, whether on Broadway or film and television? 

Cynthia Erivo: It is. It is helpful to combine the things that I’ve been blessed to be able to do, but really what I’m looking for is anything that gives me the chance to play someone who is unique and interesting. So yes, it’s wonderful to be able to do both of these things in a project, but it’s not the thing that’s the deciding factor.

NC: Given that you’re a master at acting and singing, who were your inspirations growing up?

CE: Aretha Franklin is definitely one of my inspirations. I think she was a master of storytelling. When learning to perform music for people, I looked to her to learn about what it was to tell the story through song, but I’ve had loads of inspirations as I was growing up. One of them was the first person to teach me about Shakespeare and what it felt like to speak. I just read the Cicely Tyson biography, and that was so inspiring. I realized there were so many connections that we share. I knew she inspired me, but I didn’t realize how much until I read it.

NC: For Genius, you were nominated for a Golden Globe, an Emmy, and most recently a SAG. For SAG specifically, what does it mean to have that nomination from your peers?

CE: It means the absolute world to be nominated in any shape, or form, but for this particular project, it was always going to mean the most just because I feel like it’s not just a sort of nod to the work I’m doing, but also like a nod to Aretha. It feels like Aretha’s hand is sort of on it, and it’s like she’s giving a wink to us and saying, “Oh, no, thank you, I deserve these flowers.” And I’m like a conduit that gets to just give it to her. It really is for her, but it means a great deal to be recognized by my peers.

NC: There was such a musicality in Aretha’s soul that you embodied from the way she moved, walked, her cadence. Can you talk about what that process was like? 

CE: Knowing that she was real and that there was so much to listen to watch, study was really a pleasure for me. I loved learning how she would respond to people and speak to people. I always say this, and it makes me sound like a geek, but I can’t help it. When you meet her for the first time in the 50s, or 60s, she’s sort of coy and doesn’t give too much away. When she starts to find her voice and decides to work for equality, she starts to speak out on race. In those interviews, she becomes a little bit more feisty. By the 80s, she knows exactly who she is. By the 90s, she is who we know and love — she’s the icon. 

As the music would shift and change, you would notice that the difference came with wherever she was in her life, and the stories she was telling shift and change with her, and I loved that. When it came to the music, I would sit with a song for two hours, breaking it down to the breaths and pauses. I really wanted to get into her brain about how she intended to tell this story. Why is she putting that breath and wait there? Why is she putting this stress on that word? No one recording is ever really the same. So if you hear a live recording, and then you hear a recorded version, that’s very different. So it depended on how she felt that day and what she wanted to say that day. We would pick the version that we wanted to go with, and I would learn a version as much as I possibly could and try to find the timbre and the tone in the music because it would change.

NC: The phrasing alone, from a studio recording to a live recording to the performance — it’s all very deliberate, and you can communicate a whole different story.

CE: Of course, there was one song called Never Grow Old from the Amazing Grace album that I was fighting against because when I first heard it, I just was like, “There’s no way I’m going to get this.” There’s no tempo. But when I listened, I understood what story she was telling, and it became really easy to understand where she would go next and what breaths she would take. So the phrasing really is deliberate because it’s about what story she’s telling and why.

NC: The whole arc of an artist finding their own voice and translating what that means in a song. Could you relate to that as an artist yourself?

CE: Very much so. Especially now that I’ve started to make my own music and I’m writing, you have to find the most effective way to communicate what you’re trying to say and what you’ve experienced to allow people to be welcomed into the story. I relate to it very much. So it’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s a very vulnerable place to live in, but when it feels right, it’s really special.

NC: Do you have a different relationship with Aretha’s music now?

CE: Oh, my goodness, that’s the strangest thing is once the show was done, I had to take a break from listening to music. It felt like Aretha was such a part of who I had become and who I was because I lived with her for such a long time. So it felt like taking a friend with you everywhere, and I needed a second. Now I understand what she’s trying to say when I listen to her music, and I know because I can hear everything better than I could hear it before, which is both wonderful and painstaking.

NC: Can you tell us a bit about taking on the role of Elphaba inWicked? Any early conversations with your co-star, Ariana Grande? 

CE: It is happening, and I am having conversations with her, and she’s wonderful. She’s like one of the sweetest human beings I’ve ever met, and I’m so looking forward to doing this. I think she’s just as excited as I am. It’s a dream come true for me. This is just sort of a special moment to be able to tell the story and bring other young women into the fold so they can also experience both sisterhood and Oz and the understanding that being different isn’t a bad thing. It’s massive, and I can’t believe it’s happening, and I’m so excited to be a part of it.

Genius: Aretha is currently available to watch on Nat Geo TV

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity] 

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Written by Niki Cruz

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