DIVINE INSPIRATION

Jennifer Hudson reveals how a higher power has guided her through lifes ups and downs and in her exquisite portrayal of the Queen of Soul in the latest Aretha Franklin biopic, Respect.

Story By Danielle Young
Photography By Keith Major

It was so easy to love Jennifer Hudson from the moment she laid it on our ears with her bold and confident American Idol audition 17 years ago—her powerful voice bellowing through the cacophony of the world. We saw a girl with an instrument so obviously raised by the church, a dreamer who deep down flirted with the idea of one day being the heir to the throne of her idol, the late Aretha Franklin. Indeed, that reality show audition was a manifested ode to her imminent flight to fantastical fancy.

On a recent Zoom call, Hudson is dressed comfortably. Guard down. Turban on. Chillin. In real life, she displays that same vulnerability that authentically comes across on the big screen. “I like real things,” the star says of her ability to reach emotional depths on camera that could shake the tears right out of the corners of our eyes. Within my artistry, I go places that not everyone wants to go, [places] not everyone can handle, so it can be intimidating. It could be scary. And I think, at times, thats the fear in people.”

So how is Hudson able to be so fearless and go there for her craft? All I can say is that its God,” she says. “I cant say that I necessarily know, but I know when Im there, especially with this particular project. It really hit close to home. It was led by real emotion that came from a real place.” Respect, the Liesl Tommy–directed film, hit theaters August 13, and stars Hudson alongside Mary J. Blige, Audra McDonald, Marlon Wayans, and Forest Whitaker, among others. (For more on the movie and Franklin’s life, check out our interview with screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson.)

Getting selected to play Aretha Franklin by the icon herself may have been even more momentous than actually playing her. Some may call this circumstance a God moment. Ive seen God work too many times not to be able to recognize that this time around its Him,” Hudson affirms. Her saying, Jennifer, play me, is beyond singing and acting.”

 

To portray Franklin, Hudson pulled from a very unfortunate and similar despair. Both women lost immediate family members in tragic situations: Franklins mother died of a heart attack when Aretha was just 9, and her father was fatally wounded during a home invasion by unknown intruders; Hudsons mother, brother, and nephew were all murdered by the Chicago natives former brother-in-law.

Franklin, however, wasnt the type to carry her burdens on her sleeve. Rather, she emoted through her music, her artistry. For Hudson, it is the same. Im not afraid to bare it [all] and allow it to show in that way,” she says. I look at our stories like a testimony. I feel as though Im telling her story through my own pain. I dont think I would have been able to do this when we first had a conversation about it. I needed to live. I needed to have my own experiences. Every tear, every emotion—it costs, so I [made sure to handle the role with care].”

Being able to relate to Franklins experience doesnt make telling her story any easier, but it does make Hudsons performance that much more touching. The initial conversation between Hudson and Franklin about the icons biopic occurred shortly after Hudson took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Dreamgirls in 2007. She says Franklin asked her if she was going to win an Oscar for playing her. No pressure, right? Wrong. But Hudson thankfully turned to her personal savior as her guide: “I wouldnt have been able to get through Respect without Him. Its like, Oh, Hes keeping me!’”

I feel as though I’m telling [Aretha Franklin's] story through my own pain. I don’t think I would have been able to do this when we first had a conversation about it. I needed to live. I needed to have my own experiences.”

Although she may feel a little indulgent talking about herself, Hudson says she is having the time of her life meeting herself. “I’m in a space where I’m all about self-care, and I feel like if folks don’t get it at this point, honey!” she says, laughing and throwing up a hand as if she were dismissing someone. “I’m one of those people—always concerned [about] everybody else. But now, I’m almost 40 years old…I’ve done everything that’s been asked of me. So whether folks like it or not, it’s my turn now. I’ve turned into a self-care therapist. I’m on a journey to consider me…to please myself.” Hudson says her path to self-discovery includes asking questions such as, What about my story? What about my experience? What about my voice? My words? My life?

In the film, there’s a line plucked straight from a vintage interview with Miss Franklin in which she looks at the camera and says, “I don’t know who or what I am. I’m trying to find the answer.” “I sit with that myself,” Hudson says. “You don’t realize how much of a stranger you are to yourself until you [spend] time with yourself.”

Although she may feel a little indulgent talking about herself, Hudson says she is having the time of her life meeting herself. “I’m in a space where I’m all about self-care, and I feel like if folks don’t get it at this point, honey!” she says, laughing and throwing up a hand as if she were dismissing someone. “I’m one of those people—always concerned [about] everybody else. But now, I’m almost 40 years old…I ’ve done did  everything that’s been asked of me. So whether folks like it or not, it’s my turn now. I’ve turned into a self-care therapist. I’m on a journey to consider me…to please myself.” Hudson says her path to self-discovery includes asking questions such as, What about my story? What about my experience? What about my voice? My words? My life?

In the film, there’s a line plucked straight from a vintage interview with Miss Franklin in which she looks at the camera and says, “I don’t know who or what I am. I’m trying to find the answer.” “I sit with that myself,” Hudson says. “You don’t realize how much of a stranger you are to yourself until you [spend] time with yourself.”

And with that time, Hudson has discovered that she loves and likes herself. Even so, as her star continues to rise, she understands that she needs to build a strong foundation. She says she’s ready for that responsibility. “It’s almost hard to feel it for yourself. [The world gets] to see the transition,” she says of her navigation through the entertainment industry. But she doesn’t think of herself as a superstar. She’s just happy that she gets to pour herself into spaces she loves and call it work.

