Originally published in digital and print for InStyle’s August 2021 Issue.
During the third season of American Idol auditions, a young Jennifer Hudson strolls in sporting a black sleeveless dress and a sunny smile. The Chicago native, then 23 years old, announces that she will be singing “Share Your Love with Me,” popularized by Aretha Franklin, to slight skepticism from judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell. (“We’re going to expect something better than a cruise-ship performance, right?” Jackson inquires after it is revealed that Hudson just wrapped up a job on a Disney cruise line.) Not one minute later, the trio are visibly stunned by her moving rendition, which blew the roof off the building. Jackson even goes so far as to declare that she is “absolutely brilliant, the best singer I’ve heard so far,” and they unanimously decide to send her to the next round. The rest, as they say, is history.
The world may have been introduced to Jennifer Hudson through her homage to Aretha Franklin, but not even in her wildest dreams did she expect to be in the presence of the Queen of Soul herself nearly three years later, in 2007, with Franklin requesting that she portray her in Respect, a biopic about her life. But Hudson is no stranger to turning fantasies into reality — during our conversation, her Pomeranian, aptly named Dreamgirl, starts yapping. “Her father was Oscar, and her mother was Grammy. Then they had a puppy, and I named it Dreamgirl,” she explains. “I got the dog Oscar before I won my Oscar for Dreamgirls. And then I said, ‘Oscar needs a wife. So how about I get a dog and name it Grammy, and maybe I’ll win a Grammy.’ And then I got the dog Grammy, and I won the Grammy.”
Poised in front of her piano in her house in Chicago — she began taking lessons, which she calls “Aretha school,” while working on Respect, out August 13 — she graciously plays a quick melody for me as an opener to our conversation. We discuss her life during the pandemic, and she admits that “this is the longest period of time I’ve been at home in my entire adulthood.” Chicago has been a grounding place for her in this destabilizing time, providing her the freedom to invest in herself as she cares for her community. “I’ve been able to work on my craft more, figure out what I want to do more, be creative like I used to be,” Hudson says. “Let me play in my closet. Let me play in my clothes. Let me play with my hair. All the things I used to do growing up.”
The pandemic also gave Hudson, a single mother, the necessary space to reinvest in her family — biking and playing basketball with her 12-year-old son, David Otunga Jr., and his cousins, who call her Mama Hud — as well as her passions. She mastered the operatic aria “Nessun dorma” over the course of two months, a song that Franklin famously performed ad hoc as a last-minute substitution for Luciano Pavarotti at the 1998 Grammys, to a standing ovation. “When I listen to a song, I used to just listen to the vocal line,” she says. “I’m a singer, a vocalist. Aretha was the mastermind behind the music. She was music. So even when she was singing, she dictated everything. She created it, and she could interchange it however she wanted to, right there in the spirit of the moment.”
Franklin was a walking musical archive of the Black sonic canon, creating, cultivating, and manipulating sound from jazz and blues to R&B and pop. Every song in her extensive catalogue — from the covers to her original material — doubly served as devotional hymnals by someone who spent her formative years in her father’s church in Detroit, a religious home to musical greats such as Dinah Washington (portrayed in the film by Mary J. Blige) and Clara Adams. A quintessential example lies in her signature song “Respect” — originally released by Otis Redding, but reconstructed by Franklin with a new musical refrain, lyrics, and melody arrangement to deliver a hit that eventually became a ubiquitous feminist anthem. Hudson naturally had apprehensions about doing the song justice, admitting that while the journey was the biggest dream, it was still daunting.
“I remember when we first sat down, ooh, I was terrified to be at the table,” Hudson says, laughing, reminiscing about her initial conversations with Franklin. “Aretha said, ‘What? Are you shy or something?’ I said, ‘Well, I am talking to the Queen of Soul!'” Hudson would shortly find out that Franklin didn’t have a script finalized yet — that would come over a decade later — but what she received instead was 15 years of conversations, counsel, and advice from a woman she had idolized since her youth. “She said, ‘Jennifer, you’re going to do this,'” Hudson recalls. “I’m like, ‘Well, I’ll do it if she says I can do it, if she thinks I can.’ That’s Ms. Franklin!”
This wasn’t the first time Hudson was presented with big shoes to fill: In 2006, she reprised Jennifer Holliday’s Tony Award–winning role as Effie in the movie adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls. “First, it was Dreamgirls: ‘Sing “And I’m Telling You.”‘ I was like, ‘What y’all want me to do? Stand on my head and sing it? Ain’t nothing else to be done. Jennifer Holliday did everything that can be done.'” Despite her reservations, her version of the song was an epic showstopper, with Hudson getting an Academy Award for best supporting actress in her feature film début. This is also when she caught Franklin’s attention as a vocal powerhouse.
Aside from Dreamgirls, Hudson had unknowingly been preparing to play Franklin for quite some time by sharpening her skills as an actress with musical range in such roles as Shug Avery in The Color Purple and parts in Sing and Cats. Hudson’s life experiences, career trajectory, and personal growth bear heavy similarities to Franklin’s journey. Both women started performing in their hometown churches, and while Hudson is not from Detroit, her birthplace of Chicago has long shared a musical connection with the Motor City; Franklin received the honorific of the Queen of Soul at the Regal Theater in Chicago in 1967. “A lot of Aretha’s favorite musicians are Chicago-based,” Hudson says, name-checking Sam Cooke and pointing out that Detroit is a quick shot up Interstate 90.
