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

When Cynthia Erivo was little, it seemed to her Aretha Franklin was on the radio all the time. She remembers the name of the radio stati...


When Cynthia Erivo was little, it seemed to her Aretha Franklin was on the radio all the time. She remembers the name of the radio station (Magic FM) and the exact songs that seemed to be on infinite repeat: “Chain of Fools”; “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves”; “I Knew You Were Waiting”; and “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).”

Years later as an adult, Erivo was starring in the Broadway musical, “The Color Purple” — a performance that would win her a Tony Award. And there was Franklin, after the show, in person, announcing her arrival by singing the last line of Erivo’s big song back to her.

“And I’m hereeee,” Franklin sang. Erivo had no idea she was going to be.

“That has stuck with me,” Erivo said in a telephone interview Tuesday, years after the encounter and hours after she was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Franklin in the National Geographic series “Genius: Aretha.”

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

Erivo hopped on the phone Tuesday for a quick conversation that included a few brief “musical interludes.” She discussed her portrayal of Franklin, what she learned about her by playing her, and the Emmy nod for the performance. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

I’m sorry if this is a glib way to ask this, but Aretha means so much to so many people. Why on earth would you want to take on the pressure of playing such an iconic person?

I don’t think I think of the pressures first. I think that sort of sets in afterward. I’m always open to opportunities that come my way, and I rarely question the universe because of them. It was such a huge thing to come to me, and the way it came was so happenstance and strange that it felt like it was kismet.

I was on a 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 agent said, “Hey, they would like you to do this role?” It was just such a random, wild card thing to have happened that it felt good. My gut said that this feels right. And every step of the way, it felt right.

It’s not that I take on iconic roles for the pressure. I take on people that I may not have had the chance to really get to know and meet. And I was interested in finding out who Aretha was as a person, as a human being — and being able to do that as her just felt like it made me closer.

There is this tension in the show between the public Aretha and the private one. And I wonder what it was that you most wanted to reveal about her?

Most people know her as the already famed Queen of Soul — and not many people realize how much work it took to get there; not just actual work, but like, personal, human work. It took a long time for her to find out who she was as a human being. And I think people forget that she was doing that all while being a mother — a young mother — and it took time.

I think that there’s something special about someone who just keeps trying, and she kept trying, she kept moving forward, even when it didn’t work. There was a whole 15 to 20 year period where it just wasn’t working. And for some reason, she kept the faith, she kept confidence and belief in herself and kept moving forward and found her sound, found out who she was.

There’s such a wonderful human progression that I think people don’t realize is actually the power behind her music.

Obviously music is such a big piece of this. What part of what part of Aretha did you discover in the music? What role did the music play in this whole process for you?

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

I think one of my favorite, favorite performances is when she sings “Amazing Grace.” If you just watch very closely, she stood by James Cleveland and James Cleveland is holding her hand. And at one point it’s like she’s going to take flight. And then when she comes out, that all sort of falls away. When she sings, we get a look through the window — we look at who she is, and that window closes almost automatically when she stops. And there’s something really special about the way she can communicate with music. And I had to find that from her.

There was a song called “Never Grow Old” that I was petrified to learn because it had no time signature and she, playing the piano, is leading the vocal. So there’s no tempo set, there’s no beginning, there’s no guidance. Her voice is free.

The lyric is: I have heard of a land on the far away strand

And she sings: I have heard of a land on the far, faaar away strand

Why would she need to repeat the word “far?” She does, and it makes you understand that this isn’t just a car ride away or a plane ride away, it’s somewhere we can’t even imagine exists, but it does.

This is a heck of a category you’ve been nominated in. And so this is a little corny, but, have had any time to process what this nomination means to you?

It’s wild and crazy. And it still comes in waves. I think the most amazing thing is to be nominated with Michaela (Coel) again. Michaela and I have known each other for a really long time. We’ve really been through it. And I am so, so glad to be sharing this category with her and with those wonderful women: With Anya (Taylor-Joy,), with Elizabeth (Olsen), with Kate (Winslet). I mean, Kate Winslet. Come on. I definitely have watched “Titanic” a million times at this point and Rose is firmly tattooed on my brain. So the idea that I could be in a category with these incredible women is beyond belief and a dream come true.

And for this — to have it for this particularly — is just awesome, because it means that it’s not just a celebration of my work, but it’s a celebration of what Aretha put out in the world. And that is more than I could ever ask for.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Cynthia Erivo of ‘Genius: Aretha,’ on Playing the Queen of Soul
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