Singer Aretha Franklin is known as a ‘GOAT’ – Greatest Of All Time. Now the National Geographic Channel is spotlighting this icon’s legendary life in the miniseries Genius: Aretha.

Tony, Emmy and Grammy award-winning British actress, Cynthia Erivo, (Harriet, Broadway’s The Color Purple) stars as the Queen of Soul. Franklin’s greatest hits, including Chain of Fools, Since You’ve Been Gone and Baby I Love You, are included the series. She sold 75 million records globally during her illustrious career. The series also focuses on her childhood; she was a gospel prodigy at 12, and later in life championed the civil rights movement.

Genius: Aretha premieres on March 21, 2020, for a four-night consecutive run. Cynthia Erivo spoke with the TV Critics Association about her new and challenging role.

Genius: Aretha - Cynthia Erivo
Genius: Aretha – Aretha Franklin (Cynthia Erivo), performs on stage ©2021 National Geographic/Richard DuCree

So weird

Suzan-Lori Parks, the writer and executive producer of the series, said she first met with you at a restaurant. It was to talk about your portraying Aretha, and her song, Day Dreaming started playing.

That was so weird. I think that’s how we’ve been doing it. We’re leaving ourselves open to the signs that are coming to us. That was the first time I thought to myself, ‘Okay, this is the right thing to do.’ There was no reason for that song to play. Before that it was just miscellaneous hotel music. Then Day Dreaming came on. I sat down and it started playing, and it was like, ‘Someone’s in the room.’

Greatest Of All Time

Genius: Aretha - Cynthia Erivo
Genius: Aretha – Aretha Franklin (Cynthia Erivo), performs on stage after being crowned “Queen of Soul” ©2021 National Geographic/Richard DuCree

How did you approach playing a ‘GOAT?’ That’s got to be one of the most intimidating things ever.

Yeah. I love Aretha. I’ve been listening to her since I was little. I learned to sing and tell stories that way. So you approach it by paying attention to the music, listening to her voice. How she communicates with her music.

I was lucky because now this amazing documentary Amazing Grace is out. It’s a really wonderful look into the relationship she has with people and the way she communicates. I’ve been poring over lots of her interviews to find out her cadence. I get to be a geek of something I really love. That’s how I’ve been getting into her.

Genius Voice

Genius: Aretha - Cynthia Erivo
Genius: Aretha – Aretha Franklin (Cynthia Erivo) performs in a small club in New York City ©2021 National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Cynthia Erivo has a spectacular voice. Aretha Franklin has a spectacular voice. But how do you quantify the differences between her voice and your voice?

I guess I’ve learned from her. I think the difference is that both of us had different life experiences and different relationships with music. I guess a lot of my voice comes from her, because I’ve been listening to her for a long time. She has definitely had years on me in her experience with her voice. I’m still learning mine. I don’t think I’m ever not going to be a pupil when it comes to music, singing and vocalizing.

Being able to learn her voice and get into the intricacies of what she does with it. There is genius in that; (it) is eye opening. I’m learning something every day, like how to use my voice in a completely different way. I’m really thrilled about (that).

So, to quantify, I think it’s an educational thing for me. It’s about finding a sound that is slightly unfamiliar to me than it was to her.

In the moment

Genius: Aretha - Cynthia Erivo
Genius: Aretha – Aretha Franklin (Cynthia Erivo), plays piano in the Franklin home ©2021 National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Rumor has it that you were singing live on set. Do you feel the freedom to do that elevated your performance?

Singing I guess is my second language. So, the rumor is true. I do sing live on set. And I think I’ll be singing live consistently. I guess it allows me to connect to her. Music is a real way to open up and to be vulnerable and to share the way one feels to express the things that you can’t say. To be able to actually sing live means that I can be in the moment, and I don’t have to manufacture it. And it’s there in the lyrics, in the music, in the way I have to sing it. So, for me, it’s a true gift to be able to sing live on set.

Kind of amazing

Genius: Aretha - David Cross and Cynthia Erivo
Genius: Aretha – Music producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross), talks with Aretha Franklin (Cynthia Erivo), in the studio ©2021 National Geographic/Richard DuCree

There’s also a movie version about Aretha’s life coming out called Respect with Jennifer Hudson. Have you spoken with her?

I haven’t spoken to Jennifer personally. I sent her congratulations because I’m really looking forward to seeing her version and the film.

I’m actually excited by the fact that we get to tell this woman’s story. There are many heroes who have had their story told millions of times. And to be in a moment where we can tell Aretha’s story more than once is kind of amazing.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.