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Courtney B. Vance on Playing a Complex Man in Genius: Aretha


With the National Geographic series Genius: Aretha, viewers get the opportunity to dig into the music and career of the incomparable Aretha Franklin (played flawlessly by the Emmy, Tony and Grammy award-winning Cynthia Erivo) and chart the impact and influence she has had around the world. A gospel prodigy, civil rights champion, and one of the greatest voices of all time, Franklin had many struggles and triumphs throughout her life, but her music will always be remembered and loved.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Emmy winner Courtney B. Vance, who played Aretha’s father, Baptist minister and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin, talked about the genius that we know Aretha Franklin to be, playing a man as complex as this one, his experience working with both Erivo and Shaian Jordan (who played the childhood version of Aretha), and the very personal reason that “Dr. Feelgood” is his favorite Franklin song. He also talked about what he loves about working in an ensemble, the appeal of 61st Street, and the TV shows he’d love to make a guest appearance on.

Collider: You’ve had a couple of interesting projects back to back lately, with both Lovecraft Country and Genius: Aretha, which are set in different time periods, but still make very relevant statements about race that are still true today. What was it like to experience those stories and really see how much they’re still so very relevant?

COURTNEY B. VANCE: I really think that a lot of times in this country, things don’t happen until we actually visit tragedy seven, like 747s flying into buildings. Then, we realized we’ve gotta deal with each other. The stories are all different, but the main themes behind them are the same. I’m doing a series about unsung heroes. I’m sending it out to some folks in my text contact list. It began with Black history month and every day I would send out a new person that I didn’t know anything about. It’s just the idea that our people come from a situation where we were told no. Everything was a no. In spite of that, we still rose. That’s the story that continues to happen. It happened in Lovecraft, with the demons and monsters, and it’s the monsters in Genius: Aretha that they had to overcome. It started with her father having to overcome sharecropping and being told to choose the pulpit or the plow. He overcame that and became the most famous preacher in America with a million-dollar voice, and Aretha had the same journey. Just think about the pedigree, living in a McMansion and all the celebrities that her father knew that came to the house. When she turned to go into secular music, it should have been a very easy journey for her, but it wasn’t. She had to struggle for years to find her way, and out of that struggle came the genius that we know her to be.

Image via National Geographic

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When the opportunity to play this very complex man came your way, what excited you about that and what made you nervous about that?

VANCE: I’m complex, you’re complex, and every character that I take on is complex. It may just be in our own mind, but C.L. happened to be a larger-than-life character in his complexity, which made his complexities, so cinematic. As an actor or an artist who takes on a project, we attack it or come to it with, how does that person live? Does he get up in the morning and think about what the day is gonna be like? What’s he gonna wear? What am I gonna eat? They may be crazy, from my perspective in 2021, but they lived in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I’ve gotta be able to get in their head and be able to show you all the life. I can’t look at it like an audience member. I’ve gotta be inside of it, so that the audience can do that and make the judgments. He was a big guy, in terms of his life, and there were some questionable choices that he made where, because he was such a big character, they were magnified. The people who were taken the most advantage of, during that time, were Black women, by Black men and white men, and Black children. They’re still taken advantage of today. There’s nothing different that has shifted or changed from that time period. We have to focus on how we’re going to continue to try to protect our women and our children.

What was it like to do the scenes where you’re up on stage, in front of a microphone, and preaching to a room full of people who are responding to you. Even though you’re acting and making a TV series and you know that’s what the scene calls for, does it still feel different to experience that while you’re shooting?

VANCE: I have to set myself up, every time, for success in scenes like that or scenes that are intimate, so that I can just be there. Figuring out how to be comfortable up there in front of a thousand people and that thousand people are with me, how do I bring us all together, so that the scene can happen? I approach everything as, what’s the obstacle? What’s the problem and how am I gonna solve it? I approached that, from the very beginning, by going in there, taking the mic and talking to my congregation. “Y’all are my congregation and you know the mess that I’ve been in and how messy I am, but we all messy. Yeah, I got the 12-year-old girl pregnant. You know about that.” We ran it down. They were like, “Yeah, pastor, we know!” And before you knew it, we were in it. It took five or 10 minutes, and I had them and they had me. I started singing my song, and they were singing it, and we sang together. I just had to figure out how I was gonna go in there, so that we could be together and the scene could happen. The director, Anthony Hemingway, who was the executive producer on The People v. O.J. Simpson, just had to move the camera around. We were all in it, which took the pressure off of them and me, and the scene could just happen.

Image via National Geographic

Aretha Franklin’s father was probably one of the most consistently influential figures in her life, in good and bad ways. What was it like to get to work with not just the fantastic Cynthia Erivo, but also Shaian Jordan, who plays young Aretha? Do you have memorable moments that stand out for you, from working with each of them?

