Cynthia Erivo (‘Genius: Aretha’) on being ‘blown away’ by opportunity to portray the Queen of Soul

“I was honored that they would think I was the right person to be able to tell her story,” says Emmy, Grammy and Tony winner Cynthia Erivo when describing her reaction to being cast in National Geographic’s bioseries about Aretha Franklin, “Genius: Aretha.” “I had no idea that this was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye. When I got the call that someone was watching me sing something on the red carpet, because that’s essentially how it happened, I was just blown away.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.

“There’s a few things really,” Erivo explains while describing the genius of Franklin. “It isn’t just the sound that she made. It isn’t just the music she made. It’s the way she made it. It’s who she was and the way she was able to compartmentalize and split herself into different places in order to make things happen. She was a friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, she was a part of the Civil Rights movement, she was able to compose and write music without actually having the formal education. Her concert pianist work was second to none. And she was able to find notes and keys that others could only dream of even though she had never really taken full lessons. More than anything, over the span of the life that she had, it’s all the different styles of music that she was able to create.”

“I’m lucky because I’ve been singing a long time and I’ve been listening to her music for a long, long time,” Erivo expounds while describing how she trained her own voice to mimic Franklin’s. “I had an incredible vocal coach who would sit with me and we would listen to the songs that we were going to do over and over again. We would spend at least an hour per song just to break it down and find the little decisions that she would make and those nuances that she would have in each of the songs. I listened to a lot of her live music because often those were the pieces that we were pulling from to perform. No one performance is ever the same. If you hear a performance on a recording, seeing a live performance is totally different because now she has the freedom to do with it whatever she pleases.”

“My favorite thing about learning her mannerisms was watching her interviews,” Erivo admits. “I loved watching how she was with different people and how that changed over time. When you watch her in an interview in the 60s, 70s, she’s really demure, pulled back, quiet. It always makes the interviewer lean in. I loved how small it would sometimes be. And then if you push into the 80s and 90s she starts to have fun. There are more interviews of her laughing and having fun and playing with people who are interviewing her. I think it’s because at that moment she could just be who she wanted to be and make the music she wanted to make. She was doing things with George Michael and Annie Lennox and Lauryn Hill. She was just sort of making whatever she felt like making.”

Erivo won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Celie in the 2015 Broadway revival of “The Color Purple.” That performance subsequently led to a Grammy Award for the cast recording and a Daytime Emmy for her musical performance on “The Today Show.” She goes on to describe how her theater background prepared her for work in film and television, her “lovely” experience acting alongside Emmy winner Courtney B. Vance and her favorite moments portraying the Queen of Soul.

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