What Aretha Franklin did that made Cynthia Erivo’s life

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British-born actress and singer Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of Aretha Franklin in NatGeo’s “Genius: Aretha” is not just of a Category 5 music icon, but also of an ambitious alpha female grown-up in what one critic once referred to as Franklin’s “unending Stations of the Cross” life.

Aretha Franklin became the Queen of Soul both despite and because of deep traumas and pain, “her music embedded in global music history,” says Erivo (who’s won a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy Award and has been nominated for two Oscars). “I wanted to show her humanness, her vulnerability and the fact she wasn’t perfect. She was human yet still able to become what she became through her work, her music, and she maintained it a long time.”

During the pandemic year, Erivo filmed the eight-part television series weekdays and on the weekends recorded her debut album, due out this fall. She also finished a children’s book (also out this fall), starred as the Blue Fairy in Robert Zemeckis’ upcoming “Pinocchio,” sings this summer at the Hollywood Bowl and started her production company, Edith’s Daughter, with productions on the docket.

And she’ll be running in the New York Marathon this November, her second time. She laughs at length when asked if she might be a workaholic. “I guess I am. But I love what I do.”

Aretha’s ability to continuously morph her image over a five-decade period in contemporary music was itself almost a genius skill.

I think it took her a minute to find out what that image would alter to, but she was very aware and specific of her image. And what I love about Aretha is when she found it, she stuck to it. It was “This is me; this is what I do.” As an actor, it was a special thing to play with that gift — to go through it, explore it and mess around with it.

I understand you got the job by singing a snippet of Aretha’s “Ain’t No Way” on the red carpet. Is this true?

(Laughs) I was on the red carpet at the Tonys, and someone asked me to sing my favorite guilty song, so I sang “Ain’t No Way.” I honestly didn’t realize anyone was paying attention. I got a call just afterwards saying Clive Davis saw it and felt I was a good candidate for the series. I had no idea [the project] was happening until I got that call. It was wild.

Because Aretha was such a private person throughout her life, perhaps many fans did not realize the true depths of her childhood traumas. Were you aware of the troubling details of her past, or were you also surprised?

I knew she had a child at 12 and also at 14. I don’t think I knew … you know, it’s different when you put it all in context. I mean, it’s one thing to have children when you’re 12, which is traumatic in itself; but this person had these experiences, and yet she was still herself — she still became the Aretha Franklin. Which I believe is deeply relevant. That was the thing made abundantly clear to me: how this woman was able to come through the most impossible circumstances and become the person and artist we know and love. To me, it’s astounding.

The series also showcases the ups and downs and feasts and famines of a 50-year music career. When I interviewed her years ago, she said what kept her buoyed through everything was “the love of the music. Pure and simple. It never left me. It never let me down.”

We can feel it in her music. She just wanted to keep making music. She made turns: She went to Las Vegas, then kept moving forward. She decides, I’m going to sing with contemporary artists like George Michael, Annie Lennox, Lauryn Hill, and the list goes on until she does a version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” and you go: Wait — what? It was fabulous. She just never lost the joy of music; she never lost that passion. But in it all, she said, “I’m going to do it my way.”

Not being a singer, I can only guess the songs from the “Amazing Grace” episode were the toughest to sing, since they weren’t performance, per se, but real praise and worship. Were those songs filmed quickly, or did they take a lot of shoot-time?

They were the toughest. At first I was afraid of the song “Never Grow Old.” When you learn it, you see there’s no sign time. It’s almost like a personal recipe. She just sings. We shot the “Amazing Grace” episode over about a week, but the performance of the songs in church was shot in one day.

You probably felt quite good at the end of that day.

I did. I really did. It was one of those, you’re scared, you’re daunted, and then you start and it just feels good.

You graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. How did that help you take on this role?

It gave me a new perspective. When I first arrived, I thought, “How many strong roles can I play? What kind of strength can I put on stage?” But I was lucky enough to have an amazing acting teacher who said, “No. That’s not your job. Your job is to mine vulnerability. When you’re open and vulnerable is when we want to watch you, to see what you’ll do next; that’s when you’re able to connect to the people you’re playing.” And she was right. It’s the thing I take with me to every character I play. Because they can be strong, but what comes through most is their vulnerability; it comes through their eyes and is what audiences want to watch.

So when actors do go inside themselves to find their own vulnerable spot, what inside helped you inhabit Aretha?

She had so many things to juggle. It wasn’t just being a mom. It was being a daughter, an entertainer, a sister, a wife, a singer, an icon; sometimes she’d get it wrong. My being unafraid to be vulnerable made it easier to be unafraid of not always showing Aretha’s perfection. She’s human. Human. I think the most important thing about her was she wasn’t perfect and was just trying to work it all out much of her life. But she was able to do so in a way that made sure she’s imported into everybody’s houses and homes and lives all over the world. And what we saw most was her love of the music.

You met her in person, yes?

It was after a show of “The Color Purple,” and I didn’t know she was in the audience. She came backstage and was funny and joking and laughing. When I went downstairs to meet her, she sang the last line of my song to me. It was crazy. The second time was when I performed at the Kennedy Center Honors. I remember she wore a really cool red dress. I didn’t know until I saw the playback, but as I was singing “The Impossible Dream,” she was in the audience, singing along with her head back and her eyes closed. When I saw that, I just said, “OK, my life is made.”

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