VANCE: With Shaian, I was just completely floored. I think we all were, when she came in. She replaced somebody at the minute and she was so nervous, as anybody would be. Her first scene was singing in front of a thousand people. She couldn’t do it and she ran back to her mommy, into the green room area inside the church. I said, “Let me go in there.” I went in there and we just held hands and got her breathing to calm down. She had never acted before. I said, “We don’t need you to act. We just want you to go up there and be nervous and sing the song. I guarantee you, after the third time that you do it, you will have a rhythm. We’re with you, and we can say that in the scene.” Folks were calling and responding because they knew she was scared, as anybody would be, especially a little child who had never acted before. By the third time, she was smiling. She knew the song, she just had to get the nerves out of the way. We got those out of the way, and we were off and running. And Cynthia is the most lovely, wonderful, shy person, which worked for exactly where the character was. She was shy and let other people speak for her in the beginning. The journey is her eventually taking her power, with her husband at the time, and then with all of the men are in her life, including me.

Since it’s impossible not to love the music of Aretha Franklin, what is your favorite or most played Aretha Franklin song?

VANCE: For me, that would have to be “Dr. Feelgood.” My mother was very ill with the dreaded disease ALS and, at the end, the only thing she could move on her body was to blink her eyes and move her left thumb, but she loved the music of that time. Of course, we grew up in Detroit, eight houses down from Hitsville. When we would go to the doctor for her many doctor appointments, we would have her hero/shero music when she came in, in her wheelchair, and we would come in to Aretha Franklin’s “Dr. Feelgood.” It was a very appropriate song and one that always got us and all of the people that were at the hospital in a good mood. I’m a huge Aretha Franklin fan, and that song meant and continues to mean so much to me.

Image via National Geographic

You’ve done a lot of projects with really strong, dynamic ensemble casts. What do you like about that kind of experience? Do you have special memories of projects, like 12 Angry Men or The People v. O.J. Simpson, working with those ensembles?

VANCE: What we do is collaborative. There is no I in it. You may be number one on the cast list, but you can’t live there. As MLK said, when he was getting his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. He was speechifying and he said, “It’s nice to be on the mountaintop where set you and say all kinds of nice things about you. It’s nice to be up here in the rarefied air of Oslo. It’s nice to be on top of the mountain, but the valley calls me. The valley is where the work is. Eventually, I’m gonna have to leave here and I might have to go back down into the valley, and those folks don’t care about any award that I’ve gotten. They don’t even know what the Nobel Peace Prize is. That’s not gonna help them eat and live.” Ultimately, that didn’t keep him alive. It’s about the work.

I love being in an ensemble. I don’t have to carry the load all by myself because you can’t. Even if you are the star of the show, you can’t carry the load yourself. You need people to help. If you empower people and you let them know how important they are to you, they will help you where you fall short, and I love that. I love it on stage. I was doing The Lucky Guy with Tom Hanks, and it was his first time on Broadway. He was just nervous and he would lose his place sometimes. We always would step up and help him. I would step up and help him with the place where he was went dry, and I somehow knew his lines. And then, there was a time when I was dry, and somebody stepped up and helped me.

That’s what it’s about. People get into this business who think they power trip on people or they’re like, “This is my time.” Those are the worst kinds of experiences because of those people. If you have one of those people on your project, you know that it’s gonna be a rough project because that energy will drag down the entire group, as you’re trying to work. It’s gotta be a situation and an environment where everyone is trying to achieve the same goal. If that’s happening, we have a great shot at it becoming a great project. It could fall on the wayside, in the pre-production, in the shooting, in the editing, or in the marketing, so the fact that Genius: Aretha is trying to become a project of note is a major miracle.

You’re also doing 61st Street, which sounds like another extremely relevant project. What was the appeal of that for you and who are you playing in that?

VANCE: I’m playing Franklin Roberts, who’s a public defender who’s been doing it for 25 years, when two weeks before he retires, an incident happens. He’s got a 17-year-old autistic child that needs him desperately at home. His wife is transitioning into politics and she’s running for office and needs to be able to be out on the road doing that. Something happens, and the family is torn about which son he’s got to take care of. Does he take care of his son that he’s been mentoring out in the world, or does he turn his back on that son because he’s in trouble, and take care of his 17-year-old son that he knows needs him? It’s a Sophie’s choice moment. They have to decide in the moment, what’s the right thing to do? They don’t have time and they don’t have the luxury of somebody helping them do both things in their household. It’s much like the choice that Bryan Cranston had to make in Your Honor, the Peter Moffat piece that aired on Showtime. It’s that very highly dramatic, wonderful, delicious, nightmarish thing where, as you’re going along through your life, life happens and you’ve gotta figure out how you’re gonna handle it. That’s what this one is.

Is there a TV show that you watch and love, or that you watch with your family, that you’d love to do a guest spot on?

VANCE: I would love to have been in Peter Moffat’s show (Your Honor). I would love to have been in Game of Thrones. There’s so much wonderful television out now. I would love to be in Succession. I told one of the HBO execs, “Man, you need some color in that show!” I loved Bryan Cranston’s show, Breaking Bad. I would have loved to have been in that. I love Ozark. There are so many.

Genius: Aretha airs on National Geographic from March 21st through 24th, and is available to stream at Hulu.

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