Jennifer Hudson: ‘I grew up very normal. I wasn’t born into fame’

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Liesl Tommy’s Respect
The Oscar-winning actor on her Chicago roots, singing in church choirs and getting the great soul singer’s stamp of approval

Many will celebrate the waning of the remote meeting, but the Zoom approach does have its advantages. Jennifer Hudson – Oscar winner, Grammy winner, American Idol discovery – appears before me in a room from a fairytale. There is a harp in the background. There is a piano. Mouse footmen may, for all I know, be waiting attendance in the unseen wings. But this is not LA or Miami. Hudson was born and raised in Chicago and she remains true to the city on the lake. It keeps her grounded. It keeps her real.

“I always say living in Chicago allows my feet to touch the ground,” she says. “I travel for my work. But this is home.”

Hudson is about to get a lot more attention. Opening a little early for awards season – but sure to be in contention – Liesl Tommy’s Respect casts her as the inimitable Aretha Franklin. “Inimitable” really is the word here. Hudson does not fall into the trap of attempting a Stars in their Eyes take on the Queen of Soul. She captures an essence but doesn’t labour at a slavish impersonation. Hudson’s own timbres are still in there.

Jennifer Hudson playing Aretha Franklin in Respect
Hudson playing Aretha Franklin in Respect

“Several things went into that,” she says. “I’m a very outspoken person that takes up space in a room. I can’t use that. Aretha was a very subtle person. But for me, the challenge as an actor was: how do I maintain those subtleties.”

Aretha Franklin, who died in 2018, is among the most significant stars of the post-war era. The daughter of celebrated preacher CL Franklin, she began singing gospel, moved on to jazz and eventually shook the world with indestructible hits – Respect, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Chain of Fools, many more – that helped define a school of melodic soul. The recent restoration of Amazing Grace, a record of a Franklin concert from 1972, reminded us of how viscera-churning her sacred music could be.

And yet. We don’t feel we know her the way we know Diana Ross or Tina Turner or Barbra Streisand. Her inner life remained just that – inner.

“I could agree with that to a certain extent,” Hudson says. “Definitely. She shared what she wanted to share. She let in who she wanted to let in. That is accurate.”

One is inevitably tempted to wonder about the similarities between Hudson’s and Franklin’s upbringings. Both were raised in religious houses. Both began singing in the church choir. We can work too hard at this, but there does seem to be something there. Right?

I wasn’t born into the fame element. So I think that creates a good balance – to be able to maintain your values, to maintain yourself as a regular everyday person

“Definitely. I was, as we would say, sheltered,” she says. “I was sheltered in the same way, growing up in the church. Although the difference is that she was a preacher’s kid. CL Franklin, at that — which created a whole other position. Then add her talent on top of that. That comes with a huge responsibility in itself. But when you come from the church with that background it comes with a certain sense of expectation. I can say I experienced a lot of that. But I was not a preacher’s kid.”

Hudson achieved fame in very 21st Century fashion. After a spell singing on Disney Cruise Lines, she secured a place on American Idol and, much cheered throughout her run, was unexpectedly ejected during the “top seven” show. Maybe that was a good thing. Many are the runners-up on American Idol and The X Factor who have become legends. A few winners have sunk into obscurity.

How did she cope with that sudden plunge into celebrity? Franklin moved slowly towards her exalted place. Hudson woke up one morning to find herself familiar to millions. How does one deal with the mental pressure?

“That’s a good question. I’m sitting here, as you’re asking it, thinking: how do you? To me, I’ve always done this. And you wonder: what’s the big deal now? I grew up very normal. I wasn’t born into the fame element. So I think that creates a good balance – to be able to maintain your values, to maintain yourself as a regular everyday person. And then to have a career in the industry like this. You need that balance.”

