Aretha Franklin is a woman who has broken musical and civil rights barriers, a legend responsible for some of the most iconic moments throughout history, and an idol who has paved the way for some of the biggest and brightest stars we see today. While many know Aretha as the everlasting Queen of Soul, little is known about her personal journey into adulthood and superstardom. Director Liesl Tommy and playwright Tracey Scott Wilson’s new biographical musical drama, Respect, brings Aretha’s story to the big screen. The film’s lineup includes a long list of Hollywood giants like Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, and was even given the green light by Aretha herself before her untimely passing. (Respect is not to be confused with the National Geographic’s four-part biographical series, which has openly been protested by Aretha’s estate and family.)
Respect follows Aretha’s trials and tribulations, as well her fight against racial injustice alongside civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The film also introduces us to rising star Hailey Kilgore. You may recognize her from her breakout performance in Broadway’s Once on This Island, but this time, she takes the big screen as Carolyn Franklin, a famous singer in her own right—and Aretha’s younger sister, choreographer, and confidant.
BAZAAR.com catches up with Kilgore to hear about what it was like embodying Carolyn, her role in Starz’s cult-classic series Power Book III: Raising Kanan, and her plans to venture into the world of music and production.
Respect was such a powerful film. What drew you to audition for the role of Carolyn Franklin? Once you found out more about her, were you able to identify with her on a personal level?
What initially drew me to the movie was my first year in New York. I just got out of high school early, and I knew I wanted to move to New York to start more. Liesl Tommy, our director, had just opened a Broadway play with Lupita Nyong’o and Saycon Sengbloh, who plays my sister in the film. Because I was in this Broadway community, I always heard about the directors that are great and thorough, and I just kept hearing Liesl’s name. Honestly, when this came up into my inbox, I was like, “Yes, this is something that I want to look into.”
Even when it [the part of Carolyn Franklin] was just an audition for me, I looked into her immediately. I was like, “Okay, this is a young woman who we get to see her grow up throughout the film. She starts the film when she’s 15, and she ends the film in her 30s. And it’s a story that’s being told by Black women.” That was the other big thing. It didn’t feel like that was going to be stepping into a multimillion-dollar machine of executives who don’t really care about the story that’s being told.
I cried throughout watching the film, because you could really feel the pain that we experience as Black women. You could feel it through Aretha, and you could feel it through Carolyn, both of whom I felt experienced their own personal battles in different ways. Mentally, how did you prepare yourself to go into the mind of Carolyn and play someone who was once living?
I think the one thing that her sisters had always said about her [Carolyn] was just how strong-willed she was, and she was strong-willed from a young age. She knew what she wanted. She was aware of her talent and her gifts, and she didn’t really have the care to deal with any of the bull that came with the industry, which is why she was a ghostwriter for most of her career. She did have a successful music career, but she had this awareness and this extreme ability to just dive into what was important. That plays out in the music world, but it also plays out in the family dynamic.
What was the research process like for you? Did you know anything about her beforehand, or did you spend a lot of time on YouTube, or looking at archival footage studying her mannerisms?
I was very fortunate. MGM was great about making sure that we had any archival footage. We got to see things that are not out in the public, and I read a lot of interviews that focused on when Aretha talked about her sister. It was so amazing to see how much Aretha admired her little sister. One of my main sources was the TODAY show before it was the TODAY show. They did a special on Aretha Franklin, and Carolyn is in the studio with her for most of that work, but people didn’t realize until the film that it’s her. In the footage, you can see that she played choreographer, and she played musical arranger, and she just played such a big role in the process.
You did an amazing job. What was it like working with an all-star cast including Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker? Do you have any great moments or stories from set that stand out to you?
I’ll never forget my first time talking with Forest, and it just makes me smile, because these are people [Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, and Marlon Wayans] who have been doing this for so long, and they’re so aware of what they have, and they haven’t let any of that go to their head. I’m so inspired by that, because at 22, as my career goes on, and as I become more and more successful, I see where things can turn for people, or where things can get easy and equally when things get difficult. It’s just being surrounded with people who are so humble.
It’s heartwarming that the cast was such a close-knit family. Were there any scenes that were very emotional, that lingered for you after the tape stopped rolling?
I think that dinner scene when Aretha gets kicked out of her house with Ted. I think it was a very complicated dynamic. I remember we shot that scene, and there were some things that we learned about what happened in the household that, I don’t know, they still stick with me. It was so tough to have to go to a place of loving someone unconditionally, undeniably, but at the same time, fearing them. Forest did such an incredible job keeping things intense, and so did Marlon.
