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

When Cynthia Erivo was little, it seemed like Aretha Franklin was on the radio all the time. She remembers the name of the radio station (Magic FM) and the exact songs that seem to repeat themselves indefinitely: “Chain of Fools”; “Sisters do it for themselves”; “I knew you were waiting”; and “Until you get back to me (I’ll do that).”

Years later, as an adult, Erivo starred in the Broadway musical “The Color Purple” – a performance that should bring her a Tony Award. And there was Franklin, who personally announced her arrival after the show by singing the last line of Erivo’s great song to her.

“And I’m here,” Franklin sang. Erivo had no idea it would be her.

“That’s what I’ve got,” Erivo said in a phone interview Tuesday, years after the encounter and hours after she was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Franklin on National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha.

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

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

I am sorry if this is a frivolous way of asking, but Aretha means so much to so many people. Why on earth would you want to take the pressure off yourself to play such an iconic person?

I don’t think about the pressure at first. I think that will come later. I am always open to opportunities that arise, so I rarely question the universe. It was such a big deal to come to me, and the way it came was so random 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 want you to do that part?” It was just such a random, wild thing that it felt good. My gut said it felt right. And every step of the way it felt right.

It’s not that I take iconic roles for print. I take on people I might not really get to know and get to know. And I was interested in finding out who Aretha was as a person, as a person – and being able to do that because she felt it brought me closer.

There’s this tension on the show between the public Aretha and the private. And I wonder what you wanted to say the most about her?


July 13, 2021 at 11:06 a.m. ET

Most people know her as the already famous Queen of Soul – and not many people know how much work it took to get there; not just actual work, but personal, human work. It was a long time before she found out who she was as a person. And I think people forget that she did all of this while she was a mother – a young mother – and it took time.

I think there is something special about someone who tries over and over and they have tried over and over, kept evolving, even when they didn’t work out. There have been 15 to 20 years in which it just didn’t work. And for some reason she kept the belief, she kept the trust and belief in herself and went on and found her sound, found out who she was.

There is such a wonderful human evolution that I think people don’t realize is the power behind their music.

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

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

I think one of my favorite performances is when she sings “Amazing Grace”. If you just look carefully, she was standing next to James Cleveland and James Cleveland is holding her hand. And at some point it is as if she is fleeing. And when she comes out, all of that falls away. When she sings we look through the window – we see who she is and the window closes almost automatically when she stops. And there is something very special about how she can communicate with music. And that’s what I had to find from her.

There was a song called “Never Grow Old” that I had to learn first because it had no time signature and she was leading the vocals playing the piano. So there is no tempo, no beginning, no guidance. Your vote is free.

The text reads: I’ve heard of a country on the distant beach

And she sings: I’ve heard of a country on a distant, distant beach

Why should she have to repeat the word “far”? It does, and it makes you understand that this is not just a car or plane ride away, it’s a place we can’t even imagine existed, but it does.

This is a fucking category that you were nominated in. And that’s a bit cheesy, but have you ever had 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 again with Michaela (Coel). Michaela and I have known each other for a long time. We really went through it. And I’m so happy to be able to share this category with her and these wonderful women: With Anya (Taylor-Joy), with Elizabeth (Olsen), with Kate (Winslet). I mean, Kate Winslet. Come on. I have definitely seen “Titanic” a million times at this point and Rose is tattooed firmly on my brain. So the idea that I could be in a category with these incredible women is incredible and a dream comes true.

And for that – to have it for just that – is just great because it means that it’s not just a celebration of my work, but a celebration of what Aretha has released in the world. And that’s more than I could ever ask for.

Leave a Comment