Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin in National Geographic’s anthology series. Picture: Supplied
Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin in National Geographic’s anthology series. Picture: Supplied

Cynthia Erivo opens up about channelling the Queen of Soul in 'Genius: Aretha'

By Debashine Thangevelo Time of article published Jul 4, 2021

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While Aretha Franklin, revered around the world as the Queen of Soul, passed away on August 16, 2018, her legacy continues as her story is immortalised on the small and big screen.

Her biopic, “Respect”, is expected to release in August. Prior to her passing, she chose Jennifer Hudson to tell her story on the big screen.

Meanwhile, award-winning actress, singer and songwriter, Cynthia Erivo, was handpicked by creatives to play the icon in National Geographic’s anthology “Genius” series.

Of course, viewers will remember Erivo from “The Outsider”, a psychological thriller-horror based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, which aired on the small screen.

Interestingly, Erivo wasn’t aware she was even considered for the part.

At a recently-held virtual press junket, she said: “I didn’t even know I was in the running. I was in the car on my way to work when I got this phone call.

“I was in shock and really flattered that someone felt that this person’s life would be safe in my hands.”

Interestingly, she registered on the radar of the creatives after someone sent in a video of her.

“A video of me singing on the red carpet was sent to someone. And they said, ‘This girl might be right for it’.

“So, that happening, not really even knowing it was a possibility, sort of shakes you a little bit.”

When asked if slipping into the skin of a fictional one was easier than a real-life one, the 34 year old British actress said: “I think both have really lovely qualities. One where you are imagining and creating something from scratch.

“You are introducing yourself to a new person. Then, to portray a real person. Getting to know them is really fun.

“Getting to find out what makes them tick, what makes them vulnerable, what they want, is kind of like learning to be a new person again.

“I wouldn’t choose between the two. Both have their own challenges and greatnesses.”

Aside from being an award-winning legend, Franklin was also a mother, an activist and a humanitarian - roles she never took lightly.

Fans, young and old, idolised her as an artist. As much as her gospel-charged soulful ballads stuck a chord with fans, it was also a window into her soul.

Cynthia Erivo slipping into the skin of the Queen of Soul. Picture: Supplied

In understanding her character, Erivo learned a few things about her and implemented them into her life as well..

She shared: “Actually, Aretha from time to time was quite shy. She had to overcome a lot of that and ended up becoming confident.

“For me, it’s allowed me to really believe in the work that I am able to put forward and to believe in the talent I have to put good work forward.

“She was also a wonderful businesswoman and put her foot down when it came to being a part of the world she created and being credited in the right way.

“And that instilled a bit of confidence in me, too, to ask for what I deserve with the work I do.”

Along the way, the actress got to glean more about the Queen of Soul, too.

Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin (foreground), rehearsing with her backup singers (L to R) played by Kameelah Williams, Patrice Covington (as Erma Franklin) and Erika Jerry. Picture: National Geographic/Richard DuCree

She admitted: “The first aspect is probably, I knew this but didn’t know how in-depth this was.

“I didn’t know about her close relationship with Martin Luther King and how much she worked with him to help with the civil rights movement.

“I don’t think people knew she used her music in order to help that movement.

“On top of that, her as a mother, raising four children and being the Aretha that we know and love, is an incredible feat.”

Reflecting on her first memory of being introduced to Franklin’s music, she revealed: “So the first time I heard Aretha Franklin, I was in my mum’s car, we were on our way to school.

“I think I was nine or 10 years old, and ‘Think’ was playing. There was something about her voice that made me sit up and listen.”

That connectivity has stayed with Erivo since. Now, she gets to capture Franklin’s essence through her performance.

On what that is, she shared: “First of all, there is her musical essence. There is the essence of resilience.

“She’s a combination of many different things that become this observer in the room and uses what she sees, feels and experiences around her to create the music that she then gives to us.

“She was a very private person but if you listen to the songs, you could understand the experience she was living through often.

“I think her essence is the experiences that are unspoken that we get to listen to in the music she creates.”

As much as Franklin achieved great success, she was also a victim of domestic abuse.

And the creators wove the gender-based violence narrative into the storyline.

Erivo said: “Those scenes are never pleasant. They never feel great. But there is an importance in showing that this happens.

“There is a great deal of responsibility to make sure that what is shown is thoughtful and careful and that we are all very safe in that moment.

“My scene partner was very caring and was very sincere and aware of me and my body.

“Those scenes are tough to shoot but you know they are painful to be in and painful to watch.”

The costumes also helped in getting into the psyche of the character.

Erivo shared: “Costume in general helps me to find the person. It’s just a helpful thing, it’s a visual nod to who those people were.

“And a lot of research went into the pieces that we were wearing. Some of them were very much based on the originals.

“The costume designer really did the work to reach out to the printers who could make sure the prints could work.

“For me, it was very important. She was a fashion icon. She was into changing her hair and style.

When we had a specific outfit, I would know it was in the 70s. These clothes add to the indication as to where she was in her life, too.”

As for her biggest challenge in taking on the role, Erivo admitted: “Probably learning all of the songs. We have eight episodes.

“In each episode, on average, there were about three or four songs. This was more of a pleasure than a challenge, to be honest. I started as a fan.

“Then I got to understand the person that she was.

“What she had been through to get to where she was, was inspiring.

“The only challenge was to make sure that whenever I did a scene, it was as truthful and sincere as possible.”

The series unpacks Franklin’s rise to fame, her personal setbacks and her victories. It’s inspirational and, at times, heartbreaking.

“Genius: Aretha” airs on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) on Wednesdays at 9pm.

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