Another thing that stuck out for me is I’m stepping into the music world and seeing what Ree [Aretha’s nickname] went through of, “You’re not pretty enough, you’re not Black enough. You don’t act white enough, you don’t talk white enough. Oh, now you have to be more soulful.” That’s something that really stung me, because it’s the 1960s, and that’s what 2021 still looks like for a lot of young artists.
When audiences leave the theater, what would you like for them to take away after watching the film?
Audra McDonald, who plays Aretha’s mother, has this amazing scene at the piano with Skye Dakota Turner [young Aretha], who was outstanding. And Audra says, “Aretha, this is your voice. Don’t let anybody take that from you.” I think there’s something so powerful, especially for little Black girls and boys, about how you have this light and you have this gift, and as you grow up, things will happen and you will evolve. Don’t let anyone take your light. I think that’s so, so powerful. It goes throughout the film. I teared up the moment that Aretha said, “I would like you to call me Miss Franklin,” instead of calling her Aretha. Commanding respect, no pun intended.
I cried at that moment too. Switching gears to Power Book III, can you tell me a little bit about what your experience has been like joining a cult-classic TV show?
When Jukebox presented the Power franchise to me, I saw a challenge. It was a different character, and at the time, I had been playing princesses for God knows how long, and little girls that grow up longing for men to save them, and then get married and have babies, and that’s it. I don’t want to hinder the idea that women can’t have that dream, but I found it so incredible to be portraying a young lady that is so the opposite of every female character I’ve ever played in my career, starting at nine years old. She’s this stripped-down, gritty, tough, vulnerable young woman who’s surviving in Southside Jamaica, Queens, in 1991. There is just this honesty and this rawness. You can do the girly-girl thing, and be sexy, and wear 100 pounds of makeup, and do all that whenever you want. But I got to step into Timbs and just be rough around the edges like I am and like how I grew up.
As somebody who joined the cast in its later seasons and watched it prior, what impact would you say it’s had on the culture?
Oh, man, it’s had a huge impact on the culture. [Power creator] Courtney Kemp, I mean, she’s a beast. It’s great because it’s a Black woman telling Black stories. This is not a white, middle-aged executive, who’s probably male and who went and watched YouTube videos of what he thought being a Black family looked like, especially in the crime world. This is real stories, and I was really drawn to that.
I’m drawn to Courtney as an executive. I’m drawn to her as a powerhouse. She’s got this ability to tell Black stories in a compelling way. I just feel very fortunate to be a part of that. But I think Power Book III also brings a different dynamic than Power Book I or Power Book II. I think we bring this new level of rawness, all the way around. We’re not filming with HD cameras and building multimillion-dollar sets, but we’re trying to ground it and keep it level, and I love that.
When was the moment you knew you wanted to be an actor?
I don’t remember a time that I [didn’t know]. Apparently, I came out of the womb singing before I could talk. I was adopted, and I was adopted into a theatrical family, since my dad owned a theater company. Performing is something that I’ve always known, and much later in high school it became my saving grace. When it’s a part of you, and when it’s God’s gift to you to be able to sing, to be able to act, to be able to perform, to be able to just go to these emotionally deep places, you’re not aware of the power in that. I’ve always had it in my life, but it wasn’t until I was in high school that it was really like, “Oh, wow, this is what I want to do forever.”
Outside of acting, are there any other creative areas you’re exploring?
Yes, music has always been a part of my life. I grew up with musical parents, and I started training in all kinds of music super young. I remember my vocal teacher didn’t take students under the age of 14, and I started training with her when I was about eight or nine. I’ve always had music, and gospel in particular. I’ve been recording an album, and I’m excited to start sharing music independently, and just showing that side of myself.
I love acting, but when you act you get to be somebody else, and you’re telling someone else’s story—even when I sing as Jukebox in Power, that’s not how I sing. That was a voice that I developed. You hear Carolyn sing, and she sings one type of way, and then you hear Jukebox sing, and she sings a certain type of way. I’m excited to just sing as myself.
What sort of stories are you currently telling with the album you’re working on?
Being in my 20s, I’ve been through so many experiences and so much life. Falling in love, falling out of love. Mental health, physical health. It’s just all these experiences, and my voice is my diary. This music, it’s just bringing a super-authentic side that people don’t know. It’s my outlet to really be myself and not have to play a role.
Five years from now, what are you looking to explore?
I want to be a producer, for sure. I want to be the person that’s establishing and facilitating our stories that are being told, and bringing more of us to the table, and giving us all more opportunities, which is what Rihanna’s doing. We see her in the fashion world dominantly, but she’s also behind the scenes producing, so she’s a big inspiration for me. And so is Aaliyah. Aaliyah wanted to be someone who was a producer and who was the boss. That’s what I want.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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