Jennifer Hudson: Dream girl grows up

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

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The Independent Culture

"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