Interview

Jennifer Hudson: ‘Playing Aretha Franklin was the scariest thing ever’

The former American Idol contestant was handpicked by the late Queen of Soul to play her in the biopic of her life, but it wasn’t easy to do her justice. She tells Elizabeth Aubrey about the tragic loss that brought them together, relating Aretha’s story to now and how she told it with a little Respect...

Wednesday 08 September 2021 22:04
<p>Hudson on playing Aretha: ‘It’s not easy when you’re entrusted with something like that; I did not take it lightly at all’ </p>

Hudson on playing Aretha: ‘It’s not easy when you’re entrusted with something like that; I did not take it lightly at all’

Jennifer Hudson was “blessed” to have been able to hang out a fair bit with Aretha Franklin before getting to play her in a film. She undertook the gargantuan task of embodying the late Queen of Soul for the upcoming biopic, Respect, but the fact that Franklin respected Hudson too went a long way.

Franklin famously never allowed singers to open for her throughout her career. She was, however, particularly taken with Hudson after seeing her as a contestant on American Idol in 2004, so she made an exception. Following the show, they struck up a close friendship, which culminated in Franklin personally asking Hudson to play her in an eventual film about her life.

Hudson is speaking from her home in LA. Behind her is a grand piano upon which sit several black and white photographs of Franklin, who died in 2018 aged 76. Hudson looks back at the images and smiles. “Our first meeting [about the film] was 15 years ago,” she recalls. “We met in New York [to talk] about me playing her. Then it was another eight years after that when she said: ‘I’ve finally made my decision. It is you who I want to play me.’” She laughs as she recreates the look of awed bewilderment she had on her face at the time.

Franklin’s decision was cemented after watching Hudson’s knock-it-out-the-park performance at the 2014 BET Honours Aretha event, where she sang a pitch-perfect medley of Franklin’s most famous hits. Famous people are often asked who they want to play themselves in a film about their life, but Franklin had clearly noted the similarities between her and Hudson, in both voice and story. Both had started singing in church as a child, both had risen to fame gradually, and both had experienced immense loss in their lives at a young age.

Respect focuses heavily on the early period of Franklin’s career, when success did not come easily. After moving from Detroit to New York in 1960, she was signed to Columbia with a record deal negotiated by her preacher father, Rev C L Franklin (Forest Whitaker). Despite recording nine albums from 1960-1967, Franklin didn’t have a hit song until her eventual breakaway signing to Atlantic, which led to a feverish run of singles that included “Respect”, “Think” and “I Say a Little Prayer”. Despite her eventual triumph, the film uncovers the depression and alcoholism Franklin faced as major traumas from her childhood resurfaced – including the sudden, devastating death of her mother.

Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker in ‘Respect’

Tragically, Hudson could relate. In 2008, her mother, Darnell, brother Jason and nephew Julian were murdered by Darnell’s estranged husband in a tragedy that shook America. She says that she understands the lifelong grief and trauma that such sudden loss can cause, themes that are examined in Respect. She uses the example of a scene in the film where Franklin imagines her late mother sat alongside her.

“To me, that was the moment when I was like, ‘Oh, this is a huge reason why she picked me,” Hudson explains. “Those who know, know,” she says, of people familiar with the singular devastation grief can cause. “I [had to] honour that in the most honest way, from my own truth to tell hers. Because to tell that, it should come from a vulnerable, honest place and it couldn’t help but to resonate with me in that moment.”

She pauses momentarily, taking a deep breath. Hudson has understandably struggled to talk about what has happened to her. “It was to the point, at times, while I’m in it, filming, I didn’t know if I was…” Another pause. “I’m like, ‘This feels like it’s me, it feels just the same. I could relate to her loss [deeply] in that moment.”

Franklin became a mother-figure and mentor to Hudson in the aftermath of her family’s tragedy, calling her and meeting her regularly. Hudson was also one of the last people to speak to Franklin before she died: another loss Hudson had to bear. She remembers the call well.

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“She was very present. She kept up with things very well, she was [still] very firm and very direct,” she laughs. “It blew me away how aware and conscious she was of what was happening in my life. I was like, ‘You know that about me?!” she smiles, as a gold ‘Respect’ necklace she wears catches the light. “I literally spoke to her right before she passed. I was like, ‘I’m one of the last people you call? Wow.’”

Jennifer Hudson and the director Liesl Tommy on set

Hudson’s love and respect for Franklin is palpable, something that goes all the way back to her childhood in Chicago where she sang Franklin’s songs in her Baptist church. Yet with Hudson knowing Franklin so well, how did she strike the balance between honouring her memory and telling the story of some of the more difficult truths of Franklin’s life?

“Well, respecting what you have and who it’s for,” Hudson says, was paramount. “By being given the responsibility by her, it was my duty to care for it or try to protect it or handle it with care as best as I could. I felt the best way to do that though was to bare myself. If I’m going to tell your story, then I should be just as bare doing it.”

