Cynthia Erivo from ‘Genius: Aretha’ on Playing the Queen of Soul


When Cynthia Erivo was little, it seemed to her that Aretha Franklin was always on the radio. He remembers the name of the radio station (Magic FM) and the songs that seemed to repeat over and over: “Chain of Fools”; “Brothers Do It For Themselves”; “I Knew You Was Waiting”; and “(I Will Do This) Until You Come Back To Me.”

Years later, as an adult, Erivo starred in the Broadway musical “The Color Purple,” a performance that would earn her a Tony Award. And after the show there was Franklin, proclaiming his arrival by singing the last line of Erivo’s great song over and over. him.

“And I’m Here” Franklin sang. Erivo had no idea it would be her.

“This is stuck in my head,” Erivo said in a phone interview Tuesday, years after the encounter and hours after he was nominated for an Emmy for playing Franklin on the National Geographic series. “Genius: Aretha.”

“I met him again during the Kennedy Center Honors and he remembered me,” Erivo added of Franklin. “And I thought, ‘Of all the people to remember, you remember me.’

Erivo jumped on the phone for a quick talk Tuesday that included a few short “musical breaks”. She got her portrayal of Franklin, what she learned about him by playing him, and the Emmy nod for the performance. These are edited excerpts from the speech.

Sorry if this is a rude way of asking, but Aretha means a lot to so many people. Why would you want to take the pressure of playing such an iconic person?

I don’t think I thought of prints first. I guess that kind of comes into play later. I’m always open to opportunities that come my way, and I rarely question the universe because of them. Coming to me was such a big thing, the way it came was so random and strange that it felt like fate.

I was on the red carpet going to the Tonys, someone asked me to sing one of my favorite songs, I sang “Ain’t No Way” and then my manager said, “Hey, they want you to do this role”. “Something so random and wild that it felt good. I had a gut feeling it was true. And every step of the way, it felt right.

Not that I took on iconic roles for print. I hire people I may not have had the opportunity to really get to know and meet. And I was interested in figuring out who Aretha was as a human being, as a human being – and being able to do that because she felt it brought me closer.

There is tension between the public Aretha and the private in the show. And I wonder what you most wanted to reveal about him?

Most people know her as the already famous Soul Queen – and many people don’t realize how hard it is to get there; not just real business, but personal, like human work. It took him a long time to find out who he was as a person. And I think people forget that she did that when she was a mother – a young mother – and it took time.

I think there’s something special about someone who keeps trying and keeps trying, moving forward even if it doesn’t work. There was a period of 15 to 20 years when he didn’t work. And for some reason she kept her faith, she kept her confidence and faith and kept moving forward and she found her voice, she found who she was.

There is so much human progress that I don’t think people realize that he is the power behind his music.

Frankly, music is a huge part of that. What part of Aretha did you discover in music? What role did music play for you in this whole process?

I know it sounds cliché to say, but music, songwriting and singing is storytelling. For Aretha, this was storytelling for her because she didn’t reveal much about herself to anyone. But I think when you go back and listen to these songs and place them where they were sung and set, they reveal something about who he was.

I think one of my favorite, favorite performances is when she sings “Amazing Grace.” If you watch very closely, he’s standing next to James Cleveland and James Cleveland is holding his hand. And at some point it seems to fly. And then when he comes out, everything falls apart. When she sings, we look out the window – we look at who it is, and when she stops, that window closes almost automatically. And there’s something really special about the way he communicates with music. And I had to find it from him.

There was a song called “Never Grow Old”, I was afraid to find out because it didn’t have a time signature and he plays the piano and conducts the vocals. So there is no set pace, no beginning, no guidance. His voice is free.

Lyrics: I heard a land on the far shore

And sings: I heard a land far away, on a far shore

Why does he have to repeat the word “far”? It does, and it makes you realize that it’s not just a car ride or a plane ride away, it’s a place we couldn’t even imagine existed, but it is.

This is a category for which you are nominated. So this is a bit stale, but have you ever had time to understand what this nomination means to you?

Wild and crazy. And it still comes in waves. I think the most surprising thing is to be nominated again with Michaela (Coel). Michaela and I have known each other for a very long time. We really experienced this. And I’m very, very happy to share this category with him and those wonderful women: with Anya (Taylor-Joy,) Elizabeth (Olsen)with Kate (Winslet). I mean, Kate Winslet. Lets. I’ve definitely watched “Titanic” a million times at this point and Rose has gotten a solid tattoo on my brain. So the idea that I could be in the same category as these incredible women is unbelievable and a dream come true.

And for that—to have it specifically for—it’s great, because it means it’s not just a celebration of my work, but a celebration of what Aretha is spreading around the world. And that’s more than I could ask for.


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