For Jennifer Hudson, it’s a happy anniversary. “It was about 15 years ago when Aretha (Franklin) and I had our first discussion about my playing her,” says the star of “Respect.” It’s not a coincidence that this is also the 15th anniversary of something else momentous — Hudson delivering her Oscar-winning performance in “Dreamgirls” — since it was seeing Hudson in that role that provided her a eureka moment about who could meet the bar to portray her on screen.
“Back then people were like, ‘Is there gonna be a “Dreamgirls 2”? What could you do after this?’” recalls Hudson. “And I said the only thing I could think of that would feel like that to me would be to be able to play Aretha Franklin.” It wasn’t the first time the thought had occurred to her. “When I was on ‘American Idol’” — (as you may remember, Hudson was and surely always will be the show’s most legendary seventh-place finisher) — my audition song was an Aretha Franklin song, ‘Share Your Love With Me.’ So that was a dream of mine. And then for her to eventually say she wanted me to play her, and now 15 years later, it manifested and it’s happening, it blows me away.”
Yet that passion didn’t mean the singing parts of the movie didn’t require just as much acting, if not more, because Hudson is anything but a Franklin sound-alike, even though a lot of moviegoers who haven’t paid close attention will assume she’s a natural ringer for the “Natural Woman.”
Says “Respect” director Liesl Tommy, “Part of the work Jennifer had to do was develop a more raw, earthier sound, which is what Aretha had when she found her own true voice and left the jazz sound for the soul sound” — referring to when Franklin overhauled her whole approach in moving from Columbia Records to Atlantic in the mid-‘60s, a turning point in the movie’s plotting, as in real life. “Jennifer had to figure out how that grit was going to live in her voice.”
It may be ironic that the vocal sound that Franklin left behind when she stopped cutting jazz standards for Columbia early in her career is the sound Hudson feels naturally closest to. When Hudson first met Franklin, the legend pointed out that the younger singer had a purity in her voice — possibly meant more as a “that’s something you’ll need to work on” aside than a compliment. “The standards era is where our actual pure instruments parallel,” Hudson points out. “Her sound was very clear at that time. To follow her vocal path was an arc of its own.” One that didn’t allow for using her own voice, per se, especially in the recreation of those Atlantic classics. “I remember being on set and the extras, thinking they’re going to hear Jennifer Hudson, were like, ‘She sound different.’ It’s like, hello, I’m an actress!”
Not that there were any complaints registered. Says Tommy, “Day after day, the crew just was jaw-dropped. They would say to me, ‘I have the best seat in the house. We’re getting world-class concerts every day.’ Because of course she sang live — everybody sang live in the film.” (There were pre-recorded instrumental tracks for the film, but all the vocals were delivered on-camera. In a few of the scenes, like the tentative studio rehearsals, or most of all the church scenes, the actor-musicians were playing live alongside Hudson, too.)
Hudson had movement as well as vocal coaches. For Tommy, “I think the moment that really landed it for me was when we were working on her walk down the aisle in the ‘Amazing Grace’ concert scene. Because that footage [from the ‘Amazing Grace’ documentary, shot in 1972 and released in 2018], from my perspective, is one of the most beautiful moments of Aretha — because she walked down that aisle like she’s a bride, and there was something so moving about that. When Jennifer suddenly nailed that in the rehearsal room, we literally all went, ‘Oh my God, there it is — there’s Aretha.’ That tracking shot of her walking into the church is still one of my favorite things, because she nailed it.”
Hudson says Franklin “had very subtle gestures. But that was one of the traits of hers that I think we all know — her signature walk or presence, or as Leland, the acting coach, would say, ‘how she takes up space.’ And Aretha was a floater — she would float through the room. It is so iconic in the ‘Amazing Grace’ documentary; the first thing that came to my mind is her coming down the aisle like that. It was important to exist in that space very similar to how she did in that moment.”
Another thing that’s notable about the “Amazing Grace” documentary is that, although James Cleveland and Franklin’s own minister father speak quite a bit in it, Franklin doesn’t say a word on stage, or in the choir loft. That spoke — so to speak — to a challenge Hudson faced in portraying her, and a key difference between their personalities.
“I’m a very outspoken person, very verbal, and I take up a lot of space,” laughs Hudson. “So to have to channel someone who’s an introvert, as an actor, how do you convey and tell the story with that in mind? So it was an interesting challenge to come outside of myself and think: Hmm — how did women exist during that time? How would Aretha express herself, no matter what that expression was, in a non-verbal way? And then also, okay, how am I supposed to approach this soulfully?”
Although she studied the “Amazing Grace” documentary footage, she says fealty to that was not on her mind when she started singing the gospel material which she, too, grew up on as a lap child in the choir loft. The performances of Hudson and a live band often carried on on the church set after “cut” was called. “If she experienced it in real time, then I should experience it in real time,” Hudson says. This was a choice as an actor and also as a spiritual person. Her approach was to “let the spirit be present as I’m sure it was in that moment when they did film it” in 1972. “I’m like, well, you can’t really script church. So just roll your camera and catch what you catch. There were times where I couldn’t tell if I was in church singing or filming, because it was that close to home.”
Hudson has her less sanctified moments in “Respect,” of course. Her director, Tommy, singles out some steamy moments. “I really loved her scenes with Marlon (Wayans), because she just has this vibrancy, and she’s so sexy, and there’s a lot of joy and youthful flirtation that she brings to those scenes,” Liesl says. “And that’s a side of Jennifer I hadn’t really seen in other movies.”
