Cynthia Erivo, Mj Rodriguez and More Talk Finding Catharsis Through Characters

Genius Aretha Cynthia Erivo
Courtesy of National Geographic/Richard DuCree

In flashing back to college-age Annie on Hulu’s “Shrill,” Aidy Bryant felt as if she had traveled back in time.

“I was getting caught up in my own emotions,” says Bryant. “It was almost like visiting an old self.”

The unflattering costume reminded her of a person who used to hide behind clothing and, to her surprise, Bryant felt trapped. “It was familiar to me in a lot of ways, of a person that I used to be,” she says. “To go back to that mindset of, ‘I’m bad for just existing as a fat woman,’ felt sad. You can’t help but be emotionally drained by that.”

While there is often a catharsis in scenes that touch on our darkest moments, reliving them can be emotional. And Bryant is not alone in experiencing discomfort that comes with simulating vulnerabilities on-screen.

In “Genius: Aretha Franklin,” Cynthia Erivo puts herself through the paces of the Queen of Soul, whose closest allies often subjected her to emotional and physical abuse. “There’s nothing that’s remotely pretty about it because your body, when you’re acting, doesn’t know that you’re not feeling these things for real,” says Erivo. “When there are tears, anger, hurt and pain, it’s really there. When you come out of it, there’s a deep sadness.”

What makes the ordeal worth it, for Erivo, is the ability to evolve personally through the character’s challenges. “It gives me the space to let go of some of the things I’m dealing with,” she says. “That’s where the privilege comes in — when you can use these characters to console yourself as well.”

Conversely, throughout nearly the entire run of FX’s “Pose,” Mj Rodriguez did everything she could to separate her character Blanca from herself. “Within the scenes there was no room for Michaela Jaé because I thought that would be selfish,” says Rodriguez. “I wanted Blanca to be the many women that I learned from.”

Eventually, though, Blanca started to seep into Rodriguez’s consciousness. “Blanca is very open with her struggles and pain, and she’s able to really release that. For Michaela Jaé, it’s very hard,” says Rodriguez. “In the third season, the words on the page made me understand so much more about myself, and a piece of that was letting go. In moments of sadness, you have to heal and you have to care for yourself.”

Art at its best gives language to circumstances that are usually hard to define. “Black-ish” star Tracee Ellis Ross credits Rodriguez’s character for giving her the words to express unconventional motherhood. “Blanca’s way of defining motherhood allowed me to [understand] mothering in a way that our cultural normsociety definition left me out [of],” Ross says.

Her own show has also opened up Ross to perspectives she wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to. “That’s the fun of acting, you get to explore a different side of something,” she says. “Like the postpartum episode — I have not had children, but I got to explore a very important mental health topic through the lens of this character. In a way, that made me a different person.”

After seven seasons on the ABC sitcom, being able to unpack sticky subjects, and in turn give other people the vocabulary to discuss them, continues to be the biggest takeaway for Ross.

“When entertainment is done really well, it entertains you, it occupies you and it gives you a safe place to be, expanding your understanding of something that you otherwise wouldn’t have had access to,” says Ross. “Often when you’re in those most fertile places, it is the most uncomfortable. That’s where growth occurs.”

Danielle Turchiano contributed to this report.