Cynthia Erivo will soon be seen playing the legendary Queen of Soul in “Genius: Aretha”, the third edition of National Geographic‘s “Genius” series.

While the first season focused on Albert Einstein (played by Geoffrey Rush) and the second on Pablo Picasso (Antonio Banderas), the latest is a five-episode limited series about the life and particular musical genius of Aretha Franklin, portrayed by Cynthia Erivo.

Erivo, a two-time Oscar nominee and winner of a 2016 Tony for her role in “The Color Purple” on Broadway, revealed that she had been put forward for the role before she even knew the project existed.

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“I didn’t know it was happening, I was minding my business,” Erivo said during a recent Zoom interview with an international group of journalists. “A video of me singing on a red carpet was sent sent to someone, saying this girl might be right for it. And that happening, not even really knowing it was a possibility, sort of shakes you a little bit.”

"Queen of Soul" Aretha Franklin, played by Cynthia Erivo, performing on stage in National Geographic's GENIUS: ARETHA
National Geographic/Richard DuCree

She admitted she did feel some trepidation about playing such an iconic figure in the world of music, yet she’s also felt that way about all her favourite roles. “I think if everything came to me with ease it would be very boring indeed,” she said. “When there’s a little bit of risk, it feels like I’m probably leaning in the right direction.”

One of the aspects of Franklin’s life that Erivo found most surprising was the singer’s extensive work with the civil rights movement. “I didn’t know that she had a close relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, and I didn’t know how much she was working with him” to advance the movement. “She used her music to help that movement. And also being a mother, raising three children and being Aretha is an incredible feat, and I don’t think people marry those two things together.”

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Playing Franklin, Erivo added, has given her a whole new level of R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the music legend. “I started as a fan, then I got to understand who the person was, which was really awesome. To understand what she had really been through and to get to where she was, was inspiring. It’s impossible for someone to go through was she went through and keep the career going for over 60 years.”

Courtney B. Vance plays Franklin’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, a popular evangelist and civil rights leader, and “Genius” chronicles the complicated and sometimes fraught relationship between father and daughter over the years.

After playing C.L., Vance believes Aretha would not be Aretha without the influence her father wielded in her life. “She had to overcome so much, from a very early age, from 10 years old when her mother and father split,” said Vance. “She saw, as a little toddler, all the things that were happening in the house. She may not have known about the little 12-year-old that he got pregnant, which pushed them out of Memphis and into Detroit, they had to leave Memphis because of that issue. But all the children heard arguments, which eventually led her mother to leave. That was unheard of, that a woman leaves her children… their family was completely unique, and out of that pain, out of that chaos, out of that mess — Aretha on top of that, had her two babies — and on top of that had to spend seven years trying to find her voice.”

Added Vance: “You go through something, by the time you get to your goal, you can stand up on that mountaintop and go, ‘Yeah, I did this.’ This is not an overnight sensation. She was not that.”

Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin in National Geographic's GENIUS: ARETHA
National Geographic/Richard DuCree

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According to executive producer Suzan-Lori Parks, part of her intent in bringing the life of Aretha Franklin to the screen as part of the “Genius” franchise was to explore the idea of what genius actually means.

“I think genius does mean struck by God,” Parks explained, citing one Dictionary definition. “We traditionally as a world culture tend to look at certain kinds of people and call them geniuses.”

By focusing on the genius of Aretha Franklin, she added, “the question wasn’t ‘Was she a genius?’ but ‘How are we going to expand what the idea of genius means?’ Yes, Aretha Franklin was struck by God, but I think her genius flowered because she had such an amazing family, and she had such a wonderful family support group. So the notion that genius is an isolated thing, we can really redefine that. A genius is also something that could be nurtured by a community.”

“Genius: Aretha” premieres Sunday, March 21 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic.