The glow that comes to Cynthia Erivo’s face as she discusses her new project, “Genius: Aretha,” is evidence of how she feels about stepping into the shoes — and voice — of music legend Aretha Franklin. Erivo is thrilled about the third season of National Geographic‘s biographical anthology series, which details Franklin’s groundbreaking career and often stormy life offstage.
But that excitement is accompanied by something else: a sizable dose of anxiety.
Sitting in the backyard of her Los Angeles home, a trace of unease creeps into Erivo’s voice as she speculates how audiences will respond to her portrayal of the Queen of Soul, who died in August 2018 at 76.
The actress, who won raves for her starring roles in the stage musical “The Color Purple” and the Harriet Tubman biopic “Harriet,” recalls being unprepared for, and shaken up by, the rapturous accolades that followed those triumphs.
“When I did ‘The Color Purple,’ it was one of those moments when I could feel my life shifting and changing,” Erivo says in her melodic British accent. “‘Harriet’ was no different — like a tectonic plate almost. I don’t know if I expected it to happen, because really and truly for me, it was about trying to get the story right, and sometimes you can be so entrenched in that process that it takes a minute to step out of yourself and realize, ‘Oh, my God, this whole thing is different now.’”
She pauses before adding, “In my head, I’m sort of in a small way resisting how much this may change things. In my head, I’m looking at, ‘Will this be OK? Will people enjoy this? Will it sound OK?’ I just want it to be good.”
Asked if she is nervous, she flashes a thoughtful smile: “Yes, I’m very nervous. I’m always nervous. Can’t help being nervous. When you put your heart and soul into something, you hope that when people watch it, that’s what they get — that this person cared when they were doing it, that they put everything they could into it. I just want people to know that it all comes from a very genuine place.”
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The eight-part miniseries, premiering Sunday and running for four consecutive nights, depicts Franklin’s creative growth starting as a young girl performing on the gospel circuit with her father, Baptist minister C.L. Franklin, and follows her through the 1970s and ‘80s as she transforms into a force of nature, recording numerous hits such as “Respect,” “Rock Steady” and “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” as well as protest songs and the landmark gospel album “Amazing Grace.”
Franklin’s tumultuous personal life, which included abusive relationships and a rivalry with her sisters, is chronicled along with her prominence as a civil rights activist and her battles with white executives for control of her career, including the chance to produce her own music. The parallels between her struggles and hot-button tensions around race and racism in American culture gives “Genius: Aretha” added topicality.
The series also has an A-list pedigree: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (“Topdog/Underdog”) serves as showrunner and lead writer and is also an executive producer alongside Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. Record producer Clive Davis and Atlantic Records Chief Executive Craig Kallman, both major figures who worked with Franklin, are executive producers as well. And the cast includes Emmy winners Courtney B. Vance (“Lovecraft Country”) and David Cross (“Arrested Development”).
But at center stage is Erivo, whose portrayal of the abused but eventually victorious heroine Celie in “The Color Purple” in 2016 propelled her into the elite ranks of working actresses, bouncing among high-profile stage, film and TV projects. In addition to winning a Tony Award for lead actress in a musical, Erivo scored a Grammy (for musical theater album) and an Emmy (for musical performance in a daytime program). Her fierce portrait as Tubman scored her an Oscar nomination for lead actress, and she cowrote that film’s Oscar-nominated song, “Stand Up.”
Other highlights include featured roles in the film dramas “Widows,” “Bad Times at the El Royale” and HBO’s horror miniseries “The Outsider,” winning praise for her role as the quietly eccentric private investigator Holly Gibney.
That’s just for starters. Off-screen, she finished her first book, “Remember to Dream, Ebere,” a children’s book centered around a mother and daughter and the dreams they build together. Also on the horizon is her first album — a collection of songs that she wrote or cowrote. And she’s launched a production company, Edith’s Daughter, with a special mission: “I want to be able to tell stories of Black women in spaces where we’re not really seen.”
That issue is key with the actress, who says it was “bittersweet” to be the only Black acting nominee in 2020 for “Harriet.”
Erivo’s busy slate this year includes a starring role alongside Nicole Kidman, Alison Brie and Merritt Wever in Apple’s “Roar,” an anthology series about what it means to be a woman. Plus, she’s signed on to play the Blue Fairy in Disney’s live-action remake of “Pinocchio.”
