Awards Daily looks at some of the crafts behind National Geographic’s Genius: Aretha to reveal some of the things you didn’t know about the making of the limited series.
Genius: Aretha on National Geographic gives us a glimpse at what makes this icon a genius (played by Cynthia Erivo). And just as she excelled at her craft, so does the team of people behind the limited series, including cinematographer Kevin McKnight, makeup artist Marietta Carter-Narcisse, and hair stylist Louisa V. Anthony.
Here are a few behind-the-scenes tidbits about the making of Genius: Aretha.
Jerry Wexler’s facial hair presented challenges.
Music Producer Jerry Wexler (David Cross) appears throughout the series as Aretha’s right-hand man before departing from Atlantic Records, leaving behind the Queen of Soul. But one thing the makeup team couldn’t leave behind was his beard or mustache.
Carter-Narcisse laughs that Wexler’s beard was “a nightmare.”
“We shot so many things back and forth and simultaneously. Trying to figure out, beard on, beard off, mustache on, mustache off. That drove us a little crazy!”
They used a minimum of 1,500 wigs on the project.
One would think that Erivo would be the one wearing the most wigs, but every actor got in on the wig game.
“We used a minimum of 1,500 wigs on the project,” says Anthony. “Courtney B. Vance had a different hair piece for each decade, and so did all of the main characters—five and six different looks depending on the time period they were in. All of the principle characters had three to five wig changes depending on the period.”
The “Amazing Grace” episode mimics the documentary footage.
For anyone who’s ever seen any footage from the 2018 concert film Amazing Grace, you’ll notice the grainy quality from it being shot in 1972. In order to create that look, McKnight created a palette that had slightly off-colors without clean black tones, plus a little bit of cyan. He also completely changed the way it was shot.
“We switched completely to that docu feel of Sydney Pollack’s 16mm cameras,” says McKnight. “I changed lenses at that point also. I went to smaller hand-held zooms that would simulate what was going on in docus in the ’70s.”
The men proved to be more complicated than the women in terms of styling.
On most sets when it comes to hair and makeup, the women present the most challenges. But in this case, Carter-Narcisse said the men were the toughest, mainly because of all the different facial hair in the time periods, with Vance, Malcolm Barrett, and T.I. all frequently changing looks according to character.
“It was a very interesting back and forth with the men more so than the women. The women weren’t really that complicated; the men were really complicated.”
McKnight shot Erivo on back-to-back projects.
Just as McKnight was wrapping up his work on HBO’s The Outsider, which starred Erivo as Holly Gibney, he got the call that his next project. . .would also be with Erivo.
“It gave me familiarity with Cynthia already, and her with me. On Outsider, we pushed how close a camera could get to her, so I knew I could bring that into [Aretha]. Some of those moments where it’s just Aretha in a close-up and we’re trying to make it a little more impactful, I would push that camera in there really close to Cynthia. Because I had the relationship with her, I think that worked out really well. She was comfortable with it.”
But funnily enough, on the HBO series, he wasn’t aware of one of her important talents.
“We were doing a scene [on The Outsider] and she was kind of singing, and I said, ‘Oh, I love that.’ Sing some more for me. I had no idea she was a singer! And then I showed up on a show where she just floored us.”
All episodes of Genius: Aretha are available on NatGeo and Hulu.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.