When you hear the name Cynthia Erivo attached to a project, one thing is for sure; the multi-talented actress will masterfully capture audiences with her innate talent in each role she takes on. Similar to her portrayal of Harriet Tubman in the film Harriet the two-time Oscar-nominee delivered an unforgettable performance once again! This time transforming into the legendary Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, in National Geographic Channel's recent series Genius: Aretha.
"I've been lucky enough to play women who have marked history with their brilliance, and at the same time, have somehow changed the way we see the world," she said in an interview with Variety for their "Black Women of Awards Season" issue.
Bringing these powerful women's stories to the big screen is no easy feat, but what audiences have come to learn about Erivo is that she can consistently and effortlessly communicate the character while staying true to their authentic nature. If you've been following the 34-year-old's career journey, then you know that's one of the many reasons she stays booked and busy.
The UK native recently launched her own production company, announced the upcoming release of her first children's book, 'Remember to Dream, Ebere,' and is gearing up to star in Apple's Roar and the remake of Disney's 1940 animated classic Pinocchio for Disney+.
Ahead of the premiere of Genius: Aretha, 21Ninety spoke with the singer and songwriter about the series, navigating the peaks and valleys of Hollywood and the intersection of art and activism.
Dontaira Terrell: In tackling this role, did you notice any parallels between yourself and the Queen of Soul?
Cynthia Erivo: The main parallel I would say is that we both sing and her relationship with her father is complicated. Just as my relationship with my father is very complicated, we're estranged, and I haven't spoken to my father since I was 16-years-old. I'm 34 now.
Also, both of us have a determined spirit. Both of us are made of the ingredients of determination. Not much is going to sway me from getting something done. If I want to do something or if I believe that it's right for me to do something, if I believe that's what I'm meant to be doing, then I'll put the work in to get it done, even if it's difficult. And I think that's the thing that maybe connects us the most, being willing to go through the difficulty to get to the triumph.
DT: How did you mentally and emotionally prepare yourself to take on the role of Aretha Franklin?
CE: I don't know that you can mentally prepare for a story like that. I think you take it as it comes. I was listening to her music 24/7, and even though I listened before, now I was listening specifically for her voice, for the way she would sing these songs. And also the way she would communicate with her audience.
There's a cool album that she did. I think it's Live at Fillmore [West], where she speaks to everyone as she's singing. And it's a lovely insight into the relationship she had with her audience. I rewatched Amazing Grace because there were loads of things happening in that documentary. It's both her stepping into her own for the first time and making the decision to do this in the church.
It's her going back to her roots and experiencing what it is to be Aretha Franklin. It's her relationship with James Cleveland. It's her relationship with her father. You get to see her relationship with the gospel choir, with the church. All of those things happened in that one space.
I watched a lot of interviews because I wanted to see what her rapport was with people. Sometimes in her own surroundings, she would be loud and vivacious. Free and funny, and she would joke and play. But when she was in the studio, she was very quiet, reserved, very demure, and coy.
So, I would look for all of those details. You end up becoming friends in your head with this person to get to know them to tell the story, and I feel like that's what I did to prepare. Just getting to know her a little bit more past the songs we know her very well for. Past the music, and I started learning her for the human she was.
DT: In the series, you see Aretha Franklin's involvement with the Civil Rights Movement. How important do you think art is as a form of activism?
CE: Oh, extremely important. As an artist, it is your primary way of communicating. It's your primary way of speaking to what's going on and letting people know; 'I understand what is happening, and I am affected by it too.' To use art for speaking to the times that we're in, for speaking to civil unrest is really important; otherwise, what is it for?
It's for vanity if it's for nothing else. If we're never speaking to the emotions or events we are experiencing, the times we're living through, and the injustices happening, then what are we speaking to?
There's only so much room for pieces that don't have any roots that aren't connected enough. Those things go away eventually, and the songs and pieces that seem to stand the test of time are the ones that are rooted and connected to real things happening.
That's what Aretha Franklin did; with her album Young, Gifted, and Black, it's no coincidence that it's also a song that Nina Simone wrote as well. That's the point of the album, to speak to the times to speak about what was happening.
DT: Being a working actress in Hollywood and constantly being in the spotlight, how do you maintain Y-O-U, the foundation of who Cynthia is?
CE: For me, I felt like I started much later than most. By the time I was on Broadway, I was 27 or 28-years-old. I had already sort of found out who I was. I have amazing friends who are always there to check up on me and who only really want me as Cynthia. Having those who are willing to be there when it isn't so pretty or be there when it isn't great is really important.
I also have therapy, which is a new thing. I'm probably a year into it. When it's like a whirlwind, it takes a lot of adjusting with things happening very fast. Having someone to speak to and process all of the feelings is important, and I think that's important for anyone. It's something that we in the Black community should discuss more.
I have two dogs, and I got my first dog because I felt lonely. I was alone, traveling a lot by myself, and I needed companionship, and that dog was very, very helpful. And then I got another one! I try and do things that make me happy, including working out, which is a great outlet for me. It gets rid of frenetic energy. It also encourages the happy hormone, so I try and do that as much as I possibly can, as well.
Catch up on NatGeo's eight-part miniseries Genius: Aretha, streaming now on Hulu.