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As for Franklin, the petite Erivo might at first glance seem an unlikely choice to take on one of American music’s most iconic, larger-than-life personas. She bears little physical resemblance to the singer — her distinctive style includes closely cropped hair, which she colors various bright shades, and a warm smile punctuated by a slight gap in her front teeth. On this day, she was wearing a nose ring and sparkly, lethally long fingernails.
But much like Jamie Foxx’s uncanny, Oscar-winning performance as Ray Charles in “Ray,” Erivo instantly establishes herself as Franklin, convincingly capturing the singer’s strengths, vulnerabilities, charisma and visionary spirit. And instead of lip-syncing to Franklin’s recordings, Erivo performs several of Franklin’s hits herself, eerily re-creating the Queen of Soul’s distinctive sound and style.
Anthony Hemingway, an executive producer and director on “Genius: Aretha,” said he was amazed by Erivo’s performance: “I was mesmerized daily. Cynthia is so petite, but she had all the mannerisms, the style and grace. When I was front and center, seeing her open her mouth and sing, it was chilling. You had Aretha, you felt Aretha.”
Erivo was introduced to Franklin’s music as a young girl growing up in London: “I remember being in the back seat of my mother’s car going to school. There was this radio station in the U.K., Magic FM, and they would always play Aretha Franklin. She was always my hero.”
When she was on the red carpet of the Tonys a few years ago, Erivo was asked to name her “guilty pleasure” song. She launched into Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way.” A recording of that interview made its way to Davis and Grazer, who were then developing the Franklin series. She joined the project soon afterward
“I didn’t know how vulnerable she was, how much vulnerability she hid and what she had to overcome,” Erivo says. “This woman was the mother of two at the age of 14. She was on the gospel circuit singing as a child and then grew up to be Aretha Franklin. That is a feat of almost impossible height. And to do it the way she did it was really something special.”
Similarly, Hemingway said he hopes the series “allows us to see the human side of Aretha, to understand and unpack what it means to be someone who carries responsibility for a community and a culture. Aretha was all about connection — she brought people together.”
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As she approached the role, Erivo says she did not feel intimidated about playing one of the most important singers in history. “It was more like trepidation: ‘Am I going to be able to do this the right way?’ Like with ‘Harriet,’ I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility. I could feel myself becoming more and more protective of her as we were going through it.”
Producers decided early on that Erivo would use her own voice, a challenge she embraced: “I love finding out what else my voice can do. We used and enhanced what I already had.”
She studied the recordings intensely. “I really wanted to learn the nuances Aretha used when she sang — there are certain things that only she does,” Erivo says. “And she repeats them in different ways. There’s a specific way she slides from one note to the other. When she makes a loud sound, it’s not because she’s wailing. It’s about where she puts it. She does this clever thing where it sounds bigger than it is. If you really listen, it actually is more like a whisper.”
Indicative of the production’s dedication to showcasing Franklin’s musical legacy is a scene in the fifth episode showing the recording session for one of the songstress’ greatest hits, “Rock Steady.” Erivo, as Franklin, appears to be having the time of her life as she falls into the groove of the funky anthem, accompanied by a band and background singers.
“The scene was a great time,” she recalls with a smile. “The crew, the cast, everybody was in one room. These wonderful background vocalists were singing live. The band knew how to play, and they were playing live. Everyone was invested in what we were doing. There was such a levity to that moment. Plus that song is so good. It feels good.”
Erivo is hoping viewers feel the same about “Genius: Aretha,” the first of two Franklin-related projects arriving this year. Erivo’s “The Color Purple” costar Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) will play Franklin in the theatrical film “Respect,” which is scheduled to be released later this year.
As for that other Franklin project? She can’t wait.
“My thought is, the more the merrier,” Erivo says with a wide smile. “I know Aretha and Jennifer were close. This means a lot to Jennifer, and I know it would mean a lot to Aretha. The fact that we get to celebrate this great woman in two ways is wonderful. I hope this is the beginning of even more stories about her. She had a lot of life.”
Where: National Geographic
When: 9 and 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday
Rated: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)
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