Cynthia Erivo on the ‘Overwhelming Responsibility’ of Playing Aretha Franklin: ‘One of My Heroes’

TheWrap awards magazine: The ‘Genius: Aretha’ star talks about early ambitions, conquering the Royal Academy of Drama and vulnerability as her strongest suit

Last Updated: June 17, 2021 @ 12:48 PM

This story about Cynthia Erivo first appeared in the Limited Series & TV Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Cynthia Erivo grabs you in the gut with every performance she puts on screen. Of a series of remarkable roles in recent years — the unflappable Belle in “Widows,” Harriet Tubman in “Harriet” — perhaps the most exciting is the one she takes on in the limited series “Genius: Aretha.” She not only sings in Aretha Franklin’s indelible style but displays a new level of acting range as a woman demanding the world see her on her own terms. At 34, Erivo has already won a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy, along with two Academy Award nominations. She now seems destined once again to be part of the Emmy race. Editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman spoke to her in April.

When you accomplish as many incredible things as you have, it sometimes appears to the outside world that it was an unalloyed journey to success. But that’s never the case.
No. (Smiling)

Many people, including me, want to know how you got here.
I guess my path is an odd one. I was in London, mostly doing theater. Small theater, regional theater, little bits and pieces like that. I would fight, I would audition, I would walk the pavement, get on a bike and get from place to place, get lost on the way to auditions, lose out on auditions, not get auditions, not get parts. The main thing is just to keep going, and also to keep working and practicing. For me, every time I would audition, whether I got it or not, was another way to learn, another way to meet a character I might not have met on an ordinary basis.

I think that often we let the no’s beat us down, and that’s OK for a day or so, and then you have to get up and move forward. If we dwell on the things that we don’t get, we never really make the room for the things that we could be working towards. Even as recently as this week, I lost out on something I wanted, and there’s nothing I can do about that except let it go and move on. Success doesn’t stop you from experiencing no’s. And the word we use—rejection—I don’t see it as rejection. I see it as a way to create some space for yourself so you can keep moving toward the thing you’re supposed to be doing. And sometimes, when you’re lucky, if you’ve done all the work that you need to and you’ve had conversations with the people that are making the things and it feels right and it all sort of becomes kismet, then yes, it happens.

Music producer Jerry Wexler (L), played by David Cross, talks with Aretha Franklin, played by Cynthia Erivo, in the studio. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

You’re from London, but your parents are from Nigeria.
I’m first-generation Nigerian-British. My mother raised me single-handedly. She moved to London when she was, I think, 24 or 25. She moved because she wanted more for herself. She’s from a village that really didn’t allow her to become all the things she wanted to. She went to school there, went as far as she possibly could, and then wanted more. She really wanted to be a nurse, and there wasn’t the space for her to learn the way she wanted to, or to be in the field that she wanted to be in. She has seven or eight siblings and her father was only sending one of those siblings to London, and she said, “Let me go with her. Let me take care of her but let me also study.” He let her go, but only allowed her to study catering.

Traditional, heteronormative, patriarchal ideas. You have to remember, when she came over it was the ’60s, ’70s. For her, those were the things that were expected of her: to cook and clean. She didn’t want that. So when she got here, she did the studies for catering whilst learning the subjects she needed in order to study nursing at the same time. She’d go in the daytime to school for catering, and at night she would go to school for nursing. She got her science, her biology, chemistry, mathematics degrees and then went and did a nursing degree at King’s College, totally on her own. I guess that sort of set her up for knowing that stopping someone from doing something they’re meant to be doing wasn’t right. So when she had me and she was on her own, she never stopped me from dreaming and being who I wanted to be. I would sing around the house. There’s a baby book that she has, and I think at 18 months it says, “She’s going to be a singer and an actress.”

What could you possibly have been doing at 18 months?
I would hum when I was eating. She just took that as like, “She’s gonna be a singer and an actress.” Later on, I started mimicking her. She would come home in her nurse’s outfit and I would get a little white coat and little white shoes. So she thought, “Oh, well maybe she’s going to be a nurse and an actress. Or a singer.” So if I wanted to go do this young actors’ company or this after-school club that was just about singing and acting, she would let me do those things.

Then you went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
I did, and that was sort of by default. I went to university first to study music psychology. I guess in my brain, I was like, “I don’t know if it’s possible for me to be in entertainment, but I certainly would love to be able to help people using music, so maybe I’ll be a music therapist.” But whilst I was doing this course, I was painfully bored. It’s like my brain and my body knew I was doing the wrong thing. It knew that I was not being stimulated the way I should be, and so I quit. I didn’t even need to go to the lectures; I was passing without even needing to be there, which told me in volumes that I was in the wrong place. So I quit, and I go to this youth company at Stratford Theatre Royal. I meet (the director of the company) in the foyer of the theater. She asks me if I’m training, and I said, “What do you mean training?” She said, “Are you going to drama school?” I said, “No, I don’t think I would get in.” She said, “Well, I think you should go to drama school, and I think you should go to RADA.” I said, “What’s RADA?” She said, “It’s the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.” I said, “I don’t think the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts is going to let me in.”

