Aretha Franklin means the world to me, says Cynthia Erivo
NEW YORK: The Tony Awards could bring Cynthia Erivo another Emmy. Days ater the British performer belted Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” during a red carpet interview at the 2019 Tonys — explaining that it’s her guilty pleasure song — she got a call from the producers of the National Geographic series “Genius: Aretha.”
“I was like, ‘I beg your pardon,’” she continued. “In my head I’m like, ‘There is another film happening and I am excited to see that, so what is this?’”
Natgeo had already completed series on Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, and wanted to focus on the life of Franklin, who died 2018 and was arguably the greatest singer of all time.
When Erivo went to meet with the producers, she had a bit of an epiphany.
“Nothing else was playing in the hotel, it was just mood music,” she said. “All of a sudden ‘Day Dreaming’ comes on as I go to sit down. I’m like, ‘Am I the only one that noticed that?’”
Laughing with a huge smile on her face, she continued: “I was like, ‘Either you planned that or someone’s trying to tell me something.’’”
Fast forward two years and Erivo is playing the Queen of Soul in the eight-episode series debuting
March 21. “Respect,” a film about Franklin starring Jennifer Hudson, will be released in August.
Erivo’s exceptional performance in Broadway’s revival of “The Color Purple” won her a Tony, Emmy and Grammy, and she was a double Oscar nominee last year for “Harriet.” In an interview with The Associated Press, edited for clarity and brevity, the 34-year-old talked about meeting Franklin, playing icons on-screen and more.
What does Aretha mean to you?
She means the world to me. As a singer, I truly believe that my job is to communicate and tell the stories that sometimes are difficult for people to tell for themselves... Aretha did that with her eyes closed. She had a wonderful way of communicating the things that she had been through, through song.
She has this thing by which she can take someone else’s song and make it her own.
Totally and it’s such a special thing. Not only does she take the song and make it her own, she takes the song and you forget it was someone else’s. That to me, it’s a really special thing that she was able to do. I don’t know that people realise that “Respect” wasn’t her song first. She finds messaging in songs, in music that you didn’t realise were there in the first place. I don’t know how, but she always managed to find a way into a song that you didn’t know existed. I know that this might not be a popular opinion but when she did her version of (Adele’s) “Rolling in the Deep,” I was like, “Huh, never heard this song like this before. Didn’t think about this song like this before.” At that point because she was an older woman singing this song, you’re like, all the experience that this person must have gone through to get to this point, I didn’t hear this before. Now I’m hearing it with her voice. She was one of a kind, truly.
Did you get a chance to meet her?
I met her the first time when she’d come to a performance of “The Color Purple.” I didn’t know she was there. When I saw her, I felt like an idiot because I was just in shock. There is Miss Aretha Franklin standing in front of me and I’ve just finished singing a show in her presence, oh my goodness. How do I do this? She was funny and lovely. She sang the last line of “I’m Here” back to me. That was a moment I had to put my heart back together. I was like, “This is happening for real.” She was wonderful. When you meet someone like that, you don’t think they’ll remember your face. I met her again at the Kennedy Center Honors. I was singing the very first time I did it. She remembered me. She said, “You’re the girl who was in that play. You can sing. You can sing.” I was like, “Yes that’s me. Thank you very much.” I remember she was wearing red. My favourite thing about that day was when I saw the recording of it, when it finally aired, during my performance they pan to Aretha and she’s singing along with her eyes closed.
Were you hesitant to play her?
It’s about wanting to make sure you do her justice (and) put as much truth in it as you possibly can. There is only one Aretha Franklin so no one can be Aretha Franklin, but you can put as much grace and truth into the re-enacting of her, the realisation of her so you can tell the story in the right way. I guess if I wasn’t nervous, I wouldn’t care.