Actress Cynthia Erivo on bringing Aretha Franklin’s trailblazing career to life in new Nat Geo series (VIDEO)

The show dramatises Franklin’s rise to the top of the charts and her impact on the soul music genre. — Picture courtesy of National Geographic/Richard DuCree
The show dramatises Franklin’s rise to the top of the charts and her impact on the soul music genre. — Picture courtesy of National Geographic/Richard DuCree

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PETALING JAYA, Mar 15 — Award-winning actress Cynthia Erivo will be stepping into the shoes of soul singer Aretha Franklin in the new National Geographic series Genius: Aretha.

The show will dramatise the life and career of the 1960s Queen of Soul and feature several of her hit tracks, including Respect, Save Me, I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You) and Chain of Fools.

For triple threat Erivo, who already has an Emmy, Tony and Grammy award under her belt, telling Franklin’s story on the small screen was one more achievement to check off her list.

She recalled hearing Franklin’s music for the first time as a young girl growing up in London, sitting in the car with her mother during their morning commute to school.

“I was nine or 10 years old and Think came on the radio. 

“I’d never heard Aretha sing before and I just fell in love with the sound of it and the way it made me feel. 

“Later on, they played another Aretha song with Annie Lennox called Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves

“And I just remember being amazed at how this one person was able to do these two different types of music and both of them connected to me and felt really good to hear,” said Erivo during a virtual roundtable with journalists recently.

Genius: Aretha covers Franklin’s beginnings as a musical wunderkind who played the piano by ear, her fraught relationship with her first husband and manager Ted White, and the genesis of her inimitable style over the years.

One of Erivo’s favourite parts about playing Franklin was getting to explore the singer’s path to establishing her identity as a singer, as well as her struggles with domestic abuse and her role as a civil rights activist.

“What I believe for us, as women, is that we’re not born into ourselves. 

“It takes us a minute to find out who we are and I think the wonderful thing about what we were doing with this series is that we’re watching Aretha grow and find out what her voice actually is, whether it be within music or other aspects of her life.

“She always knew she could sing but she needed time to find out what she wanted to do with her voice.”

Erivo enjoyed depicting Franklin’s journey as a musical artist and prominent activist during the American civil rights movement. — Picture courtesy of National Geographic/Richard DuCree
Erivo enjoyed depicting Franklin’s journey as a musical artist and prominent activist during the American civil rights movement. — Picture courtesy of National Geographic/Richard DuCree

The British actress also touched on the challenges Franklin faced as a young African American woman striving to make her mark on the music scene.

She urged young women to take inspiration from Franklin’s assertive approach and to not hesitate to bring their talents to the table.

“We cannot be afraid to take up space where we are rightfully meant to be. 

“Aretha wasn’t just a musician, she was an activist and she used her music to speak on the time she was living through. 

“Wherever we stand as women, whatever our talent is, there is a way we can use it to express the time we’re in and there is a way we can contribute to the world at large by using the gifts we all have to share.”

Wearing the crown

Erivo was adamant about not coming across as a Franklin impersonator lest it affect the humanity of the singer’s story. — Picture courtesy of National Geographic/Richard DuCree
Erivo was adamant about not coming across as a Franklin impersonator lest it affect the humanity of the singer’s story. — Picture courtesy of National Geographic/Richard DuCree

To prepare for the role, Erivo watched several videos of Franklin singing live and took note of her body language and stage presence.

The 34-year-old was also mindful of not becoming a Franklin “impersonator” as she wanted the humanity of the singer’s backstory to be at the forefront of the show.

“In my head, there was always the constant thought of, ‘You’re not pretending to be Aretha, you’re not a lookalike.’ 

“That’s a very different thing and I’m not trying to mimic her because then you start coming away from the humanity (of her story).

“It’s one thing to get the subtleties of the things she would do, like the way she would do her hair or the way she talks, without leaning so far into copying what she was doing that you forget the connection.”

Franklin’s family has already given two thumbs up for Erivo’s performance, with the singer’s niece Sabrina Owens calling her an “extraordinary” talent.

“For Genius to honour Aretha is a great affirmation of her legacy, and Cynthia Erivo is an extraordinary talent with an amazing voice,” Owens said in a press release.

Franklin’s early years as a gospel singer played a key role as she progressed to making pop music. — Picture courtesy of National Geographic/Richard DuCree
Franklin’s early years as a gospel singer played a key role as she progressed to making pop music. — Picture courtesy of National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Genius: Aretha is helmed by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks who serves as showrunner and executive producer.

Brian Grazer and Ron Howard are executive producers along with music mogul Clive Davis, Atlantic Records chairman and chief executive officer Craig Kallman, Ken Biller,  Fox 21 Television Studios, and Imagine Television Studios.

Co-starring with Erivo are Shaian Jordan as young Aretha Franklin, Courtney B. Vance as Reverend CL Franklin, Malcolm Barrett as Ted White, and David Cross as Jerry Wexler.

Genius is an anthology series by National Geographic that brings the stories of the world’s most brilliant innovators and their remarkable achievements to life.

The first season delved into the life of scientist Albert Einstein while the second season shone a spotlight on artist Pablo Picasso.

Catch Genius: Aretha when it premieres on National Geographic (Astro CH 551 / unifi TV CH 508) on March 22, Monday to Thursday at 9am with a repeat at 9pm.

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