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Cynthia Erivo on Discovering Aretha Franklin’s Spirit

When it comes to playing legends, Cynthia Erivo is becoming an expert. Her portrayal of Harriet Tubman in 2019’s Harriet earned her an Oscar nomination. And now, her incredible turn as Aretha Franklin on Nat Geo’s televised biopic may just feature her finest work yet. Genius: Aretha is a spectacular showcase for what made Franklin such a remarkable gift to American popular music, and Erivo is more than up for the challenge for channeling her heart and spirit. Erivo sat down with RELEVANT to talk about the challenges of playing the Queen of Soul and what the experience taught her.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You’re playing a figure that many, many people have very strong feelings about. Does that create a lot of pressure?

I guess there is pressure to get it right but the fact is, you don’t have any control over what’s right. Everyone has their own idea over who this person is. There are millions and millions of people in the world who have an idea of who Aretha is and who she should be and what she should look like, many of whom never met her and don’t know anything. 

You have to trust that you’ve done the research. You’ve done the work. You have a great team around you. The director has your back. The writer has your back. Costume has your back. Makeup has your back. To be able to tell a full story. I made sure I was armed with incredible people who were ready to go on the journey with me.

My main job was to try and tell the story as fully as possible. That meant that I wanted to learn about the music, the skills that she had, the way she would use a song, the way she would feed an emotion through a piece of music, the way she would sing a song, the different tricks she would use and the breaths she would take. Those things add up to who she was. I relish all of those things. I don’t run away from things that make me nervous. I run towards. If I’m nervous, that just means I care. 

Aretha Franklin, played by Cynthia Erivo, at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

You mentioned the research you did into Aretha’s life. What did you learn during that research that you didn’t know before? 

I didn’t know a couple things. I didn’t know that it took her such a long time to find her sound. When I was around, when I was able to understand the music and recognized Aretha’s voice, I didn’t realize that it had taken her almost ten years to find her sound and start her career as we know her now. I didn’t realize that she’d been singing jazz. There’s a whole album of hers that’s just jazz standards, but it wasn’t working. She had to go back, find the root of her music – which was in Gospel — bring that to the forefront and put on what she was wonderful at doing: expressing emotion. Whether it was a love song or a song about dance, whatever. Combining it all with her beginnings to create the sound we know and love. I just didn’t know. 

I didn’t know how hard she had to fight to be given the credit as a producer. I didn’t know she had to fight for that as much as she did. I didn’t know about the relationship she had with Dr. Martin Luther King. I didn’t know she had such huge input in the Civil Rights Movement. I had no idea. 

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Learning all of these things, such a varied, storied, full life she led all while raising three children … I didn’t know all that. 

Aretha Franklin, played by Cynthia Erivo, performs on stage after being crowned “Queen of Soul”. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

So many important figures in American music history, but Aretha still feels singular. What is it about her that has made her so timeless?

She has this ability to shift through styles, times and still connect with the things she’s singing, which means she gets to connect with everybody. A little girl in London whose favorite song is Ain’t No Way, or Think or RESPECT now has a connection with someone in New York whose favorite song is The Freeway of Love. Two very different styles but she has this ability to connect through music because her catalog is so vast. But she still manages to find space in all these different styles. That’s a very special thing to me. To be able to go through all these styles without having to sacrifice herself as a writer and as a person. 

 

Genius: Aretha premiers Sunday, March 21 on NatGeo.

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