Wednesdays on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00
Wednesdays on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00

Cynthia Erivo becomes Aretha Franklin in Genius: Aretha


Cynthia Erivo talks about becoming Aretha, from coming to grips with the character, to performing her music live on set

In Cynthia Erivo, National Geographic’s (DStv channel 181) biopic series Genius: Aretha found someone extraordinary to portray their Queen of Soul. “Cynthia grew up listening to Aretha, so she also was a part of shaping her life musically. Honouring her as a black woman comes very honest and genuine,” says the series’ co-executive producer and director, Anthony Hemingway. “It’s been nothing but fun to watch her really embody this character. If you close your eyes and just listen to her sing, you are questioning, is Aretha in that booth, or is it Cynthia Erivo? But that’s the beauty in what I love seeing a real actor do. They step out of themselves and really step into the shoes of the character that they are portraying. And Cynthia is doing that, she’s knocking it out of the park.”

Series choreographer Dondraico Johnson adds, "Down to the movement, she embodied the whole thing. When you closed your eyes and listened, it felt like you were listening to Aretha. And when you watched her, you’d blank out all about Cynthia Erivo. It was Aretha performing these songs for everybody on set. So it’s really a privilege to watch, to work with someone so gifted and talented that they embodied her spirit like that.”

Watch Genius: Aretha S3 Wednesdays on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00

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“The first time I heard Aretha Franklin, I was in my mom's car. We were on the way to school, I was about 9 or 10 years old, and I think the song Think was playing. There was something about her voice that made me perk up. I could hear this voice that I'd never really heard before,” Cynthia reveals. “Later on in that drive, I heard her sing with Annie Lennox: Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves. I just felt like there's something really powerful about a woman who is able to do these 2 types of songs, and still really connect with me at this young age. And then getting to know her music, I fell in love with a song called Ain’t No Way, which I do at some of my concerts. There's a connectivity in love songs like that, that speak about the pain of trying to be the partner that you want to be for the partner that you're with. There is a way in which you connect to people's experiences in the world. That's why I love her.”

To Cynthia, playing Aretha Franklin meant working out how to capture her essence, musically and spiritually. “The essence there is her musical essence. There is the essence of resilience within her. She's a combination of many different things that become this observer in the room that uses what she sees, and what she feels, and what she experiences around her, to create the music that she then gets to give to us. She was a very private person. But if you listen to the songs, you could understand the experience that she was living through often. So I think her essence is the experiences that are unspoken, that we get to experience through the music that she creates.”

Read on as Cynthia discusses how she went from being the observer, to becoming the performer…

The Voice & Soul of Aretha

What was your reaction when you were told that they wanted you for the role?

Cynthia: Shock, because I didn't know that I was even in the running for it. I was minding my business. A video of me singing on a red carpet was sent to someone and they said, “Oh, this girl might be right for it.” Then I think I was going somewhere, I may have been in a car somewhere on the way to work, shooting a pilot. And I had this phonecall to say that they'd seen this video of me singing… why don’t we take a meeting. I was in shock. And really flattered. It meant a great deal to know that someone felt like this person's life would be safe with my hands.

What doubts and insecurities did you have about performing the role?

Cynthia: At first, I didn't know it was happening. So that happening, and not really even knowing that it was a possibility, sort of shakes you a little bit. But whenever I take a role on, there is always a “can I do this? Am I going to get to do this in the right way?” And I think that's partially why I do it. If everything came to me with ease, it would be very boring indeed. When there's a little bit of risk, it probably means that I'm leaning in the right direction.

What was the biggest challenge you faced taking this role?

Cynthia: Probably learning all of the songs because there are 8 episodes and in each episode, there's an average of 3 or 4 songs. I was learning as it was going along, because there was so much to learn. But this was more of a pleasure than a challenge. To be honest, I really got the chance to get to know her more than I knew her. At first I started as a fan, and then I got to understand who the person was, which was really awesome. To understand what she had been through, and to get to where she was, was really inspiring. It’s a possibility for someone to go through as much as she went through and still manage to keep a career going for over 60 years. She was still performing. She was still making music and was really able to get that music to be heard around the world. I think it's an incredible, incredibly special thing to be able to do that. And to introduce myself to her as a person whilst playing her was a real pleasure. I think the only challenge was making sure that whenever I did do a scene, it was as truthful and as meaningful as possible.