Cynthia Erivo shot by Blair Caldwell
Cynthia Erivo (Photograph by Blair Caldwell)

Why did you say that?
Because it was the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts! I was like, “I’m not getting into a royal academy. That’s not happening.” When you’re a Black girl in southwest London or east London, which is where I was at that time, it’s very unlikely that you get into these places. You don’t even know they exist, so the idea that you can actually get into somewhere that you didn’t know existed is impossible. And, long story short, I got in. It shifted the idea of what was possible for me.

Did you sing in your spare time?
I was doing everything from backing vocals to singing at nightclubs in London for no money. I was trying to do as much as I possibly could. While at RADA, I was lucky enough to bump into a friend who is still a friend today. His name is Michael Peavoy, and he loved musicals. So he would grab all the books from the library, the musical books that had songs in them, and we would sneak off to a room that had a piano and sing all these songs from shows I had never seen.

Looking back on what your life could have been, if there was a turning point, maybe RADA was that turning point?
My acting teacher passed away recently. Her name was Dee Cannon, and she became a really good friend. She was the one that didn’t want me to shy away from who I was. Because there is that trope that comes with being a Black woman where you have to be the strong Black woman, and that’s what I was playing a lot when we were at RADA. She would, on purpose, give me the most vulnerable role in whatever we were doing. She just kept teaching me, “Vulnerability is your strong suit. That’s the thing that makes me want to watch you, because you have a really wonderful way of homing in on the vulnerability of something or someone.” I had to really come to terms with that, because I had been doing the opposite. I had been hiding the vulnerability and playing strong, when actually being strong meant being vulnerable, for me. That might not be the story for everyone, but that really was a turning point for me, because I started seeing the way you play characters differently. I started finding out what it is they wanted, what kept them up in the middle of the night, what was the thing they don’t want anyone to know, what was driving them. That makes it far more interesting to play than doing what’s on the outside. Because what’s on the outside is obvious, but often what makes that outside tick is what’s happening where no one can see.

Soul singer Aretha Franklin reviews a copy of her album “Aretha Franklin – Soul ’69” at Atlantic Records studios on January 9, 1969 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Let’s talk about Aretha. How did you feel taking on this role?
It was a huge honor to be asked to do it, because she’s one of my heroes. She’s one of the people who taught me what it was to tell a story through song, not just to sing it. And then there was sort of this overwhelming sense of responsibility. I wanted to be able to tell this story, not just about the music that she made, but about the person behind it all. About the things she had gone through that made her who she was and made her able to tell stories the way she did, to sing the way she did.

She’s a very complicated person. Her relationship with her father and then deciding “I’m not going to be in the church, I’m going to be who I am” — that was really quite radical.
It was very radical. I think it took her some time to find what her place was, and it actually took her moving back to the church, pulling the things she learned from there and bringing it into the now. (She was) putting it into the music to find out who she was. That is a radical thing to do, and it’s a fearless thing to do.

Very few people can sing Aretha credibly. Where did you start?
I’ve been listening to her for such a long time, that I noticed there are tricks she would have. There are times when, yes, she’s full voice and it’s big. There are times when actually she’s doing almost nothing. It’s pulled back and it’s quieter than you think it is, and just listening to those choices really helped me to figure out how to use my voice to sing her songs. There’s only one Aretha Franklin. But, for me, the choice I made was to try and find the nuances, the breaths, the trills, the pauses, the way she would say a certain word, the lilt on a word. Maybe she would go from one note and glide into another in different songs. That’s the things I was listening for.

You got to meet Aretha, right?
First time I met her was after a show. I was doing “The Color Purple” on Broadway. She’d come to see the show, and I didn’t know she was there. Someone said, “Aretha Franklin is downstairs and would like to meet you.” I come downstairs and, sure enough, there’s Aretha Franklin. As I walked toward her, she sings the last line of the big song in the show, which is “I’m Here.” I just was astounded, because this is a woman who doesn’t have to spend her time doing anything she doesn’t want to, and the fact that she stayed and listened and watched the show was incredible. Then I met her again at the Kennedy Center Honors. I was singing “The Impossible Dream.” When I watched the performance back, they panned to Aretha and she’s singing along with me. Her eyes are closed, and she’s looking in the air. It’s one of my favorite things and I still have that recording, because it’s sort of like a pat on the shoulder — like “Well done, you done good.”

What else do you want to do in your career?
I’m starting to produce. That’s a wish of mine, to be able to create things that I don’t have to be in, that I can create space for other people.

Why is that important to you?
Because there isn’t enough yet for faces that look like mine, and I want to be one of those faces that they can come to. I get to play in this world, and I want to use the space that I’ve been given to give to others. I think it’s important. There’s no point going forward and up if you can’t reach back and go, “Hey, come with me,” and that’s what I want to do.

Watch Cynthia Erivo’s full conversation with TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman below:

Read more from the Limited Series & TV Movies issue here

Cynthia Erivo EmmyWrap cover
Cynthia Erivo on the front cover of the June 15, 2021 issue of the EmmyWrap Limited Series & Movies magazine