Cynthia Erivo On Emmy Nomination For Portrayal of Aretha Franklin: “I Felt A Duty To Play Her As Honestly As Possible”

Cynthia Erivo
Aretha Franklin, played by Cynthia Erivo, performs at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

Cynthia Erivo earned her first Primetime Emmy Award nomination on Tuesday for her portrayal of Aretha Franklin in the National Geographic limited series Genius, a role she approached with the utmost R-E-S-P-E-C-T as a longtime fan.

“I learned about storytelling through music from Aretha, she’s my idol. I grew up listening to her. So I did feel like there was a challenge there because I was playing my hero.” Erivo, who prior to playing The Queen of Soul brought to life abolitionist Harriet Tubman, told Deadline.

“It’s not just the legacy of these real-life people you’re trying to portray and try to do well,” she continued. “I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong way to portray them unless you know them intimately. But there is a duty and a responsibility to try to play them as honestly as possible—not to be as delicate as people would want because you want them to be as human as possible. For me, playing both Aretha and Harriet, I wanted to make sure people understood the humanity in each one of them because before the heroism they shared, they were human beings. That is first and foremost.”

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In order to get better acquainted with Franklin, Erivo watched how the legendary singer (who died in 2018) carried herself in interviews and by fully immersing herself in the music.

“Her interviews gave me a peek into who she was like, those moments where she would speak really quietly which would make the reporter feed into her,” the actress and musician explained. “The more comfortable she became during her lifetime, the more funny she became. I also listened to her music over and over because I can sing like me, but I wanted to try and learn the habits she had and how she made the sounds that she was making. She made very specific choices in her songs and it always allowed for beautiful storytelling. That’s something I spent hours and hours doing and I wasn’t by myself. I had an amazing vocal coach named Antea Birchett who gave me the space to learn. Listening and reading was the key to finding out who Aretha was. Her music, specifically, tells the story of her life.”

Cynthia Erivo
Aretha Franklin, played by Cynthia Erivo, performs on stage after being crowned “Queen of Soul”. (Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree) National Geographic/Richard DuCree

But Tuesday’s nominations brought Erivo multiple layers of happiness as many friends and collaborators were also celebrated, including her Chewing Gum costar Michaela Cole who nabbed 9 nominations for I May Destroy You.

“Michaela and I have known each other for a long time, maybe since we were about 15,” Erivo shared. “Chewing Gum was my first foray into TV, she gave me my first chance. We’ve been trying to catch each other today but she’s in a forest somewhere and we can’t seem to get on the call but we’ve been texting. For two girls from where we came from in East London, today is a big deal. Sometimes we call each other and say, ‘Oh my God, we did this, man.’ Today feels like one of those days where I get to share this moment with my friend. I love her very much and she really deserves it all.”

Erivo won’t be taking a break before getting back into her music, as she prepares for a big performance at the Hollywood Bowl on July 30 and later the release of her sophomore studio album in September.

“I really want people to come, it’s going to be a wonderful night,” she said of the live concert in Los Angeles. “It’s going to be very special, we have Ricky Minor doing the musical direction. There are also some exciting projects I have coming up towards the end of the year which I’m not allowed to discuss. So no, no breaks for me just yet.”

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