What was it like shooting the scenes that involved gender-based violence?

Cynthia: Those scenes, they're never pleasant. They never feel great. But there is an importance in showing that this happens. There's a great deal of responsibility to make sure that what is shown is thoughtful and careful, and that we're all safe in that moment. What I can say is that my scene partner was very caring and was very sincere and aware of me and my body and who I was. They took great care of me, so I felt safe in those moments. But I do think that those scenes are tough to shoot just because you want to be as truthful as you can. But you know that they are painful to be in and painful to watch.

Has it been more daunting to play a real person than a fictional character?

Cynthia: Both have really lovely qualities. Where you're imagining and creating something from scratch, you're introducing yourself to a new person. But then to portray a real person, getting to know them is really fun. Getting to find out what makes them tick, what makes them vulnerable, what they want, is kind of like learning a person from scratch again. So, both have great qualities.

Which aspects of Aretha’s life were you surprised to learn about?

Cynthia: I knew… but I didn't know… how in-depth her work was with civil rights. I didn't know that she had a close relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King. And I didn't know how much she was working with him to help with the civil rights movement. I don't know that people realised that she used her music in order to help that movement. And on top of which I think her, as a mother raising 3 children, and being the Aretha that we know, is an incredible feat. I don't think people marry those 2 things together. She was doing that at the same time, both raising a family and being the person that we know and love.

Could you relate to how Aretha’s religious upbringing affected her creative expression?

Cynthia: I didn't particularly have a religious upbringing. But there is an aspect of us starting in the church. I was in a gospel choir, and I was the head of gospel choir and leading all of that music. There is something that is innately musical about that tradition. Something about singing gospel music searches for the deep part of yourself to connect. That's something that she really took through everything that she made, even her love songs had that feeling in them. Yeah. I can relate to that.

How did playing Aretha’s confidence instil renewed confidence in you?

Cynthia: Aretha, from time to time, was quite shy. She had to overcome a lot of that to become confident, and ended up becoming confident in the work she was doing. It's allowed me to really believe in the work that I'm able to put forward, to believe in the talent that I have, in order to put good work forward. She also was a really wonderful businesswoman and put her foot down when it came to being a part of the work that she created and being credited in the right way. And so I think it instilled some confidence in me to be able to do that too, and ask for the things that I feel that I deserve.

How did the vocal performance aspect of the role work? 

Cynthia: I would sing live on set. I’d go away and learn the song first. And then on set, I would record the song live. So singing on set with the cameras filming my mic would be for my live vocal. And we would do as many of those takes until we got a clean enough vocal from the different angles that we would need it from.

How did wardrobe help you to step into the role of Aretha?

Cynthia: Costume in general helps me to find the person. It's a visual nod to who those people were. A lot of research went into the pieces that we were wearing. Some of them really were very much based on the originals. The costume designer (Jennifer Bryan) really did the work to reach out to printers who could make sure that the prints were correct. Everything was really detailed. For me, it was important because Aretha really was a fashion icon. She was into the style, the changing of the hair, the looks. It acted as an indicator of when we're moving through time. When we had a specific outfit, I knew, “Okay, we're in the ’70s. And we're right here at this point in her life. When we move on to the red hair, and we have the shoulder pads, we're moving on to the ’70s, we're moving on to the ’80s, where the music starts to change and her attitude starts to change – it becomes more confident in what she's doing”. These clothes also add to the indication of where she is in her life.

How is Aretha’s legacy reflected today?

Cynthia: Hopefully, there are people following her footsteps and making music that connects people. She was singular in that she was able to do that very beautifully. When you listen to a song, like Border Song or you listen to Respect, it gives people the confidence they need in order to ask for that. And then you hear something like Knew You Were Waiting For Me and the vast difference between the music she was able to create and the types of people she was creating with, speaks to how universal she was. Hopefully there are musicians out there making music for everybody.

Watch Genius: Aretha S3 Wednesdays on National Geographic (DStv channel 181) at 21:00

Genius: Aretha is available on Catch Up on DStv, and the season will build to a Box Set, so you’ll be able to binge it in 1 go from Wednesday, 18 August. 

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