Jennifer Hudson: Dream girl grows up

Jennifer Hudson returns to musicals in Black Nativity. The star tells Gill Pringle about coming back from tragedy

"I think of the Oscar as both blessing and a curse," reveals Jennifer Hudson, talking about her 2006 award-winning debut in the musical, Dreamgirls.

It's not that the one-time American Idol runner-up is ungrateful for her gold man. "Of course it was amazing to win but, because of that, people always think I know everything," says the actress/singer who won some 29 awards including a Bafta. "I have to remind them that it was my first project and I'm here to learn."

It's that sincerity that has helped Hudson, 32, win the hearts of just about anyone who has witnessed her giddy rollercoaster ride through life; joyous as she announced her engagement to WWE wrestler David Otunga on her birthday on 12 September 2008, just weeks later grieving with her as she mourned the tragic murders of her mother, brother and seven-year-old nephew at the hand of her sister Julia's estranged husband.

Disappearing from view for three months, staying close to her remaining family in Chicago, there was not a dry eye in the house when she returned to the spotlight, performing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the 2009 Super Bowl.

By then she was pregnant with son David Daniel Otunga, born in August the same year. As a new mother she was frustrated when the pounds didn't easily fall off, signing on as a WeightWatchers spokesperson and going on to become the company's poster girl; today her outline is enviably svelte.

But her latest role, in the star-studded Black Nativity, presented her with a challenge of a different sort. It was her first musical since winning her Dreamgirls Oscar, a role of a lifetime, considered by many critics to be the most triumphant musical-film debut since Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl.

"It's not that I didn't want to do a musical again, it's just that, for a while, those were the only roles I was being offered. I hate being typecast or boxed in; no one knows your limits the way you do, so don't tell me what I can't do," says Hudson who instructed her agents to stay away from musicals while she whetted her acting chops elsewhere, portraying Winnie Mandela in the biopic of the same name and featuring in the screen adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees with Dakota Fanning, and even trying her hand at comedy in the Farrelly brothers' The Three Stooges.

"It was more about 'Can we try something else?'," she says. "I wanted to display myself in other ways. If you can sing in a musical and act in a musical you should be able to act in something without singing. I look at everything as a learning experience and an opportunity to grow, and with this I got to learn from the best," says Hudson whose Black Nativity co-stars include Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Mary J Blige.

A contemporary adaptation of Langston Hughes's celebrated play, Black Nativity is an uplifting, seasonal story told through gospel and R&B music. "Once I read the script, I fell in love with all the different elements: the church element, the family element, the holiday element, and seeing all those different elements made me want to be a part of it because I feel like there's not enough films for the family."

She realises she will be judged, and there were will be inevitable comparisons with Dreamgirls. "I'm not picking roles based on 'OK I got an Oscar so everything needs to be that role'," says the actress who plays Naima, a struggling single mum, estranged from her parents.

Bringing her four-year-old son with her to the movie set, she was happy for him to witness her at work on Black Nativity, although not so comfortable having her boy at her side when she recently played Gloria, a heroin-addicted prostitute and single mother in recent drama The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete.

"Being a parent in real life has definitely helped me with these roles," says Hudson who has yet to make a trip down the aisle, and has been engaged for five years now.

"Even though I don't consider myself a bad mommy, it was difficult putting myself in Gloria's headspace and imagining if that were the case. My son would be like 'Mommy, why are you acting like that?' It scared him.

"I don't want to ever be like that toward my child whereas Naima feels much closer to myself as a parent who wants her child to have the best life."

If Hudson's story is not your classic Cinderella tale, it's also full of cliché-defying facts. Born in a working-class neighbourhood in Chicago, she grew up singing gospel at her local church, and has never touched a drop of alcohol or a drug in her life.

"I don't know what it's like to try any of that. I've never had a drink in my life. I'm sober. I've never been interested. No one ever believes it but, no, never."

All of which provided additional challenges for her harrowing role in The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete. "Usually, as an actor, you have things to pull from but I had nothing," says Hudson who visited a rehab centre, meeting with several women who told her their stories.

"I learned about using needles, and they took me through each step of how you get addicted to drugs. I still couldn't understand what it would feel like to be high, so this one lady told me it was like an orgasm, and then I understood and thought, 'I can do that part!'"

Struggling with the loss of privacy and associated trappings of fame, she remains close to her Chicago home and traditional values.

"To me, what's weird in this type of position is that I've been singing my whole life. What's the difference now? The 'industry', to me, is like when I used to sing at high school, it's just on a bigger level. So now when I go to church to sing I'm like 'Wait a minute?! Who are all these folks coming here to hear me sing? I sing in church every Sunday. What's the big deal?' I've been doing this my whole life. I'm still the same girl."

With equal helpings of joy and sorrow in her life, she ultimately turned tragedy into philanthropy, creating the Julian D King Foundation in honour of her sister's late son, Hudson's nephew.

"I've always been huge on the holidays," she smiles. "So, through our foundation, we give back to unfortunate kids. Our goal is to have more and more kids and more and more things to be able to give them – to take our blessings and bless others. The more kids we can help the better. That's our Christmas wish."

'Black Nativity' opens on 5 December

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album