The commonalities extend beyond a regional and religious kinship. Similar to Franklin, Hudson has had to navigate heartrending personal tragedy over the course of her time in the public eye. (Her mother, brother, and nephew were killed in 2008.) Both women have had a significant reluctance to discuss those topics with the media and public, who tend to overlook the fact that a person is tied to the trauma being exhaustively detailed.
“As an actor, you have to go to your own real places,” Hudson reflects. “I don’t think I would have been able to dig that deep or connect in a way had I not been through things myself.” In the film, Hudson dramatizes Franklin’s struggles with alcoholism, the early loss of her mother (played by Audra McDonald), and her abusive first marriage to Ted White (Marlon Wayans), highlighting her reticence to openly explore her pain while pursuing ambitions, which culminates in a gripping scene between Hudson and McDonald. “In that moment, it clicked with me like, ‘Is this what she saw in me?’ Because we parallel in so many ways through our life stories and the things we’ve been through and experienced. I know, as a person who has suffered a lot of loss, I don’t like having to talk to people who haven’t lost anything,” Hudson admits, clarifying that she finds comfort in telling her story to someone she feels she could relate to in some form or fashion.
The film doesn’t dwell on the darker scenes more than necessary, allowing the mechanics of Hudson’s poised and contained performance to rest at the center. “Ray [Charles] had very present body mannerisms,” she says, referring to the 2004 portrayal of Charles by friend Jamie Foxx. “[Aretha’s were] very subtle, very quiet. The majority of her expressions came through her face.”
Despite the rich shared experiences to draw from, Hudson didn’t exclusively rely on the personal connection she had built with Franklin to round out her role. She collaborated with Carole King — who famously co-wrote Franklin’s legendary cover “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — on the original song “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home)” for the biopic. Hudson also connected with Patti LaBelle, whom she lovingly calls “Mama Patti, “because she “could teach me what it was like to be a Black woman during that time, what it was like to be a mother during that time, what it was like to be a performer, a superstar, all of that.” Then she solicited Tom Jones, a longtime friend of Franklin’s and Hudson’s former colleague on The Voice UK, to be a vocal coach, assisting her with leaning into Franklin’s vocal inflections and speaking cadence while avoiding the pitfall of her performance becoming a pastiche. “It’s tricky. You don’t want to come off as if you’re mimicking somebody, especially somebody like Aretha,” she says with a laugh, describing having the same conversation with Franklin about re-creating her iconic mezzo-soprano timbre. “She wanted it to be hers.”
But, of course, it wasn’t just about the voice. Amplifying Franklin’s persona extended to frequent glam overhauls, with Hudson being styled by Tony-winning costume designer Clint Ramos and Emmy-winning hairstylist Lawrence Davis. “I had 83 costume changes and probably 83 wig changes too,” she jokes, hearkening back to the vintage fur coat and the gold dress she sported in a birthday scene. “The costuming was a huge part of the storytelling.”
Civil rights were equally as important to Franklin as they are to Hudson now with the present day Black Lives Matter movement. “Going back in time like that and to fast-forward to now,” she muses. “Oh my god, it’s still the same today. This battle is an ongoing thing.” For Hudson, exploring that part of Franklin’s life, from her relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. to offering to post bail for an imprisoned Angela Davis to recording the Young, Gifted and Black album, reminds her of the imperative to bear witness in the fight for social change. “Too often we’re afraid to speak up because we’re afraid of retaliation,” Hudson points out. “To see someone like her use her platform to be a voice encourages me.”
The film concludes with Franklin’s Amazing Grace recording, the biggest-selling gospel album of all time, closing out right where it started: the Black church. Hudson ambitiously re-creates her transcendent 10-minute performance in a fro and loose-flowing kaftan, drawing out the riffs and floating in the pocket of sustained notes as if Franklin were looking directly at her. “I feel like it’s my tribute to her legacy,” she reflects, “and I just hope I did her proud.” (If it’s any indication, Hudson’s emotional take on the song at Franklin’s funeral in 2018 received a standing ovation.)
After tackling the most intimidating thing she could, Hudson is refocusing on how she can continue to elevate her career. “I want to be in this industry until the day I die and do what I love,” she says, which, thanks to Franklin, now includes an ongoing journey with the piano. Those aspirations go beyond music and on-camera work — she is considering everything from directing to expanding her reach with Jhud Productions. “Like Harpo Studios,” Hudson, says, alluding to the influential presence of Oprah Winfrey’s former multimedia company that was based in Chicago. “I would like to be like a pioneer in the industry, one of the older generation just giving other people opportunities.”
These ambitions don’t mean that she will be sacrificing her cherished family time: “Camp David,” as she refers to the world she created for her son and his cousins to spend time in, is still very much on the program. Like the proud mama that she is, Hudson often chronicles their adventures on Instagram, as well as past live acts with the likes of Prince and Gladys Knight. She also shows appreciation for the love her hometown has given her by snapping selfies with the murals and billboards depicting her likeness. (She’s such a deity in Chicago that in 2007 then-mayor Richard Daley officially declared March 6 “Jennifer Hudson Day.”) And while her house is overrun by animal friends, it remains to be seen whether an Emmy or a Tony — or another Oscar — will be brought into the fold: With the essence of Franklin encouraging her, anything is possible.