An unexpected side benefit no one might’ve seen coming from an Aretha biopic, then, for all its high drama: the possibility that someone might see it and cast her in a sensual rom-com? “I would love to do a romantic comedy,” allows Hudson — “something lighter, coming off of ‘Cats,’ being Grizabella and so emotional, and then ‘Respect’ with all the dramatic, emotional moments there. It would be refreshing to be able to do something light and romantic, which is another side of myself. And I think I’m funny.”
What is likely to come out of “Respect” — and its expected presence through the fall and winter awards season — is Hudson being able to have a lot more agency in writing her own ticket or at least having a crack at a broader range of roles. If it’s possible for someone who won an Oscar her first time at bat to still be oddly underrated as an actress, that may be Hudson in at least some of the years since “Dreamgirls,” even with ongoing high-profile parts in projects like TV’s “Hairspray Live!” and the ill-fated “Cats.”
Asked what impression most viewers have of Hudson going into “Respect,” Tommy says, “I think they think of her as a pretty woman with an incredible voice. but what they’re going to understand about Jennifer after seeing this film is that she’s one of the most nuanced actors out there — certainly one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve worked with tremendously talented actors in my career, you know?” (Tommy has spent most of her career as a theater director.) “Everyone’s understanding of the depth of her talent, what she’s capable of, is about to shift.”
It’s not that the respect for Hudson had diminished in the years since that precocious Oscar win, just that it had drifted to other areas. Hudson became almost like the Forrest Gump of key social moments in recent American history. If an event called for spectacular solemnity, she could deliver it. So she’s well-remembered for things like singing “America the Beautiful” with the Sandy Hook school choir at the 2013 Super Bowl, or “A Change Is Gonna Come” from a solemn and beautiful hometown Chicago setting for the 2020 Democratic convention, or singing in tribute to Prince at the BET Awards right after he died, or doing the same for Whitney Houston at the Grammys, or performing for Pope Francis or at an anti-gun violence rally. She has always given good gravitas.
“I don’t know if I’m associated with those things, but I always find myself in that space,” Hudson allows. Tommy makes the greater case for it. “I directed a fundraiser last fall called ‘Broadway for Biden.’ I wanted her to do something iconic and classic and I asked her to sing ‘Tomorrow’ from ‘Annie,’ to give everybody a sense of hope, because it was a dark time for a lot of people as they were waiting for the election, no matter what your political affiliation. She was so excited at the prospect of working on a song that was going to be full of hope during this complicated time we were living in. And I couldn’t help but think about a moment from the film. You know how there’s line in the film that Martin Luther King says about Aretha Franklin, that ‘she always answers the call’? I feel like that is Jennifer. And one thing I know about Jennifer is that she looks at her voice as a God-given gift that is not for her to hoard. She’s so generous with that gift.”
When “Respect” would be shared with filmgoers obviously became an issue as the pandemic pushed back the film’s opening dates — and allowed the NatGeo television version of Aretha’s story, “Genius: Aretha,” with Cynthia Erivo starring, to go first… something that might’ve been seen as a handicap, although it’s generally turned out to be a no-lose situation for everyone, and certainly didn’t lessen anticipation for Hudson’s turn.
Says Tommy about the competing projects, “I think that Aretha lived a life that merits multiple projects through the years, because she was such a creative force. So I hope that there’s more — there’s more stories told about her.” But, the director is firm in adding, “you know, she (Franklin) chose Jennifer. She wanted her life to be a movie. And I’m just glad I got to do that part of it.”
For her part, Hudson says of the delays: “I’m a person that believes things happen when they’re supposed to. So it never bothered me. Plus, it’s scary. I’m like, what did I do? So it gave me a little more time to gather myself,” she notes with a laugh, “so I was okay with it.” Although there were steps along the way to acceptance. “Maybe the first time it moved, I was like, okay. And then, you can’t forget, I waited 15 years for this, so (with further delays) it’s like, ‘Oh my God, yet another year?’ I think it was moved four times. But I got okay with it again. It ended up being helpful, in a way. So I’ve tried not to stress about it and let God take the lead.”
Asked how it would have been if “Respect” had been shunted to pay-per-view-only status, as happened with so many would-be theatrical films over the last 16 months, Hudson blurts out, as if she’s just seen a ghost: “Oh my God, no! The way it is happening, I think, is so appropriate because Aretha brought everybody together through her music and her life. So why not everybody comes together now at a time like this to celebrate her life through the film — I don’t think it could have happened in a better way than this.”
Somewhere along the way, Hudson is planning to release her first studio album since 2014’s “JHUD.” She cautions that “it’s very, very, very early on,” and too early to talk about what producers might be involved — other than one of them being Will.i.am, who produced a closing theme for the new movie, “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home),” which Hudson co-wrote for the movie with Carole King and Jamie Hartman.
“As we speak,” Hudson says, “I am currently recording my… I don’t even know what album this is. Is this the fourth? The fifth?” (She was right the first guess.) “See, I’ve recorded for everything I do,” including film and TV musicals, “so I consider the ‘Respect’ soundtrack an album. To me, I’m always releasing music, but I guess it’s a difference when it’s a studio album. So, with the studio album of Jennifer Hudson, I am currently working on that as we speak — in the middle of all of this, yes.”
Hudson promised Franklin. before the Queen of Soul died in 2018. that she would be a do-right woman when it came to telling her story right. “Respect,” though, does have some warts-and-all to go along with the veneration. What does Hudson think Franklin — who was no sufferer of fools, in chain form or otherwise — give as her movie review? If she’s breaking the quarantine of the great beyond to screen the film?
“I can’t say that I know what she would say, but I know she would have something to say,” laughs Hudson. “That, I will say! But I think we all can only hope that she’s pleased and knows that it is truly out of love and from the heart.”
(To read Variety‘s cover story, an exclusive conversation between Hudson and Carole King, click here.)