As we have already noted, not everyone who makes it to the later stages of contemporary talent shows ends up as a superstar. The fear must be there that, after a few months in the headlines, you will be catapulted into “who was she, again?” territory. There is no sense of arrogance off Hudson. I imagine she must have realised that was a possibility.

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin: ‘It was a request for me to portray her and I thought the best way to do that and the most respectful way – especially for those vulnerable moments – was to be as bare in telling it.’
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin

“I tried to prepare myself,” she says. “I always look at things in terms of what to do, and then what not to do. I found that when you’re in those type of machines, it does everything for you. And so I used to sit back and wonder: well, okay, but what happens when the television show goes away? When the lights and the stage go away? When the managers and the PRs and all that go away? How do I maintain after that? So that’s where my focus was. And for me – even still, to this day – I do what I do because I love it. So once I was eliminated, and those things went away, I was like: because you didn’t win that doesn’t mean it’s over.”

What really pushed Hudson into the stratosphere was her film-stealing performance in the big-screen version of the popular Broadway musical Dreamgirls. Dramatising the inspirations and rivalries that inspired the soul boom during the 1960s, the film offered Jennifer the sort of show-stopper that makes careers. She was not backwards in grasping the opportunity. Her rendition of And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going – technically brilliant and exhaustingly passionate – immediately installed her as bookies’ favourite for best supporting actress at the 2007 Oscars. The odds kept shortening and she galloped away with the prize.

We are told that the world changes the morning after you win an Academy Award. The only sound you hear is the creak of doors opening to endless enticing possibilities. Is that how Hudson remembers it?

“It depends on the individual,” she says. “What is open to you? Is it the same for all of us? No. That can be either good or bad. Is everything going to be that Oscar-winning moment? No. But you have to be realistic with yourself in that way. And my goal has always just been to honour that. I always want to make whatever entity I’m a part of proud. So that’s always been my driving force. But it is a life-changing thing.”

The Franklin project has been around since then. Hudson first met the legend after the success of Dreamgirls. It seems that Franklin greatly approved of the younger singer taking on the role. A great deal of life then intervened. In 2008, Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew were murdered. She bravely got back to work and developed a successful recording career. Franklin fell ill and died before she was able to see Respect. It’s been a long journey. 

It was a request for me to portray her and I thought the best way to do that and the most respectful way – especially for those vulnerable moments – was to be as bare in telling it

“We initially met 15 years ago,” she says. “Right after I won the Oscar for Dreamgirls. Back then there was no script but we had our initial meeting about me portraying her. I am grateful that it didn’t happen, because I don’t know if I would have been ready. But that’s when we initially had our first meeting. It wasn’t until eight years after that that she gave me a call and said: ‘I’ve made my decision. My final decision is: It is you who I want to play me.’ We cultivated a relationship throughout that timeframe. I’ve been blessed to be able to pay tribute to her many times throughout that time.”

There is some tough stuff in Respect. We again hear stories that have become too familiar in the entertainment business: spousal abuse, alcohol and drugs, personal betrayals.

“The overall thing was to approach it and handle it with integrity and care and respect,” she says. “And my choice in that was to be as bare as the story I’m telling. It was a request for me to portray her and I thought the best way to do that and the most respectful way – especially for those vulnerable moments – was to be as bare in telling it.”

Franklin emerges as an enigmatic miracle. But Hudson’s own strength of character is also part of the story. She is an impressive woman. She oozes charisma. Oh, to be at one with what you do.

It’s in the blood.

Jennifer Hudson on playing Aretha Franklin: ‘The overall thing was to approach it and handle it with integrity and care and respect’
Jennifer Hudson

“My grandmother led over 100 solos in our church choir,” she says. “And she could have become famous, but she chose not to – because she only wanted to sing for the Lord. I still have a host of singing relatives that do the same. And I was the only one to actually reach this level of success with it. Similar to Miss Franklin. So I can relate to that in a lot of ways.”

What was it she said earlier?

“I do what I do because I love it.” 

Respect is on release now