Jennifer Hudson on the parallels between Aretha Franklin and her Dreamgirls character
Jennifer Hudson is becoming something of an expert at bringing 1960s musical superstars to the big screen.
The singer and actress scored a breakout role in 2006's Dreamgirls as the fictional Effie White, a member of a Supremes-esque girl group who gets shunted to the side in favor of less difficult (read: more palatable to white audiences) talent. And now she's stepping back into a beehive wig as a real-life superstar, Aretha Franklin, in Respect.
Hudson acknowledges some striking parallels between these two roles that have earned her awards buzz (she won an Oscar for Dreamgirls). "I'm like, 'What am I? The period-piece girl in the '60s era?'" she quips to EW. "Even Hairspray Live, same era. But it's so many different characters to come out of that."
She adds, "Effie was in the '60s and then you have Aretha in the '60s, and they were artists. This is a similar thing, but different at the same time, which is a challenge for me as an actor, to be able to establish the difference. Even when different people came to set, you're coming here thinking you're going to hear Effie, Jennifer Hudson. But I gotta skip Effie, skip Jennifer, and somehow create my Aretha."
Before Franklin's death in 2018, she handpicked Hudson to portray her in the long-awaited biopic (in theaters now), which depicts the highs of the Queen of Soul's success and the lows of her addiction and rocky marriage. Below, Hudson opens up about infusing her Franklin performance with her own trauma and sense of faith, what it was like having such a Broadway-influenced set, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Aretha chose you to take on this role. Throughout this process, has that been more pressure or gift for you?
JENNIFER HUDSON: Both. It's super-exciting, but it's super-scary. It's like equal. Yeah, it freaks me out and excites me at the same time.
I was struck by how quiet you are in this film — your stillness, Aretha's gentler, meeker speaking voice. What was it like distilling this woman who was musically a force of nature and your own personality into this more restrained being?
That was the biggest challenge. People said, "What about the songs?" Yes, that was challenging, but to have to conform to that. Being an outspoken person, that's bubbly or full of energy, and then having to emote with no verbal expression but still make it translate, was very difficult. But that's due to the era in which she grew up. Women didn't have what we have today back then. So the way we exist is completely different from how they existed during that time, which would affect how they could emote or exist in a room or express themselves. As an actor, how am I going to be expressive and tell the story without being vocal? It caused me to have to [focus on] more of her characteristics, her traits, and how she would exist in and travel through space. It's versus how I exist in space, which is very vocal. If I want to say how I feel, I can express that, while Aretha was far more subtle. She didn't take up much space. Most women didn't in that time, so I had to be conscious of that to be able to portray that.
I love the scene where Aretha and her sisters figure out how to make "Respect" her own. How close did that hew to the real story, and what was it like bringing that mythic moment to life?
That's more of a question for [screenwriter] Tracey Scott Wilson, as far as how close it was to the original. But I do know as a musician that would be a huge part of the process. In research, the learning for me was like, "Wow, this song was originally by Otis Redding. So a woman took this song in an era such as the '60s that was named 'Respect' and made it an anthem for women through her musicianship." That's empowering alone. Then to have the sisters involved in the scene and see their musical connection, their sisterly connection. I come from a singing background with a family. That's how we create music, so even pulling from my own roots and everybody in the scene were real musicians, so we were responding like musicians.
Speaking of that, I know you sang live for the camera. How did that change your approach to the performance?
It was different from how biopics or musicals are made, because normally you pre-record it. I don't know how to answer that, but it made it more authentic. It was a conscious choice that I made because I wanted to experience it as she did in her life. "Ain't No Way," for example, I'm not Jennifer Hudson singing the song that I've been a fan of for years by Aretha Franklin. I'm an actor that's portraying someone who's learning the song. It's not necessarily going to be something that's in the body that you know in a performance, but it's going to be as she experienced it in her life. That's why I wanted to experience it as an actor, as much in the real time as I could like she did. So all the performances in the film that are live in the film were live to me. I sang them live, we performed them live, where it felt more real.
