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How ‘Genius: Aretha’ Star Cynthia Erivo Learned Not to Play the Part of the ‘Strong Black Woman’ (Video)

BE Conference 2021: ”I had to really come to terms with that because I had been doing the opposite,“ Oscar nominee says

Cynthia Erivo received an Academy Award nomination for her role as Harriet Tubman in 2019’s “Harriet” and was lauded for portraying the iconic Aretha Franklin in National Geographic’s limited series “Genius: Aretha” — two historical figures who can certainly be described as strong Black women.

So it might surprise you to know the Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award winner decided early on in her acting career not to play the part of the “strong Black woman” — a decision she discussed with TheWrap’s editor in chief, Sharon Waxman, during TheWrap’s BE Conference 2021 on Wednesday.

“My acting teacher passed away recently. Her named 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 internally, because there is the trope that comes with being a Black woman, where you have to play the strong Black woman,” Erivo told Waxman during the actress’ “Spotlight Conversation,” presented by National Geographic. “And that’s what I was playing a lot when we were at RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts], and she would, on purpose, give me the most vulnerable player, the most vulnerable role in whatever we would do.”

Though Erivo was hesitant to stop approaching parts from that stereotypical angle, Cannon pushed her to dig deeper.

“She just kept teaching me that, ‘Vulnerability is your strong suit. That’s the thing that makes me want to watch you, because you have a really wonderful way of honing in on the vulnerability of something, of someone. What they mean, what they are.’ I had to really come to terms with that because I had been doing the opposite,” Erivo said. “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 that they didn’t want anyone to know but that was driving them. And that’s far more interesting to play than to do what’s on the outside, because what’s on the outside is obvious. But often what makes that outside tick is what’s happening within, where no one can see.”

Erivo took that lesson to heart while preparing to play Franklin on “Genius: Aretha,” a role that required her to find a way into a woman who most people only knew from afar as the powerhouse singer who demanded “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

“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,” Erivo said of Franklin. “And then it was sort of this overwhelming sense of responsibility. I wanted to be able to tell the story; not just about the music that she made, but about the person behind it all. About the things that she had gone through that made her who she was and made her able to tell stories the way she did, to sing music the way she did, and write it… and find the bravery to want to be credited the way she was credited.”

The eight-episode “Genius: Aretha” — which is the third installment of the Nat Geo anthology series, following two previous seasons starring Geoffrey Rush as Albert Einstein and Antonio Banderas as Pablo Picasso — chronicles Franklin’s life at different stages of her career, from her first performances as a child to her Grammy wins. But it also pulls back the curtain on her personal struggles and relationships.

“I think that we take for granted, often, who the woman was,” Erivo said. “We know it’s the Queen of Soul. We know that her music is incredible. We know that her voice is incredible. But we don’t realize where all of that comes from. I felt the responsibility and I had the need to tell the story about the woman, because I think that that story is really important… I always want to make sure that we see each of the women that I play as full people; not just as who they were in front of the cameras or what they did, but as fully realized human beings.”

Last year, Erivo launched her own production company, Edith’s Daughter, and told Waxman it’s important to her to use her role as a producer to create spaces for other Black actresses because there aren’t enough opportunities for “faces that look like mine.”

“I want to be one of those spaces that they can come to,” she said. “I get to 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.”

About BE Conference

The BE Conference is comprised of three days of mentorship, education and career-building workshops by the most influential women in media and entertainment, WrapWomen. For more information visit: https://www.thewrap.com/be-conference-2021/

Watch the full panel above.