By Maureen Lee Lenker
March 16, 2021 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Before ever taking a meeting, Cynthia Erivo earned some R-E-S-P-E-C-T from the producers of Genius: Aretha by singing on a red carpet.

Erivo was making her entrance at the 2019 Tony Awards when a reporter asked her to name her guilty-pleasure song. She responded with "Ain't No Way," by Aretha Franklin, and sang a bit of it to demonstrate her love for the tune.

"Unbeknownst to me, that interview gets sent to [executive producers] Clive Davis and Brian Grazer, the rest is history," Erivo tells EW. "I get a call from my agent, who says National Geographic is doing the next Genius and it's about Aretha Franklin and they would like you to consider playing the role, and there's a meeting coming up if you want to take it."

Genius: Aretha
Credit: National Geographic/Richard DuCree

Erivo took the meeting and the role, embodying the Queen of Soul in the third iteration of the Genius series. It marks the second major real-life figure she's brought to life on screen, after earning a Best Actress Oscar nod for her portrayal of Harriet Tubman in Harriet.

"It's daunting because there are people who already have an impression of who that person is before you play them, but then you have to let that go and find out what your version is so you can do it as fully and truthfully as you can," Erivo says. "There's something really special about bringing to life someone who you may have never been able to meet before, but you know they existed and keeping that spirit alive and keeping their legacy going."

Erivo did actually have the opportunity to meet Franklin on a few occasions before the artist's death in 2018. The first time was after a performance of The Color Purple on Broadway, for which Erivo won the 2016 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. "We met her afterwards, she came backstage, she sang the line 'I'm here' back to me, so I couldn't have been happier after that," Erivo recalls.

But the more memorable interaction was at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2016, where Erivo sang "The Impossible Dream."

"I saw her when I was about to perform and she remembered me and was like, 'Oh you, you can sing!'" Erivo says. "I was like, 'I'm happy! That's it! I don't need anything else.' And what that sort of left me with was, especially when this came around, was that I hope that I make her proud doing this. I hope that she knows that a person who valued what she thought of the work I was doing is telling the story."

That performance famously featured a cutaway to Franklin, singing along with her eyes closed as Erivo slayed the song. Erivo says she would often think of that reaction while embodying Franklin on set, hoping her work was worthy of that same response.

"To be able to sing something and to know that was the reaction that was brought about by a performance of mine, you wish that if she's anywhere listening, I hope every time she hears me singing, that's how it feels when she hears it," she says. " I hope whenever people hear me sing, they feel that — they feel the love in it, they feel bliss. I definitely hope that wherever she is, she got those vibes from me."

Genius: Aretha premieres Sunday, March 21, at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic. Watch the video inter above for more from Erivo.

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