Want to know what made Aretha Franklin tick? Cynthia Erivo found a surprising source

A woman in a sparkly grey dress sings into a microphone on stage, wearing a crown
Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin in “Genius: Aretha.”
(Richard DuCree / National Geographic)

As an actor and singer, Cynthia Erivo knows how to command a stage. But to do so as someone else — someone like Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul — can be a peculiar feeling.

“I know this may sound very, very strange and airy fairy, but it feels like they sort of step into the room for a second,” Erivo says in the latest episode of the L.A. Times podcast “The Envelope.”


It made preparation all the more key for Erivo as she took on the role of the powerhouse singer in “Genius: Aretha,” the National Geographic series chronicling Franklin’s life and work. Erivo says she relied heavily on Franklin’s media interviews and appearances, including a 1976 conversation with Dick Clark on “American Bandstand” to promote her album “Sparkle.” Erivo picked up the nuances of Franklin’s personality by paying close attention to how the singer would interact with a person she didn’t know well.

“Whenever I watched interviews from like the late ’60s into the ’70s, she was really quiet in her interviews,” Erivo says. “And then towards the ’80s and the ’90s, she started having more fun. She would play jokes and she’d laugh with the interviewer.”

After scoring raves for ‘The Color Purple’ and ‘Harriet,’ Erivo takes on her most challenging assignment to date: playing Aretha Franklin in NatGeo’s ‘Genius.’

March 17, 2021

A 1974 appearance as the mystery guest on game show “What’s My Line?” proved particularly enlightening.

“There is really cool footage of her being a guest on a game show. And all of her answers are like yes/no answers,” Erivo says. “But it’s really about how she says a yes or a no. The interviewer asks her about whether or not she — it was a tongue-in-cheek, ironic question like, ‘Are you a star?’ And she goes, ‘Well ... yes.’ There’s just this demure, come-hither way of speaking to people that makes you come in because she doesn’t have to project. She makes you come towards her.”

Aretha Franklin, circa 1960, and Cynthia Erivo as Franklin in "Genius: Aretha."
Aretha Franklin circa 1960, left, and Cynthia Erivo as Franklin in National Geographic’s “Genius: Aretha.”
(RB / Redferns; Richard DuCree / National Geographic)

Such clips weren’t the only resources Erivo found essential when it came to transforming into Franklin.


Erivo studied the 2018 concert film “Amazing Grace,” which features footage shot by Sydney Pollack of Franklin recording her 1972 live album of the same name. And of course she listened to Franklin’s music, finding particular resonance in “Aretha Live at Fillmore West,” released in 1971, which featured a guest duet with Ray Charles; as well as Franklin’s 1972 album, “Young, Gifted and Black.”

Erivo didn’t stop with the look and sound of Franklin. The actress has long made it part of her process to identify a scent that captures the essence of the character she’s playing. And Tom Ford’s Noir was the perfume that helped her find a way into the legendary singer.

“It was sweet and strong at the same time, which is kind of her, really,” Erivo says. “She’s got this combination of strong and demure and graceful and sweet. She could be spiky if she wanted to. But she could also be really, really lovely.”

Starring Cynthia Erivo, the new season of National Geographic’s anthology doesn’t quite ‘explain’ Franklin’s genius. But it will remind you of it.

March 19, 2021

Listen to “The Envelope” to hear the rest of our interview with Erivo, including how her work on “Genius” fueled her as she made her own record and her thoughts on why it’s not a problem that the the series doesn’t feature one of Franklin’s most iconic songs, “Respect.” Plus: Hear reaction to the 2021 Academy Awards from L.A. Times columnists Glenn Whipp and Mary McNamara.

If you like learning more about what went into the making of the most talked-about movies and TV shows of the moment, check out our past conversations with “Small Axe’s” Steve McQueen and “Promising Young Woman’s” Emerald Fennell. Upcoming interviews include Kate Winslet for “Mare of Easttown,” Steven Canals for “Pose” and more.

Subscribe via Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes post every Wednesday.

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