Cynthia Erivo knows that simply trying to impersonate Aretha Franklin for her starring role as the Queen of Soul in “Genius: Aretha” just wasn’t going to cut it. “The job is to transform and to find as much of the essence of this person to tell her story,” Erivo, who earned her first Oscar nomination last year for “Harriet,” tells me on this week’s episode of the “Just for Variety” podcast.
Finding Franklin’s essence meant studying recordings, concert footage, interviews and even game show appearances. “I saw her on a game show and she was very quiet, very demure, very coy,” says the 34-year-old British singer and actor. “She pulled it back and it would make the person lean into her. And I would just be really fascinated by that. She had this wonderful sort of understanding of how to make a person come to where she was.”
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Erivo got the coveted part after producers Clive Davis and Brian Grazer were sent footage of Erivo singing Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” during an interview with me on the Tonys red carpet in 2019. “This is your fault. I hope you know that,” she says with a laugh at the start of the podcast.
Is there one thing, in particular, you wanted or needed to know about Ms. Franklin, but couldn’t find out? What would you have loved to ask if you could?
The time with [Franklin’s ex-husband, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” actor] Glynn Turman. I think she was really, really in love. I would love to sit with her and talk about that and why she gave that up and why they couldn’t be together. Because he still loves her. He still loved her. And you look at pictures of them together and they just look like they’re having so much fun together. They look so sweet. They look super sexy together as well. It’s such a cool pairing and I want to know what that would’ve been like, what she was going through and why she made that decision? Because I don’t think it was one without thought or understanding. And it also was a time when she was going through something desperately sad. She was losing her father at the same time. So I wonder if that had any effect and I wonder if she ever fell out of love with him. Something tells me that she maybe was never out of love with him.
What lessons did you take from Aretha’s life after playing her, after studying her? What did you walk away with like, “You know what? I’ve got to keep that in mind. I got to remember that the next time something happens?”
I can’t imagine that she was never scared, but that just didn’t stop her. If you think about what she actually went through. She was a young woman who by the age of 12 was a mother. And so you think that might stop her in her tracks, that might put a pause on everything. And it didn’t. I think it may have made her even more determined to do what she was meant to do, sort of pushed past all these boundaries and pitfalls and used them to ascend. If we really think about it, she was living as the Aretha Franklin that we know and love through the ’60s into where we are right now. She did that against all odds and managed to carve out a space for herself. I think I’ve been encouraged to use what I do as a creator to both speak to the times and to speak to my experience without being afraid of it and to look for the details, to really dive in where music is concerned. Find the small things that belong to me, the things that I need, the rifts that make me. Really dive in to find that space for myself and enjoy the music that I make.
Let’s talk about playing the Blue Fairy in “Pinocchio.” When I think Cynthia Erivo, I’m thinking blue hair, blue makeup, blue nails, big blue toile, just avant-garde. If there’s anyone who’s going to take a fairy and give us this spin, it’s you.
You might be right, you know. They really have given me carte blanche. They have a creative idea which is really, really beautiful. I don’t want to spoil it but it’s really lovely. But I have my hair and makeup team going over it. Terrell [Mullin], my makeup artist, is making eyelashes currently. I know that already it’s a different aesthetic, because it’s me — this bald-headed Black girl. I’m really excited about it. We don’t have very many Black fairies. I’m very proud to be joining the ranks with Yara Shahidi [playing Tinker Bell in “Peter Pan”] and I’m very proud we’re getting to join the ranks of Disney with Halle Bailey, who’s playing the Little Mermaid. It’s kind of awesome.
You have your debut album coming out. What can you tease?
I wrote all the songs on it. I collaborated with a couple different writers. Some songs are very much about me and my life, and the things I’ve been doing. Some of the stuff I haven’t ever really spoken about in detail. Other pieces are really about the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had and the things that I’ve seen. Some of it is about where we are right now and the world that we’re living in. A couple of songs were written over Zoom. I recorded all of it during the pandemic, and most of that is whilst I was shooting “Aretha.” So I was doing sort of double duty in trying to get this together, and I’m really proud of it. It’s hard to tell what people will like. I’ve been sending it to a couple of people just to have a listen to, and everyone comes back with something different.
Erivo and I also talked about her signature manicures, the struggle for musicians to own their masters and so much more. Listen to the full interview above. You can also find “Just for Variety” at Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.
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