Jennifer Hudson dazzles in portraits from EW's cover shoot
All Due Respect
Jennifer Hudson (photographed exclusively for EW's November cover story in Los Angeles on Sept. 3) had only just won her first Oscar — for her very first film role, no less, in 2006's Dreamgirls — when she received the call to meet her idol, Aretha Franklin. "We met in New York, I forget what hotel, but we had breakfast together," Hudson, now 39, tells EW. "And one of the first things she said to me was, Are you shy or somethin’? You’re not gonna eat?' And I said 'Well, I am sitting at the table with Aretha Franklin,'" she recalls, laughing. "So we just sat there and we talked about me playing her, it was quite some time."
Franklin, who lost her fight with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer at 76 in 2018, considered a number of actresses to play her onscreen over the years — though it was Hudson, the Chicago-born mezzo soprano and one-time American Idol contestant, who moved her to make the offer personally. Still, her decision didn't become finalized publicly until years later, in a memorable incident. "When I did The Color Purple [on Broadway in 2015]," Hudson recalls, "I remember her calling like, 'I’ve made my decision, and it is you who I want to play me, but don’t you tell no one.' And then the next day, she went and did an interview where she was like "I’ve spoken to the young lady, and she knows who she is!' [Laughs]"
Respect's supporting cast features an EGOT-y swirl of stars including Forest Whitaker, Audra McDonald, Mary J. Blige, and Marlon Wayans. But in order to winnow down a life as iconic and eventful as Franklin's, the award-winning theater director Liesl Tommy (Eclipsed) chose to keep the timeline in Respect confined to the singer's childhood up until approximately the mid-'70s. "Aretha’s catalog, the longevity of her career, we’d be filming for the rest of our lives to try to capture it all, " Hudson points out. "Just think of how many albums she had! And how many different eras."
The film doesn't shy away from some of the most difficult episodes in Franklin's life, including the two babies she gave birth to before the age of 16, the devastating early loss of her mother, and a messy first marriage to a local Detroit hustler named Ted White (played in the film by Wayans). "Of course everyone would assume 'Oh yes, [Aretha] picked Jennifer because she sings like her, she comes from the church like her,' and all the obvious things," Hudson admits. "But there were so many things that I didn't even know we paralleled on until learning of her story," says the younger singer, who lost her own mother, brother, and young nephew in a tragic 2008 shooting, "And had I not experienced the life I’ve experienced, I would not have been able to carry the weight to tell her story."
"It's so rare in Hollywood that you see color when you walk on a set. [But] when you’re talking about an Aretha Franklin biopic, you have to make that inclusive," says Wayans of a cast and crew lead almost entirely by Black women, including Hudson, director Tommy, and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson. "And watching what Jennifer had to do as a performer every day… I’m just acting, right? Which is hard. But she’s dancing, she has dialogue, she has to play piano, she’s singing live. She would sing these things over and over, like seven or eight takes, and what’s crazy is each take they would get better.... Man, it would make me jump out of character at times — me, Forest," he adds, laughing. "All I could do [for her] as Marlon and as Ted was 'How can I help you, can I get you a snack?'"
Unlike some less lucky musical biopics, Respect was able to gain exclusive rights to many of Franklin's best known hits, including the title track, "Think," "(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman," "I Say a Little Prayer," and more. One thing Tommy insisted on during the film's shoot: that all the performances be sung live. And Hudson was happy to comply: "I feel like it gives you a little grip on the control of the scene — the emotion, the character, everything. And it all forms in the moment," she tells EW. "You don’t overproduce a talent like that, it’s better that it’s raw. That’s when you can connect. So I like the rawness, the honesty of being in the moment, versus trying to marry what I did a week ago, which has nothing to do with the emotion I’m feeling now."
For all that the film deals with serious issues — and a historical context that includes real-life Black luminaries from Martin Luther King Jr. to Sam Cooke and Dinah Washington — it doesn't stint on fashion. "Ooh, child," Hudson confides, "We had so much fun with the clothes." To that end, Tony-winning costume designer Cliff Ramos designed some 50-plus pieces for Hudson alone — whose towering 5-foot-10 height can make it difficult to outfit her in the smaller scale of most vintage — including a custom pale-pink gown so encrusted with pearls, which weighed in at nearly 70 pounds. More than strictly glamour, though, Ramos says, he was after a certain essence: "If you look at all the historical photos, It’s remarkable how much humanity comes out," he explains. "Like you’ll see a strap falling off [Aretha's] shoulder, something out of place, but it’s so human in a way... To a certain extent, she didn’t really care. She wasn’t after the polish, she wasn’t after conveying perfection. She was about showing soul."
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