by Kasey Caminiti | March 31, 2021 3:00 pm
The ascension of Cynthia Erivo could one day make for its own riveting biopic. A pivotal scene would come just over five years ago, when her debut in the revival of The Color Purple, a musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel produced by Oprah Winfrey, struck Broadway like a lightning bolt. Her soaring, gut-punch performance of Celie’s eleven o’clock number “I’m Here” routinely led to a rare, show-stopping ovation. While the ferocity of her voice left audiences slack-jawed, its emotional intensity knocked the wind out of them for good measure.
“I didn’t make the connection that it would eventually be the thing that changes the trajectory of my career and my life,” says the London-born actor and singer. That big break propelled her into a rare echelon of performers, earning her Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards. Hollywood almost instantly came knocking at her dressing room door, and she appeared soon afterward in Bad Times at the El Royale and Steve McQueen’s Widows. Erivo’s first shot at an EGOT came last year, with dual Oscar nominations for her leading turn as Harriet Tubman in Harriet and for co-writing and performing an original song for the film.
Now, the 34-year-old is embodying one of her greatest idols in Genius: Aretha, the third season of National Geographic’s anthology series. Erivo acknowledges the overwhelming responsibility of playing a music titan like Aretha Franklin, but as a self-professed geek when it comes to vocal performance, she was also excited to dive into her homework. “I really wanted to find out what she was doing in one song to another,” says Erivo, who ultimately sang in each one of the series’ eight episodes live on set. She was conscious of avoiding mimicry, a potential trap when playing any musician. “I wanted to pay homage to the way she would think and the choices she would make, because they were really specific,” Erivo says.
The respect was mutual. Erivo recalls first meeting Franklin backstage at The Color Purple. “You can really sing!” Franklin told her later that year, after watching Erivo perform at the Kennedy Center Honors. (One audience shot shows Franklin, who died in 2018, with her eyes closed, mouthing along to Erivo’s performance.) Her collaborators point out that Erivo pairs her extraordinary talents with humility and diligence. “Cynthia is the ultimate professional,” says Courtney B. Vance, who plays Aretha’s father, C.J. Franklin, in the series. “She’s very warm and engaging. She comes ready to go.” Genius executive producer and director Anthony Hemingway notes that Erivo’s drive to do the Queen of Soul justice continued all the way through production. “She and I never stopped looking for the moments to convey the complexities, colors and nuances of Aretha’s humanity,” Hemingway says.
“My job, more than anything, is to inspire other young Black women to know that they can be everything that they want. I keep doing as much work as I can because I want to keep showing more possibilities.” – Cynthia Erivo
Behind that determination lies Erivo’s commitment to expanding the public’s imagination of who Black women are or can be. “Storytelling is the guiding light for me,” she says. “I’ve made a point of picking work specifically to meet Black women that we haven’t seen before, or whose stories haven’t quite fully been told.” That Franklin’s rise will also get the big-screen treatment later this year with Respect, with her Color Purple co-star Jennifer Hudson in the lead role, feels like a measure of progress. “I’m excited that we get to celebrate Aretha Franklin in such a grand way,” she says. “We aren’t often afforded that luxury when it comes to Black heroes and icons.” On a personal level, she’s also eager to see Respect because she counts so many of the artists involved as friends.
In addition to illuminating the lives of characters she plays, Erivo considers the impact that their stories—and hers—may have on viewers. “I was a little girl in southwest London with a single mother who didn’t really have very much,” she says. “My job more than anything is to inspire other young Black women to know that they can be everything that they want. I keep doing as much work as I can because I want to keep showing more possibilities.” The sense that Erivo’s work serves a broader purpose was evident to her friend and Harriet co-star Leslie Odom Jr. “It’s never about ego for her,” he says. Last summer, she founded a production company, Edith’s Daughter, named for her mother and intended to shepherd untold stories about Black women to wider audiences.
If recent times have compelled Erivo to slow down, grounding her in her Los Angeles home, she’s hardly stopped working for long. Erivo spent 2020 co-writing and recording her debut album, due out late this summer. “It was very strange to be playing Franklin, who’s such a huge influence on music itself, and be recording an album at the same time,” she says. Early episodes of Genius focus on the range of Franklin’s vocal mastery—of jazz, gospel, soul and pretty much any sort of music she pleased—and her resistance to being reduced to just one type of singer. Erivo was especially inspired by this aspect of Franklin’s growing up, and aimed to carry it into her own music. “I’ve been lucky enough to have a label that has allowed me to write songs that mean something to me regardless of genre, because if I’m singing all of them, that’s the connection,” she says.
When she does manage to relax, Erivo’s downtime also seems to bring out her inner nerd—recent diversions include devouring documentaries (about Audrey Hepburn, Biggie Smalls, and the Golden State Killer) and playing Tetris with her VR Oculus. She FaceTimes often with London family and friends, considers her hairstylist and makeup artist “more like brothers,” and expresses gratitude for a circle of loved ones that includes a growing number of A-list stars, as well as a partner she declines to identify. Two mini poodle mixes (one Yorkie and one Maltese) also trot around underfoot.
But staying home hasn’t meant a life in sweatpants or jettisoning her love for a well-executed look. “Sometimes I pick out my outfit the night before, even if I’m not going anywhere,” Erivo says. “What I’m always looking for when it comes to style is, ‘How much fun can I have today? What will make me feel good in this moment?’” On Instagram, she can be seen donning designer threads from Ivy Park to Oscar de la Renta atop a canvas of close-cropped blonde curls and formidably manicured nails, accented by her septum rings and an enviable range of eclectic spectacles.
Call them rose-tinted if you must, but Erivo exudes the kind of clear-eyed optimism that comes from recognizing one’s worth and believing in its power. Fitting, then, that she’ll play the magical Blue Fairy in Disney’s forthcoming live-action Pinocchio, co-starring Tom Hanks and directed by Robert Zemeckis. She’ll also appear in the Apple anthology series Roar, alongside Nicole Kidman and Alison Brie. Her children’s book, Remember to Dream, Ebere, an ode to the power of imagination and dreaming big, will be published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers this fall.
With self-reflection over the past year has come a renewed eagerness to keep working, including one day singing again in front of a live audience, a feeling Erivo calls “second to none.” In the meantime, she’ll continue to tell stories with the proliferating array of media at her disposal. “I know that the world is a very strange place right now, but I found really wonderful peacefulness and contentment in who I am and what I do,” she says. “I feel really happy in this moment.”
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