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r.e.s.p.e.c.t. Cynthia Erivo says playing Aretha Franklin inspired her to 'ask for what you think you deserve in life'

Oscar-nominated star Cynthia Erivo takes on one of her most exciting roles yet - soul icon Aretha Franklin. She tells us of the admiration she has for the singer and why Aretha's life story is most important to her

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NATURAL WOMAN: Cynthia Erivo

NATURAL WOMAN: Cynthia Erivo

SOUL QUEEN: Cynthia as Aretha

SOUL QUEEN: Cynthia as Aretha

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Cynthia as Aretha

Cynthia as Aretha

Cynthia Erivo

Cynthia Erivo

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NATURAL WOMAN: Cynthia Erivo

She's playing the queen of soul, one of the greatest and most beloved vocalists of all time, with a voice ingrained in our hearts and minds.

But if Cynthia Erivo is feeling the pressure of bringing Aretha Franklin to our screens, she isn't letting on.

"I guess there is a small pressure to try and get it right," she says, with delightful understatement, adding that being true to Aretha's life story was what was most important to her.

"I think that being able to be a conduit to tell those stories is a huge responsibility. You're wanting to make sure that everything is as delicately and carefully done as you possibly can, so that there's care put into these moments. So that the story can be told in the right way."

Erivo dazzles in Genius: Aretha, a new drama series coming to Disney+.

It tells of her musical legacy and extraordinary voice, but also looks at what she had to overcome to become such a huge star.

Some fans of her music may not be aware that Franklin had to show a great deal of resilience to find the success that she did.

Her mother left the family home when she was just six, Aretha had two children by the age of 15 and she broke through at a time when options were greatly limited for black female artists.

"I think that she was using these moments in her life to propel her forward and become the woman we know and love," says Erivo.

"I think it's why we hear such passion in her music. I think it's why we fall in love with her when she sings in front of us because she means it. I don't know that she knows how not to mean it."

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SOUL QUEEN: Cynthia as Aretha

SOUL QUEEN: Cynthia as Aretha

SOUL QUEEN: Cynthia as Aretha

The British actress also has a successful singing career and as well as releasing a studio album, won a Tony and a Grammy for her role in the stage musical The Color Purple. But taking on the queen of soul - she performs all the songs - is another thing entirely.

Musically, Erivo is full of admiration for the star. "In a practical sense she didn't read or annotate music, but still was able to compose and create with musicians, which I think is incredible.

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"She didn't read music, but still played like a concert pianist. She learned by ear to play piano, which is wild, especially since she was able to create some chords that most musicians wouldn't be able to even fathom.

"It was the way in which she was able to connect music to real-life experiences and emotions, and managed to also connect that to everybody else who was able to listen.

"There's a reason why she's listened to across the world. And everyone seems to be able to relate. There's something she does with music that no-one else can."

Her performance of Franklin's songs is pretty impressive, and the actress says she benefited from a wealth of footage of the musical diva.

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Cynthia as Aretha

Cynthia as Aretha

Cynthia as Aretha

"I'm a visual and auditory learner, so I will watch something, I listen to something. I was lucky because there are loads of videos of Aretha on stage performing. The one thing I noticed about her is that she's not a woman who does lots of routines, but she will move to the music if it takes her.

"I had a wonderful vocal coach who would help me work through each of the songs so that I could get the habits that she would put into music. There are things that only Aretha does with her voice that you have to sort of listen to learn," she says.

Like most of us who have an Aretha moment, Cynthia can distinctly remember first hearing her sing while on the school run in London with her family as a child.

"I was in my mother's car, on the way to school, I think I was nine or 10 years old. There's a radio station called Magic FM, and Think came on. I had never heard her sing before and I just fell in love with the sound of it and the way it made me feel.

"Later on this ride, for some reason, they played another song, but this time, it's her and Annie Lennox - Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves.

"I just remember feeling like I don't understand how this one person has been able to do these two types of music. And both of them connected with me, both of them felt really good to hear. I just fell in love from that moment on."

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Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin

It's been an extraordinary few years for the 34-year-old, who worked as a theatre actor and only ventured into movies in 2018. She has since been nominated for two Oscars - for acting and songwriting - for the movie Harriet, and has become one of TV and film's most in-demand stars. She's also working on a new album and a children's book.

"I guess I'm a glutton for work, I love what I do, I love being able to create. And so for me, it was just about finding many different ways of creating and putting out creative work.

"I guess the challenge of that is I don't know if there's enough time in the day to get it all done. I'm a stickler for the details, and I want things to feel right and feel personal."

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Cynthia Erivo

Cynthia Erivo

Cynthia Erivo

Like the icon she's playing, the Londoner is determined to make the most of the opportunities that have come her way.

"The thing we can learn from Aretha is that we cannot be afraid to ask for what we believe we deserve," she adds.

"We cannot be afraid to take our space where we are rightfully meant to be. Aretha was not just a musician, she was an activist, and she used her music to speak on the time that she was living through.

"And I think wherever we stand as women, whatever we do, whatever our talent is, there is a way in which we can use it to express the time that we're going through."

Genius: Aretha is available on Disney+ from June 4

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