The original Dreamgirl, Jennifer Hudson, had a dream. “I had a dream for myself after Dreamgirls – coming off something as big as that? And I said the only thing that could top that would be to play Aretha Franklin, and I don’t know if she heard me or if she had that same thing in mind,” Chicago-born Jennifer Hudson, star of the new film Respect, reveals.
“But right after I won my Oscar for Dreamgirls, she wanted to meet me, and it was in New York. Over 15 years ago. That’s how long we talked about this. We sat down, and we talked about me playing her. And she told me I was very shy, asking me “are you shy or something?” I remember telling her “well I am sitting here talking to Ms. Aretha Franklin.”
“When I look back throughout my career thus far – many times I got to tribute Aretha, meet her, sing her songs, admire her. Thinking back to Dreamgirls, people mentioned that I was reminiscent of a young version of Aretha Franklin.” Hudson explains. “Now it seems that it was destined in a way.”
Aretha Franklin’s voice is considered the best, most powerful, and culturally significant voice of all time. The Queen of Soul’s hit songs Respect, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman, I Say a Little Prayer, and Think, to name a few, have become a part of the American music canon — all classics that defined the resistance and resilience of Black people during the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and the Women’s Movement — and still resonate today at a moment in time where the world is in crisis and in need of soulfulness.
Watch the first clip, courtesy of MGM, of Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin:
“When I first heard that it was Jennifer Hudson playing Aretha in the film, I was happy because that’s a no-brainer,” says Mary J. Blige, who plays Dinah Washington — a family friend of the Franklins. “Jennifer is an amazing singer. She has that thing in her voice like Aretha has in her voice, the anointing. She can sing anything. When I saw her in the dressing room getting her makeup done, I actually saw Aretha and I’m sure she [Aretha] would be happy.”
“Jennifer, I think, was born to play this role,” says Audra McDonald, who plays Barbara Siggers Franklin, Aretha’s Mother. “We all knew she was hand-picked by Aretha. This is who Aretha wanted to play her. And Jennifer is perfect in the role. I was watching Amazing Grace [the documentary feature] where Aretha recorded her “Amazing Grace” album in New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles all those many years ago. I was struck by how much Aretha and Jennifer favor each other when their face is in resting position, I don’t’ think that they’re aware that anybody is looking at them, in those very quiet moments where Aretha is just sort of thinking between songs.”
“Jennifer was remarkable in her portrayal of Aretha. Not only were her musical performances outstanding, but everything from her accent to her mannerisms rang true to how Aretha felt and carried herself,” says Composer Kris Browers (Space Jam: A New Legacy) who was mentored by Ms. Franklin.
“Aretha Franklin understood that Jennifer had a gift and that also Jennifer has a tenderness that is a part of her character, the humility that I think Aretha responded to,” says Respect director, Liesl Tommy. “You know, so when somebody, when you’re thinking about who’s going to play me, and I know that I have one of the great voices of all time, it better be another person who has one of the great voices of all time. And that’s to me how that came about.”
Tommy continues: “Working in theatre, before you even get up on your feet, you just sit and you read the script many, many times over and you analyze every single page. And sometimes you get to do an abbreviated version of that in film, and sometimes you don’t, but I asked for it. So we really were able to talk at length and meaningfully about every page of the script, what it meant, what the ideas were, where it came from, what the literal thing was, and then what the cinematic thing would be. So Jennifer and I were able to be extremely prepared for the emotional work that was going to have to happen on set at no point was she blindsided at no point was she winging it,” she explains.
“My feeling is the more actors understand all the nooks and crannies of the journey that they have to go on they know how to prepare, so once you get on set, we’re already completely on the same page; you give the framework and the work happens. Jennifer has this extraordinary emotional capacity. Aretha Franklin knew what she was doing when she set it up. That’s what I want. And once I had my very first meeting with Jennifer and I looked in her eyes, listened to her talk, I understood what Aretha Franklin meant, why she chose her,” Tommy continues.
“It’s not just about the voice. It’s about the essence they shared. There are things in their lives that they share. And so for me, the job was to just make sure that the pathway for Jennifer to get to that, to share that essence, to share that thing, that it was safe and she was supported. And we were clear about the story we were telling. That’s how you make an, a, create an environment for actors to flourish,” Tommy explains. “It’s a combination of trusting them and it’s a combination of guiding them.”
Respect opens August 13.