“I mean, playing the queen herself, Aretha Franklin, it was the scariest thing ever,” she continues, laughing, her intonation rising as she describes the enormity of portraying an icon who has sold more than 75 million records. “Obviously she can’t be duplicated. I know what she represents and what she means to the world – including myself. It’s not easy when you’re entrusted with something like that; I did not take it lightly at all.”

Indeed, the film’s director, Liesel Tommy, says she and Hudson spent months poring over how best to deal with some of the film’s more revelatory aspects. We learn, for example, of a devastating sexual assault Franklin suffered as a child and the severe depression she faced.

“She was a very reserved and careful person when it came to her personal life, and the reason some of these things are shocking in the film is because she never talked about them,” Tommy explains. “I knew I was taking a risk with some of the things that I bring to light. It was really important for me that I did that with delicacy and care.”

Tommy says Hudson went above and beyond to ensure the portrayal was both accurate and sensitive. “Jennifer was so driven and disciplined: there was nothing she wouldn’t do,” she explains, saying Hudson spent months perfecting songs, working with dialect and movement coaches, learning to play the piano, and trawling through old interviews and documents about Franklin’s life in painstaking detail. On set, Hudson also chose to sing every song live to mirror Franklin’s original recording experience as closely as possible. “I think people just really enjoyed listening to her sing live every single day on set too,” Tommy smiles. “It was so special.”

Hudson herself says when it came to the music, being a fan first and foremost was more problematic here. “Already knowing a lot of the music helped me prepare,” she says. “But at the same time, when it came to actually recreating these moments and scenes, it’s like, ‘Wait a minute: in this scene she doesn’t know the song [yet], so I can’t sing it as I know it to be or what it became to me.’ That’s when it got tricky at times.”

Tituss Burgess plays the gospel singer James Cleveland opposite Hudson

When Hudson talks about the music in the film, she lights up, clapping her hands at one point in excitement. One standout moment, she says, was getting to work alongside songwriting legend Carole King, who wrote Franklin’s 1976 hit “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. The pair worked together on an original new song for the film, “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home),” which they wrote together over Zoom during the pandemic. Hudson’s fellow judge from The Voice UK, Will.i.am, was on production duties from afar.

“Carole King is a legend in her own right,” Hudson beams. “She wrote ‘Natural Woman’ and so had her own relationship with Ms Franklin and so did I. We ended up speaking about our own personal experiences with her and that’s where that song came from. We did it really organically in a way that Aretha would have approached it. But then Carol made a point to say, ‘Jennifer, you need to make sure you write on this song too.’ The one thing between her and Ms Franklin, they always encouraged me to use my own expression and my own voice.”

Finding her own voice wasn’t easy after the straitjacket reality pop shows can bring. Hudson’s Oscar win for Dreamgirls in 2006 may have brought her critical acclaim, but her three studio albums to date still divide opinion. While the power of her voice is never in doubt, some critics have pointed out her lack of a distinctive style, identity and message in her music. Franklin had a similar issue at the start of her career too, after what Tommy describes as “many years of failure”. Only after signing to Atlantic did Franklin carve out her own lane via “Respect”, with its themes of female empowerment, becoming a spokesperson for a generation in the process.

Can Hudson relate to that challenge? “So many things [about Aretha’s early career] resonate to me in my own life as far as my artistry,” she says, more guardedly. “It would stump me at times too,” she says, about the path to finding her own voice. “I could relate to that.”

Another relatable moment came last summer when Hudson was working on scenes that explore Franklin’s powerful work during the Civil Rights era in America. The extent of Franklin’s work here is not well documented, such as her time spent with Martin Luther King (her father was King’s mentor), the Black Panther movement and her work helping to free the activist Angela Davis. Hudson was filming these scenes as Black Lives Matter protests raged around the world following the murder of George Floyd.

Hudson says it made Franklin’s work feel more important than ever; Tommy says it made them both realise the importance of making her Civil Rights work a key focus of the film. Tommy says: “It seemed extremely important, given the moment we’re living in now, to show her activism was as much a part of who she was as her music. She showed you could be a superstar but also never relent when it comes to advocacy. We still need the guts that she had.”

Jennifer Hudson and Aretha Franklin

Hudson agrees: “[Franklin] showed you that you can use your platform to step up and make a difference. We all have a duty to do that. I know it inspired me in that way. I remember while filming, all of these [BLM protests] were going on. [Her work] still relates and connects to that. It’s our duty to carry that torch and make a difference.”

The film’s ending leaves plenty of scope for another biopic about Franklin’s later life in years to come. Would Hudson take on the role again? “Ma’am, this was more than enough!” she laughs. “I mean I was thinking when we started filming, I was like, ‘If we try to cover her whole life, oh my god: I will be filming for the rest of my life!’’’

She’s not done with paying tribute to Franklin yet, though, she quickly emphasises. “I do plan to continue to pay tribute and homage to her legacy throughout the rest of my life and career, as a fan should and would,” she says, looking back at the pictures of Franklin once more. “I think she’s the person who helped shape things for us today and the legacy of that will carry on. That’s what the power of a legend does: they shape things for us. They lay the foundation and the blueprint for those to come, to make it better for the future.”

‘Respect’ is out in cinemas now

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