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Cynthia Erivo: “Aretha Franklin is part of the tapestry of my voice”

Welcome to REEL TALK – NME's new weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV.

From school nativities to big time movie roles, Cynthia Erivo has been singing for stardom her whole life. As she prepares to play Aretha Franklin on the small screen, we meet the rising star to talk humble beginnings, emailing Oprah and gunning for Oscars glory.

Oprah Winfrey, Olivia Colman, Janelle Monae, Meryl Streep, Regina King, Viola Davis, Aretha Franklin. NME’s interview with Cynthia Erivo starts out as a simple chat, but 30 minutes later and it’s become a who’s who of iconic 21st Century women. We’re partly to blame, of course, pushing and prompting the actress for quotes about her celebrity pals. Though, to be honest, it’s not been a slog. Erivo’s only starred in three films so far, but she’s already got some very big names in her corner. 

Take Oprah, for example, who reached out via email when she spotted Erivo at one too many events. “You don’t have to say yes to everything”, was the TV host’s sage advice. Then there’s Davis, a mentor to Cynthia when they worked together on BAFTA-nominated crime drama Widows. Add to that a firm friendship with Oscar-winner King and you’ve got the beginnings of a very exclusive squad.

Cynthia Erivo
Credit: Getty Images

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One former member of the club, the late Aretha Franklin, holds a very special place in Erivo’s heart. Obsessed with the Queen of Soul since day dot, she never dreamed of getting close to her idol, let alone playing her on screen. But that’s just what happened. Announced last month, Cynthia will portray the ‘Respect’ singer in the next season of National Geographic’s Genius.

Nominated for a whopping 17 Emmys in two years, the show tells the stories of humanity’s greatest luminaries. Albert Einstein (Geoffrey Rush) and Pablo Picasso (Antonio Banderas) were the subjects of its previous outings, but Franklin represents a different challenge. How will Cynthia tackle the show’s first musical case study?

Cynthia Erivo
Credit: Getty Images

“She’s part of the tapestry of the voice I have,” says Erivo, perched on a very expensive sofa in a hotel suite in west London. “The music I’ve learned and the performances I’ve done, she inspired a lot of it. She’s one of my heroes and I hope I can do justice to her achievements.”

Cast as Franklin earlier this year, Cynthia snagged the role thanks largely to an awards ceremony appearance she could have said no to (take that, Oprah). Performing Elton John’s ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ at the 2019 Tony Awards in Radio City Music Hall, New York, Erivo’s powerful vocals soared over the packed-out crowd as an ‘In Memoriam’ segment played on a raised screen behind her. It’s a difficult gig to get right – the literal graveyard slot – but the British star aced it, her soft vocals pitched perfectly against the black and white visuals. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

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For most of the broadcast, the TV cameras were aimed at the screen – and not Cynthia. But others were watching closely. Clive Davis, Atlantic Records CEO and executive producer on the new series of Genius, was in attendance too. He fell in love with her voice and to top it off, Davis had overheard Erivo on the red carpet earlier. Asked which song was her “guilty pleasure” by a journalist, she picked ‘Ain’t No Way’ by Aretha Franklin and then proceeded to sing some of it out loud. Little did she know, but she’d just crooned her way into the job of a lifetime.

Luckily, Erivo’s been preparing for this role since she was a little girl. From a childhood spent listening to Franklin “at least once a week” to practising Aretha’s hits in rehearsal studios, the industry’s new golden girl definitely knows her stuff. She’s also got some personal experiences to draw on.

Cynthia Erivo

Cynthia first met Aretha after an evening performance of The Color Purple in 2015. That night, Franklin had stayed for the whole show, which she didn’t usually do. Erivo took this as proof that “she liked it”, which turned out to be a good guess because she told her so later on. After the final curtain, Franklin approached Cynthia backstage and sang the last line of ‘I’m Here’ (Celie’s big number) back at her in the hallway. As an afterthought, the then 73-year-old chuckled: “You can sing!”

“It was crazy!” says Erivo, grinning. “I don’t think I’m ever going to forget that moment. I made sure I got a picture.” 

Cynthia Erivo
Cynthia Erivo and Aretha Franklin backstage after a performance of ‘The Color Purple’ in 2015. Credit: Getty Images

A year later, the pair crossed paths again, this time at the Kennedy Center Honours where Erivo was – as usual – performing. “I was singing ‘The Impossible Dream’” she says. “I didn’t know then, but the camera panned to Aretha Franklin [in the audience] whilst I was up there. She had her eyes closed and was singing along. When I saw the video later I was like, ‘what!’” It’s also worth noting that Barack and Michelle Obama were in attendance too, but if you don’t have 88 Billboard chart hits to your name, it seems Cynthia’s less interested – see below.

Sadly, that was the last time she encountered her idol. Franklin died the next year from the effects of a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, widely misreported as pancreatic cancer at the time. How did Cynthia react to the news? “Oh I cried and I cried,” she says. “I was in Hawaii and I had a couple of concerts to do and when I found out I broke down. I posted something [on social media] and a friend messaged me. She said, ‘I know you loved her, so I’m sorry. I know you must be feeling sad.’ And I really was. That one hurt lots.” Not quite considered a friend or relative, Erivo didn’t get to attend the funeral. But she was invited to sing at a special BET tribute in Newark which “meant a lot”.

Now, Cynthia gets a whole TV series to pay tribute, complete with fresh recordings of Aretha’s biggest tunes. Filming begins this month for Genius and with the series due to air in spring 2020, it marks an exciting new chapter in her career. But how did she get here?

Cynthia Erivo
Credit: Getty Images

“I grew up in Stockwell, south London,” explains Cynthia, now 32. “We had a humble upbringing and my mum raised my sister and I on her own.” Living in a modest maisonette on a council estate, they had to make the best of things. “We didn’t have very much,” she remembers, “but we still managed to have a wonderful childhood. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t unpleasant either.”