You got to know Aretha fairly well. When tackling this role, was there something about her that really unlocked who she was for you and gave you the key to embodying her?
I want to say yes and no, but I didn't realize it until filming. You know how when someone says something to you and then later it clicks? We spoke weekly, and she would have conversations. We would call, we would text, and we had conversations leading up to this. And it wasn't until I was like, in the middle of things or even doing research and I'm like, "Wow, she wasn't just talking, she was really speaking from experience; these were real-life happenings for her for me to draw from," or "Wow, that's what she saw in me that I didn't think of that she may have seen that made her pick me." It was realizations of that over and over again. Once I was going through it and experiencing it for myself, and I could go back and look at things. I was recently in my phone looking through our old messages and I saw she was like, "Jennifer, sing this song and this song and this song or this song." So now I'm like, "I got to go sing this song." I'm still gathering.
What song felt the most daunting to bring to life?
All of them. Because they're all a treasure to us. And as a musician, you don't want to touch that. Then it's like, "Oh, I have a job to do this," although it's the greatest honor and dream and privilege, but I'm a stickler about keeping songs in their context as they are. And when you've done it like Aretha has, what else is there to do to it? So it's like, how do I approach this? Because I know what this is, I know what it represents, and I know how we all treasure it, which made it scary. But the song that stopped me in my tracks was "Respect," where I'm like, "Wait a minute. Stop. I get to sing 'Respect,' really?"
Was there one that was just plain fun to do?
All of them were fun. I have to go back to "Respect" again. And then the church songs felt like church to me. I grew up with church, so at times I kind of couldn't tell the difference if I was just in church or "Oh right, I'm filming," because it was so true to my life as well. I felt like I was back home in church, so I would say, a lot of the church scenes.
You share a lot with Aretha, whether it be your faith, your formidable voice, or your own family tragedy. How much did each of those things inform your performance and help you understand her?
It definitely helped a lot. Although her story is hers and mine is my own, everybody's experience, when you experience trauma, it may be different trauma but it's still trauma. So I was able to pull from my own life experiences to be able to portray her story. And I think that's maybe one of the other things she saw that made her say, "Jennifer," because I couldn't help but be real honest and authentic, and it costs me a lot to be to have to go in those places. You're always looking for things where you can relate to people. Aretha's on a planet of her own, but still having those similarities was helpful to draw from.
This film has deep Broadway roots. You've performed there. Director Liesl Tommy has a Tony. You've got Hailey Kilgore, Heather Headley, Audra McDonald, and more. Do you think having a team so steeped in theater as opposed to Hollywood per se changed the approach or perspective overall?
I think it had to. It couldn't help but to — because there's a different language coming out of theater. And then for someone like myself, I've done both, to be able to split the difference and then to have support, having Audra, it was a dream. I wish I had more scenes with her. I love her so much. Then Liesl as a director, it gave us the courage to be able to give it something new. Because even in the early stages of this, trying to explain to people what it was and how it was done, I was like, "Why is this weird? Why is it hard to understand?" We've done this differently. And I've done a lot of musicals or live musical shows or whatever, and nothing is like this, but I think that's due to every bit of that, the roots of Broadway with the director and the other actors and us being familiar with that and bold enough to bring it to screen, that approach.
You get so raw in the period where Aretha is facing up to her alcoholism and substance abuse. Was that intimidating to be so vulnerable on screen, and how did you get to where you needed?
It can be, but I like real things. If you want to tell the story, tell the story, and let it be real, let it be raw. My goal is for you to feel what that character feels like and how vulnerable that actor has to be go to that place. I remember when we shot that scene and they asked me to come to set with my hair all over my head, and I did. That's how I walked through the door, like, "I'm ready. No, I don't need no makeup because this is real." Liesl even pulled me to the side and was like, "Jennifer you know, we will put this on camera, right? You want to shoot like this?" I said, "That's what the script said. This is the story I am here to tell. So I'm ready, yes, let's go." This is the story, and I feel it's real things that resonate. Why are we sugarcoating?
A biopic about the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.