In this first episode of Brier Evans Reports, freshman, Brier Evans, sits down with Hollywood and Broadway Actress, Tina Fears, to discuss her role as Clara Ward in the new National Geographic series, Genius: Aretha. The show focuses on the singing legend, Aretha Franklin, as seen through her childhood, her personal adult life, and ultimately, her advancement in being recognized across the US as the ‘Queen of Soul’. The show premiered on March 21st on National Geographic – the next day on Hulu – and stars well-known actors, Cynthia Erivo, Courtney B. Vance, Pauletta Washington, and more. The series was directed by Anthony Hemingway.
Evans and Fears discuss the new series, Fears’ transition into Hollywood, her take on being a Black woman in Hollywood, her business, ‘Stage-Ready’, and more.
Q: The series focuses on Aretha Franklin as seen in her childhood, in her personal adult life, and then her rise to fame and being crowned Queen of Soul. So I know you’re playing the character, Clara Ward. Can you please tell me more about your character?
Yeah, Clara Ward, uh, a lot of people don’t know that she was the Godmother of Gospel music. So before there was like a Shirley Caesar and an Albertina Walker, there was Miss Clara Ward. She was a fiery gospel singer, she loved to dress and she would give God almighty praise. And so, Clara’s role as pertains to Genius and the Franklin Family is she was little Aretha’s Mentor you know she was who little Aretha, I think she saw a version of herself in Miss Clara someone that she aspired to be like and then Clara Ward also traveled with CL Franklin who is Aretha’s father of kind of the headlining singer on his Tent Revival circuit so he would preach and Clara Ward would bring the house down, and little Aretha would sing there as well so she kind of found her voice while she was traveling with them and doing the Tent Revival Scene in the 50s.
Q: How did you prepare for that role?
So I’ve done, done a lot of musical theatres. So singing dancing acting, all of that is kind of one of my tools in my toolbox but because Clara Ward was a real person I couldn’t just make her be whatever I wanted her to be I want to research her. I have a vinyl record collection so I have some of her albums and I was able to find lots of reading about her, and I also watched videos of her performing, there wasn’t really a lot, but I wanted to make sure nothing else I could access capture her charisma as a performer. So and making sure that even when I sang her songs, of course, my voice is different from hers but the inflections and the choices that she made, our vocal supervisors wanted to make sure that we honor that even with how we sang the songs. You know the amount of vibrato in my voice and um. making sure that how I approached the song was appropriate to the scene and the setting. So yeah, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t want to imitate Miss Clara but I did want to try to embody as much of her as I could so that it would be authentic to those people that will be viewing the performance.
Q: And how long did it take for you to, like, get all that down? Because it sounds like you had to go through a lot of long nights and. . .
Yeah, I mean, the thing about Genius is between when I was cast and when I went to filming was literally a couple of weeks. Like I auditioned and then waited waited waited waited waited, I was told I was pinned and then I thought I was told I booked. Like I remember I told you one of my tools, so being able to sing, dance, act, tap in, it was something that was kind of natural for me. I just had to kind of hone in on what tool it was I was going to have to use but, but some of my other castmates who maybe had the material a little bit longer, of course, Cynthia taking one you know Aretha, that that took an extensive amount of work so you know you have to show up and be ready. They don’t care how- whatever you have to do to get there, just get there. That’s what they tell us.
Q: Exactly, and you mentioned Cynthia, you’re co-starring for so many well-known actors, Cynthia Erivo, Courtney B. Vance, Malcolm Barett, T.I, Pauletta Washington. I’m just asking if that added on a bit more pressure to you? Or did you use that as motivation?
Yeah! I mean that was like! Like I am literally! You know Mr. Courtney, he plays CL, and Clara and CL are very close. They’re kind of in this almost kind of parenting thing with little Aretha. I’ve admired his work for years, you know, so to be on set and like ain scenes right next to Mr. Courtney, I will be lying to y’all if I wasn’t like my heart was like boom boom boom boom. So I just had to kind of finesse it, you know, kind of channel it in and just remember that I am enough. You know I wouldn’t be in this place if I wasn’t equipped to be in that space. But, um, even though I was on the job, I mean, it was just, I took every moment to try to learn as much as I could, you know, and if I got to note I would, He (Courtney) would go ‘hmm mhmm that’s nice’. And so, I’m like, Okay if Mr. Courtney telling me I’m making good choices, we in a good place. And we have wonderful directors. They pushed us, you know, they push us because the stakes are so high but I think it hasn’t really hit me until now that I am really blessed to be in a nice project with some true GOATS, and you know, I’m just, I’m just beyond honored and really thrilled so yeah, we have some heavy hitters on this project.
Evans: Yes including yourself.
Fears: Aw, thank you. You’re so kind
Q: So, you’re well known for your theatrical work. You played Michelle in ‘Dreamgirls’, Yolanda in ‘In the Heights’, and even embodied Nina Simone in ‘Simply Simone’. I heard you were also the dance captain for both ‘In the Heights’ and ”Simply Simone, which is great. Where does your, your dancing, your singing, all that talent, where does that stem from?
