‘She was so private, you didn’t get to know her’: Cynthia Erivo takes on Aretha Franklin | Ents & Arts News
Last year, British star Cynthia Erivo earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the American abolitionist and activist Harriet Tubman in Harriet.
The star told Sky News’ Backstage podcast while the timing of the roles may be coincidence, she ultimately wants to get women’s stories told.
“I want people to get to know women that you wouldn’t necessarily know,” she says. “With Aretha, she was so private, you didn’t really get to know her very much, you knew a bit about her… but we didn’t know about her life at home, her away from cameras.
“Harriet, you really know nothing about, we know a bit – but even those who believe they know her still have learning to do because she lived 91 years, there’s so much that went on after she had saved all these people – she went on to the suffragette movement, she opened her home to take care of people, she was a spy.
“There were so many things that you get to unfold with these people and often even in the created roles you’re taking from real-life women that exist in real life and you’re basing it off things that you know, so that you get to introduce the world to these varied stories about black women. That, for me, is a really important thing to do, just tell the stories of women that you wouldn’t normally get to meet more often – that’s the job that pulls me in.”
While Erivo’s background as a stage performer who can sing as well as act (she won a Tony and a Grammy for her part in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple) might make her an obvious candidate to play the Queen of Soul, she says it was a fortuitous trip down a red carpet that brought the part her way.
“I was minding my own business, walking the red carpet for the Tonys… and I was asked to sing the song I love the most, like a guilty pleasure song, and for me it was Ain’t No Way,” she says. “And so I sang a tiny little bit of Ain’t No Way and that video of me singing got sent to [exec producers] Clive Davis and Brian Grazer and the rest is history, really.
“So when I got the call from my agent saying, ‘oh, they want you to come and have a conversation about this particular Genius series that they’re doing, Aretha Franklin, and they think you might be right to play her, will you have a conversation with everyone’, I was like ‘err, okay’, and I didn’t have very much time to talk about it because I was on the way to work – I was shooting a pilot – and so just the whole thing was a total surprise.”
Aretha Franklin is seemingly popular with production companies at the moment, with a film about the singer starring Jennifer Hudson also in the works.
But while the star’s family have approved that movie, they have been outspoken in their lack of support for the Genius series as they feel they should have been involved.
National Geographic, the network behind the series, sought permission from Franklin’s estate to make the programme, which does feature some family tension.
Erivo says she’s hopeful that viewers will be open-minded when it comes to watching the show.
“You hope that in the storytelling people are willing to come with you on that journey, maybe there are things that they didn’t know, that they might not want to know, but are really special and really specific to the way in which we get to know her now,” she says.
“Like, you need to know these details because this detail led to this thing, you know what I’m saying? And I hope that people are open to learning her just a bit more, learning about the human being. Because often we see our icons, we see our stars, and we forget that they’re human beings first and that the reason they become icons, the reason that they become artists that we love, is because of the humanity that they have before we even knew them.
“And for me, that’s the most important thing about telling someone’s story, getting people to understand the humanity that they put out into the world before they became the icons that we love.”
When Erivo got her Oscar nod in 2020, she was the only person from an ethnically diverse background to be in the running for an acting award.
This year’s nominees were far more diverse, and the actress says she is hopeful it signals change in the industry.
“I don’t think it’s too soon to talk about progress at all,” she says. “I think every time we have some change, some win, it really is about, can we maintain? Can we continue to maintain and continue to grow?
“I think people are willing to keep changing, and even in the conversations I’m having now, they’re just very different to the conversations I would have had four years ago – three years ago, even.”
Genius: Aretha launches on Disney+ on 4 June. Hear more from the interview in the latest episode of Backstage – the film and TV podcast from Sky News