‘GENIUS: ARETHA,’ Cynthia Erivo plays Queen of Soul & respects her genius

Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin in National Geographic’s GENIUS: ARETHA. (National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

 What was Cynthia Erivo thinking when she took on the role of Aretha Franklin for Genius: Aretha, a glorious four-night, eight-hour mini-series for the National Geographic Channel?

 To step into the shoes of the Queen of Soul, and show the genius of the lady and all the complexities of her career, personal life, and activism took guts. It also took all of Erivo’s monstrous talent as an actress and singer to present an unflinching portrait of Aretha.

 The fearless Erivo is already a Grammy, Emmy, and Tony (The Color Purple) winner, plus earned two Oscar nominations for Harriet (for Best Actress and Best Song in the abolitionist Harriet Tubman film). Now she is magnificent as Aretha.

 “I love Aretha.  I’ve been listening to her since I was little. I learned to sing and tell stories that way, by listening to her,” Erivo stated about her respect for Franklin during a revealing interview session via satellite with the Television Critics Association (TCA).

 The 34-year-old British actress explained to the TCA that she approach her “Genius” role “by paying attention to the music, listening to her voice, listening to how she communicates with her music. Reading. I was lucky, because now this amazing documentary ‘Amazing Grace’ is out, and it’s a really wonderful look into the relationship she has with people and the way she communicates, the way she is with others. I’ve been poring over lots of her interviews to find out her cadence and just different things really. I get to be a geek of something I really love. That’s how I’ve been getting into her.”

 Both Cynthia Erivo and the late Aretha Franklin were blessed with spectacular voices. But there are differences between the two, which Erivo said she studied. “I’ve learned from her. I think the difference is that both of us had different life experiences and different relationships with music. A lot of my voice comes from her because I’ve been listening to her for such a long time. And she has definitely had years on me in her experience with her voice. I’m still learning mine, so I don’t think I’m ever not going to be a pupil when it comes to music and singing and vocalizing. But I think that being able to learn her voice and get into the intricacies of what she does with it, because there is genius in that. It’s eye opening and I’m learning something every day. I’m learning how to use my voice in a completely different way which I’m really thrilled about.  So, to quantify, I think it’s an educational thing for me. I think it’s relearning how to use my voice in a completely different way.”

 For Erivo it was about finding the “genius” in the sound that makes Aretha’s art timeless.

 Genius is an Emmy-winning anthology series that dramatizes the fascinating stories of the world’s most brilliant innovators, their extraordinary achievements and with their volatile, passionate and complex personal relationships. This season Aretha Franklin’s musical genius and incomparable career is explored, as well as the immeasurable impact and lasting influence she has had on music and culture around the world. Franklin was a gospel prodigy, an outspoken civil rights champion and widely honored as one of the greatest singers of the past 50 years and the Queen of Soul.

 Genius: Aretha, is storytelling with soul with a four-night, eight-hour mini-series on the National Geographic Channel premiering Sunday, March 21, with episodes available the next day on Hulu. Tune in.

Margie Barron has written for a wide variety of outlets including Gannett newspapers, Nickelodeon, Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine, Fresh!, Senior Life, Production Update, airline magazines, etc. Margie is also proud to have been half of the husband & wife writing team Frank & Margie Barron, who had written together for various entertainment and travel publications for more than 38 years.