Yeah, that’s a good question. Yeah, that that stems from me just being someone who’s always been a singer-dancer actress. Some people call it a triple, but it comes from my childhood. You know my parents were in the Arts and we sang as little children and wrote songs as kids, and just you know. I was the kid that would like to sing my ABCs and cartwheel down the street, you know as a seven-year-old. So it’s just amazing how life will put you on a path for, like, you have these things that are part of who you are and you don’t realize until later that like this is why this was here because I was going to get an opportunity to be Clara Ward, who is this charismatic gospel singer. You know and I need to be able to tap into all of that stuff so it was just coming from my childhood and loving to sing and just trying to keep all that stuff you know on standby so that when the opportunity presented itself I will be ready.
Q: So you’ve always known that you wanted to be in the entertainment industry from young?
Yes, so I’ve always wanted to be in the entertainment industry because my family was but I actually went behind the scenes first. So I started a business, Stage-Ready, because I wanted to be the show and the business. I wanted to be able to count my coins to and we all know now that having some inside behind the scenes is how you really set yourself up for generational wealth and big wins. So I started my business first and really worked with a lot of Gospel artists and like a BT, and the Dove Awards, and all that stuff in the capacity of like a choreographer and a creative director. And I was always doing musical theatre on the side and it kind of worked hand-in-hand. So, I knew it was always entertainer for me, it was just kind of like, I would flip the switch depending on which one I would be at that time, So right now, I’m an artist space
Q: Yes, mentioning your business I know that you are very motivated by and inspired to provide a platform for the next generation of artists. And I know you put on the show Queen: Aretha at the Aurora Theater. Has that always been important to you? Has someone done that for you? And if not, did you wish someone had done that for you?
You’re phenomenal. Yes, creating platforms for other artists is just a part of it. It’s part of Tina’s DNA. When I first started my business there were people who created opportunities for me and gave me a shot, and seeing how much that helped me has really kind of reinforced why it’s important for me to create those platforms for other people. So producing Queen Aretha, you know, Atlanta kind of went through a deficit recently where there weren’t a lot of opportunity for black performers, and when Aretha Franklin passed, some colleagues of mine came together and produced this project. And I don’t know if you saw any footage but it had like 20-something people in it and it was great just to get black artists that type of platforms because we’re usually not in shows together unless it’s Dreamgirls or less it’s, you know something like Motown or something like that. So creating opportunities for other artists is going to always be a part of who Tina is. It’s going to be important to me because I know what those opportunities look like for me and how they help me in my career. So it’s the only way I know how to do it, you know. I’m standing on somebody else’s shoulders the one day when I’m old and gray somebody can standing on mine.
Q: And you’re saying that, especially for black women, there are many people, particularly young black girls and women who are pursuing a career in the film and media industry and they’re, well we’re all struggling, including me. I’m trying to do that as well, and you know, it’s a struggle especially because of everything: your race and gender. Everything. It’s all very combatting. So, what is something you’d like to share with them on their journey?
Queen, know you’re enough the stakes are so high for us. We are, we are required to operate in a space and at a level that is so much higher than everyone else, and it’s always been like that for us. We always had to be the brightest, the best, early, I mean that’s always been it but just, I think we have to give ourselves grace because sometimes we get in this space of pushing ourselves to perfection that is, it can almost be unhealthy and harder on ourselves that we need to be. I know I am my own worst critic, I can admit that. You know I wanted to be exactly like this and if it is not as like that, then it’s garbage, you know. So I’m teaching myself how to give myself grace and in understanding that I am enough and so that’s what I want to be. Be tenacious, be fearless that’s one of my best, my mantra is being fearless. Break down the wall and then also develop Sisterhood. You know, let our guard down on each other when we need to be built up because so many times it seems like everybody else is against us. You know, so give yourself Grace and then find that community within other women because you can’t take what you’re going through to people who don’t understand it, who aren’t experiencing that in their own spaces. So yeah, I mean we got the goods, we’ve always been great and just knowing that our time and our season is coming if we remain prepared and we stay ready.
Q: Beautifully said, beautifully said. So I know you’re a busy woman. You’re married, you have a family, and you’re redefining what it means to be a working artist. How do you relax? Like what do you do in your downtime? How do you just stay with yourself?
You know, I found . . . ironically there are two computers over here, just having, finding peace and quiet. Peace and quiet and stillness are like, I think the pandemic like taught me that because I was like planting gardens, I was cooking, I had so much nervous energy like I didn’t know what to do with that, until I finally just said, Hey Tina, maybe you just need to sit down. So one of my favorite things to do is fitness. I love working out, and then cooking and then just really being with my family. When I say stillness and quiet not in the literal sense but just not being required to be somewhere at a certain time you know really having a new appreciation for that because even before Aretha or even when I was doing Genius, I was doing, I was producing a show and I was like I was in Los Angeles for something else, so I was like go go go go go and so coming out of the quarantine, I was like ou I got some quarantine weight on, so this how it feels like to be healthy? It’s like an extra five or six pounds, it’s like good, that’s healthy because I look back at myself and I was like, girl you was running on E! So stillness, you know, just allowing my mind to rest. So fitness, food, and just kind of peace of mind. I don’t know, I hope I answered your question, but that’s what’s good for me
Q: Can you describe how you feel at this point in your career in 3 words?
Um, hm, let me think about that. Hopeful, I’m very excited and . . . proud. I know those aren’t like big beautiful words but I’m very hopeful about what the future has to bring I’m excited about all the great energy around this project and I’m proud that I was selected to be a part of telling Aretha’s story.
Link to full interview is inserted below and can also be viewed on Xavier’s Mass Communication Youtube Channel.