While her upbringing might have been ordinary, Erivo certainly wasn’t and her incredible talents soon became obvious. “I vividly remember my first time on stage,” says Erivo. “I was five years old and I played a shepherd [in the school Nativity]. They made me sing ‘Silent Night’ solo. I saw my mum smiling, maybe crying, and I remember knowing that people were really happy. That was the first time that I thought, ‘ooh, this might be what I’m supposed to do’.”

Cynthia Erivo
Cynthia Erivo during a performance of ‘The Color Purple’ on Broadway.

Eventually, she was proved right and after graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Cynthia spent her early career in the West End (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Sister Act). Next came her big breakthrough in 2015 – a critically acclaimed turn on Broadway in The Color Purple. She played Celie, a young Southern woman who struggles to find her identity in the face of abuse. First played by Whoopi Goldberg in the 1985 film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel, Celie awoke Hollywood to Cynthia’s huge potential.

After lapping up accolades, including a Tony, Grammy and an Emmy award, Erivo decided to take her talents to the big screen. Perhaps in search of that elusive Oscar – the missing piece of her EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony)?

“It’s strange and it would be amazing,” says Cynthia. “I didn’t even know you could get a Grammy for a musical and then an Emmy came along… just to be mentioned in the same sentence as an Oscar is kind of awesome.”

Cynthia Erivo
Cynthia Erivo in ‘Harriet’. Credit: Getty Images

After roles in Steve McQueen thriller Widows and Bad Times At The El Royale – a bloody, B-movie mashup from director Drew Goddard – Erivo still hasn’t got her hands on the coveted golden statuette, but her next movie may just do it. 

Based on the life of 19th Century African American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Harriet stars Cynthia in a terrific, riveting performance that could earn her an Oscar nomination. Of course, not everyone wants her to succeed – and in fact, her casting was initially criticised by some who said a British actress shouldn’t portray such an important American civil rights figure. Other UK actors have faced the same issue in recent years, with John Boyega (Detroit) and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) condemned for taking on roles supposedly meant for US talent. “I’m never gonna say that anyone’s opinion is invalid,” says Erivo.”If that’s how people feel then that’s how people feel. It is my responsibility to make sure I do my job so that if these people do end up watching it they can be pleasantly surprised.”

Given Cynthia’s stunning performance, you wouldn’t bet against it. Stuffed with rousing speeches and wide-eyed, emotional outbursts, hers is a portrayal of uncommon strength and integrity.

A good example of this is a story Erivo tells about shooting a later sequence in the film – the Combahee River Raid, in which Tubman led a daring attempt to free 750 slaves from Confederate shackles. In the scene, every soldier is a man, yet each stands entirely to attention, hanging on their pint-sized, female leader’s every word. It’s a rare sight even in 2019, but especially uncommon back then.

“There’s something to be said about a lineup of young men in army uniform listening to a woman,” says Erivo. “There was something in the air that night. These were not experienced actors. Some of them had never done anything before, but they meant every moment. I felt like my responsibility was to make sure that they were there for a reason. I didn’t want to waste their time by not giving them what they needed.”

Of course, Erivo wasn’t always the one giving lessons. When castmate and bonafide pop hitmaker Janelle Monae was on-camera, she was taking notes instead. During one scene, Monae’s character – a free woman who runs a boarding house in Philadelphia – is hurt badly by a local racist, but she never shows fear, even at the end. “Some of that scene was just her, some of it’s not even scripted,” reveals Cynthia. “That strength in that last moment is what truly moves people. The fact that she’s holding onto that very last moment… there’s still heart and strength there and she refuses to give up. I loved that.”

Cynthia Erivo
‘Harriet’ stars Cynthia Erivo as American abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Credit: Universal

With Harriet over and done with and Genius in the offing, Erivo’s future is looking bright. You might ask what the multi-award-winning stage, film and TV star has left to achieve. Well, according to Cynthia, “loads of things”. And she means it, too. 

“I want to be part of the creation of something,” she says. “I’ve done podcasts [scripted thriller Carrier] and I’m happy to do more. I want to do a musical on screen. I want to direct some stuff. I’d love to write a book too. I want to have a production company of my own, maybe open a performing arts school. The sky’s the limit!”

What about talent, is there anyone in particular she’d like to add to her starry group of friends, mentors and collaborators? “I really want to work with [Moonlight director] Barry Jenkins,” she says. “I think he’s incredible. Also Regina King [If Beale Street Could Talk, Watchmen]. I know her very well and I love her, but I would just love to be left alone in a room together. I would happily be a tree in a film that she was in.” Others on the list include Meryl Streep (“because she’s Meryl Streep”), three-time Oscar nominee Viola Davis (who she “would happily work with a million times over”) and Josh Gad, best known as Olaf the Snowman from Frozen

In fact, Erivo already has that last one sewn up. Gad has written her a part in an upcoming musical adaptation of US folk tale Rip Van Winkle – and Cynthia has already agreed to do it. “He [Gad] texted me in the middle of the night and asked if he could come to my hotel and pitch me an idea,” says Erivo. “I thought, ‘this is crazy’, but I was in LA and he came to my hotel with the composers and they did a couple of songs – one of which made me cry – and I was like, ‘okay, I’m in!’”

Of course, this all sounds very exciting. But what about Oprah’s warning, is Cynthia risking burnout? “You know, I think it’s about learning self-preservation and keeping your energy up,” Erivo responds. “At that time, I was becoming out of balance and it was a helpful reminder: ‘Preserve yourself, there’s lots to do.’” Well, she’s certainly got that right.

Harriet arrives in UK cinemas on November 22

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