After making a name for herself on Broadway in The Color Purple and earning acclaim onscreen with films like Widows and Harriet, Cynthia Erivo takes on her biggest role yet: Aretha Franklin. The English actress, who is one Oscar shy of an EGOT, portrays the musical icon in season 3 of Genius, National Geographic’s Emmy-winning anthology series, which depicts the fascinating stories of the world’s most brilliant innovators.
“She was the queen in every sense of the word,” Erivo says, adding that portraying her idol is “definitely a big undertaking, but I’ve had a really good time.”
Starting in the late 1960s, Genius recounts Franklin’s efforts to record her first album with Atlantic Records and then covers major moments in her career and personal life in the two decades that followed. The limited series also flashes back to her days singing in her father’s church before first emerging as a gospel artist.
While at times the show can feel rushed, as it jumps between timelines and to showcase the ups and downs of her career and personal life, it’s all grounded by Erivo’s performance. The actress is able to capture the emotional roller coaster Franklin went through, as she finds her spark in the recording studio or completely crumbles backstage.
Genius also doesn’t ignore Franklin’s complicated life, from the challenges of being a teenage mother to her toxic marriage to her manager, Ted White (Malcolm Barrett), as well as the continued fight against adversity she faced as a Black woman during the heights of the Civil Rights era.
“It was refreshing because I think sometimes we don’t get to see human complexities of Black women onscreen. We don’t get to see the way in which they overcome in so many different ways,” Erivo says of depicting all those moments. And when it specifically comes to Franklin, the actress says, “I don’t know that we’ve ever been able to see how she was able to overcome, in those days, to be a mother at that time and to be Aretha Franklin at the same time.”
Erivo adds, “I think that to be able to be a part of that storytelling is nothing more than an honor.”
In order to bring that story to life onscreen, the actress not only transformed into a young Franklin -- shaving off her eyebrows and drawing them back on in order to match the singer’s and wearing many wigs to replicate her iconic hairdos -- she also re-recorded many of her biggest hits.
“You’ll learn a lot of music; some music you might not know. I’m singing everything live, so you’ll hear all that,” she teases.
Among Erivo’s favorites to perform was “Never Grow Old.” Admittedly, it was one of the harder ones to sing, but in time, the actress grew to really appreciate it. “It’s sweet and then there’s a triumph-ness towards the end that I just really enjoyed singing it on set,” she says. “Now I go back and listen to that song over and over again.”
While Erivo has proven that she has an immense amount of talent, there still were some eyebrows raised upon the news that she had been cast as Franklin. For some, it marked another actor from the U.K. playing an American icon, following Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, Kingsley Ben-Adir as Barack Obama and Malcolm X, David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. and even the actress’ recent turn as Harriet Tubman.
“Everyone is welcome to feel how they feel, but I’m always like, ‘Give me a chance to get it. If I get it wrong, then I get it wrong. But give me a chance to at least get it right.’ And then maybe we talk about it,” Erivo says, adding that she’s just trying to do her job to the best of her capabilities. “My job is to tell the stories that I get as truthfully as I possibly can and hopefully that, in me doing it, it’s proving time and time again that I’m able to do that and I’m worthy of doing it.”
Suzan-Lori Parks, who serves as showrunner and executive producer, says, “I was raised to believe that soul is universal and so when it comes to someone’s country of origin, I don’t really ask that question when I’m considering them for the job.”
Not only did Parks think that Erivo had the singing and acting chops for the part, but she also believes the actress has a deep appreciation for American culture. “The work that Cynthia did in bringing Aretha to this limited series was phenomenal,” she says.
Courtney B. Vance, who plays Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin, adds that audiences watching Genius will forget that she’s not American and simply fall in love with her performance and the show. “Cynthia is absolutely wonderful,” he says.
With the role, Erivo once again demonstrates why she’s been adorned with so many awards, including two recent Oscar nominations for Harriet. And when the time comes, she'll undoubtedly be recognized for her stunning portrayal of Franklin.
Genius: Aretha premieres Sunday, March 21 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic, with episodes available to stream the following day on Hulu.