“It’s all [about] simply doing what I love to do. That’s how I’ve gotten as far as I [have],” Hudson explains. “Everything I do is done by the heart…passion.” In her mind, she says, she’s the same little kid in church who wanted that solo but was passed over. However, that didn’t stop her.

“Now, all of a sudden, I can’t go to church without singing and people showing up to see Jennifer sing,” Hudson says. “And it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, but it’s the same girl, the same person with the same dream!’ Or coming off American Idol, being somebody who was eliminated, and then two years later [there’s] Dreamgirls, and it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, this girl! Same girl!’ For me, nothing’s changed.”

And with that time, Hudson has discovered that she loves and likes herself. Even so, as her star continues to rise, she understands that she needs to build a strong foundation. She says she’s ready for that responsibility. “It’s almost hard to feel it for yourself. [The world gets] to see the transition,” she says of her navigation of the entertainment industry. But she doesn’t think of herself as a superstar. She’s just happy that she gets to pour herself into spaces she loves and call it work.

“It’s all [about] simply doing what I love to do. That’s how I’ve gotten as far as I [have],” Hudson explains. “Everything I do is done by the heart…passion.” In her mind, she says, she’s the same little kid in church who wanted that solo but was passed over. However, that didn’t stop her from singing or her star from rising.

Now, all of a sudden, I can’t go to church without singing and people showing up to see Jennifer sing,” Hudson says. “And it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, but it’s the same girl, the same person with the same dream!’ Or coming off American Idol, being somebody who was eliminated, and then two years later [there’s] Dreamgirls, and it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, this girl! Same girl!’ For me, nothing’s changed.”

But on the contrary, little Jenny from the church has become singing and acting sensation J-Hud. Her name splashed across anything automatically creates a buzz. While she enjoys the buzz, Hudson is confused by people’s interest in her personal life. “I couldn’t possibly be this interesting,” she says with a laugh. Sure, her talent is immense, but she’s no diva. She prides herself not on her amazing career, but on her connection to others. This trait is something she says her late mother told her is a treasure to behold.

Whenever Hudson mentions her mom, her tone isn’t somber. The star talks about her the same way she talks about Franklin—with reverence, love, and softness. Hudson’s mom always kept her centered. “ ‘What I love about you most, Jenny, is not the accolades and all the things you’ve done, but your person, your heart, and the way you treat everybody,’ ” she says her mom told her.

And though Hudson has an open heart, don’t be fooled—not everything is welcome. God is her everything; He is her built-in filter.

“As my mother used to say, ‘Jenny, you’re a woman of faith,’ ” Hudson says. “And as long as I’m that, I couldn’t be more proud of myself. And hopefully people see God.”

“I’m clear I’ve been on the right track. Nothing happens by chance. Too often we get [to] places we dream about and [then] question ourselves. I still do [sometimes] but it’s like, ‘No, just trust that this is what it’s supposed to be.’ ”

Hudson’s trust in her faith has ushered her to the big screen playing the Queen of Soul in a way that would have undoubtedly made Franklin proud. It’s that same faith that Hudson relied on at Franklin’s funeral to comfort us with a deeply moving rendition of “Amazing Grace.” And it’s that same faith that has taught Hudson to “own that voice that [Franklin] was so big [on and to advocate] for people to own [the voice] within themselves.” Hudson believes there is a divine superpower inside of everyone, no matter the skill set, and if we walk in our purpose, “whatever king or queen lies beneath is gonna bless the world.” 

Danielle Young (@thedanielleyoung) is a Los Angeles–based writer and producer and the host of Real Quick and The Danielle Young Show.

I’m clear I’ve been on the right track. Nothing happens by chance. Too often we get [to] places we dream about and [then] question ourselves.

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & SVP, PROGRAMMING MARIELLE BOBO 
CREATIVE DIRECTOR RASHIDA MORGAN BROWN 
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY/PHOTOGRAPHER KEITH MAJOR
VIDEO PRODUCTION TEAM MEGA MEDIA
ADDITIONAL VIDEO FOOTAGE KYE HOWELL/SO FOCUSED PHOTOGRAPHY
MOTION GRAPHICS RODRIGO BRAGA AND JUSTIN BROWN
STYLIST WAYMAN + MICAH/FORWARD ARTISTS
STYLIST ASSISTANT JAMILAH PHILLIPS
HAIRSTYLIST KIYAH WRIGHT/MUZE AGENCY
MAKEUP ARTIST ADAM BURRELL/A-FRAME AGENCY
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT COLLIN JACOB
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANT STEPHEN PANOSIAN
DIGITAL TECH JOHN SHIN
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER TRACEY WOODS
ON SET PRODUCER – SUZE LEE
PRODUCTION ASSISTANT JESUS MEZA 
RETOUCHER DIGITAL 805 RETOUCHING
COPY EDITOR HOPE WRIGHT
 
CLOTHING CREDITS: LOOK 1 (GOLD GOWN): OSCAR DE LA RENTA GOWN, CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN SHOES, MARGO RINGS; LOOK 2 (RED GOWN): DOLCE & GABBANA GOWN, JIMMY CHOO PUMPS; LOOK 3 (BLUE DRESS): IRIS VAN HERPEN DRESS, JESSICA RICH SHOES, MARGO SEIGEL CHOKER; LOOK 4 (ORANGE TWO-PIECE): BISHME CROMARTIE TOP AND SKIRT, SHINE LIKE ME AND FERNANDO JORGE RINGS, FERNANDO JORGE EARRINGS; LOOK 5 (GOLD STRAPLESS): ASHI DRESS; LOOK 6 (WHITE DRESS): CONG TRI DRESS, FALLON JEWELRY NECKLACE, FERNANDO JORGE AND MARGO RINGS. 

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