‘Genius: Aretha’ Showrunner & Stars Talk Bringing the Queen of Soul to Life

Cynthia Erivo in Genius: Aretha
National Geographic/Richard DuCree

With Oscar-nominated actress and performer Cynthia Ervio inhabiting the legend, Aretha Franklin’s story comes gorgeously to life in National Geographic’s limited series Genius, premiering March 21.

Genius previously focused on Albert Einstein (Geoffrey Rush) and Pablo Picasso (Antonio Banderas), and for those familiar with those iterations, this one will look a little different. “I wasn’t trying to make something different. I just had to follow the story,” says showrunner, executive producer, and writer Suzan-Lori Parks.

To do so they “took creative liberties, but were guided by history, guided by fact, and respectful in the storytelling,” says Parks. “It’s not like we’re just playing fast and loose. We very much want to be respectful to her story … and to give her opportunities to demonstrate her genius.”

The show doesn’t shy away from the harder parts of Franklin’s life, including her toxic relationship with her first husband, Ted White (Malcolm Barrett).

Genius: Aretha Cynthia Erivo Malcolm Barret

National Geographic/Richard DuCree

“There’s no one thing that motivates him,” Barrett says of the character he plays. “I think he has a habit of falling in love with the talent. He’s a lover of women, but definitely also has a need to be successful, to be included in the limelight, and very much understands that Aretha is a talent.”

The series also captures Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin’s (Courtney B. Vance), a respected Civil Rights activist and friend to Martin Luther King Jr., who takes part in illicit activities while preaching on the road. “He was a challenging character,” Vance shares. “The respect that he had in the community and in the house, and then his demons that he struggled with. It was a lot to actually.”

His unconventionality, adds Vance, was very compelling: “He was blessed to go from sharecropping [to the pulpit]. He rose from that to being the preacher with the million-dollar voice, carving a way, selling his albums. [But] he never sat on anybody’s couch and figured out what his demons were and what his issues were. He just kept going because that’s all he could do to survive.”

Genius Aretha Courntey B Vance Shaian Jordan

(Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

We also see Aretha as a young girl and a teen, nicknamed “Little Re,” both played by newcomer Shaian Jordan. “I play her a bit older at first, but then as we ease into the episodes, you see the flashbacks and me being 9 years old,” Jordan says. “I had to tap into my emotions to connect with her character.”

Genius Aretha David Cross Cynthia Erivo

(Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree)

And of course there’s music producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross). Did Jerry know what kind of icon Aretha would become? “I don’t think anybody knew she was going to be as iconic and as prolific as she was, except for maybe herself,” Cross says. “But he certainly knew that there was something there.”

Because the producer died in 2008, Cross helped prepare for the role by speaking with Wexler’s wife, Jean Arnold. “I talked extensively to [her],” Cross explained. “She told me that she only heard Jerry refer to two different people as true geniuses, and Aretha was one of them.”

Genius: Aretha, Series Premiere, Sunday, March 21, 9/8c, National Geographic (next day on Hulu)