Several years before production on her biopic began in 2019, Aretha Franklin handpicked Jennifer Hudson to portray her. “I know who it’s going to be,” Franklin teased multiple times beginning in the late aughts without revealing Hudson’s name. “It will be obvious once I say who it is.”
Hudson certainly looked every bit the part in January 2020 on the Respect set in Dekalb, Ga. Decked out in a gold-beaded Swarovski crystal gown, she delivered an electrifying live rendition of “Chain of Fools” in a depiction from Franklin’s 1968 European tour — one of the film’s several intricately recreated performance sequences. Navigating the white flowers tossed at her by the crowd, as the real Franklin did in Amsterdam, it’s easy to see and hear why the Queen of Soul personally crowned Hudson.
When Respect opens Aug. 13 in theaters, audiences will get to see and hear the transformation for themselves. Directed by Liesl Tommy with a script by Tracey Scott Wilson, the biopic covers Franklin’s life from 1952-1972 — culminating in the recording of the Grammy Award-winning Amazing Grace album. The film covers a wide swath during its nearly two and a half hours, from Franklin’s turbulent personal life to her political activism and, most important, her journey to becoming the Queen of Soul.
At the center of it all is Hudson, a Grammy Award-winning singer who also won the Academy Award for best supporting actress in 2006’s Dreamgirls. “Jennifer is a disciplined, rigorous artist … and she knew [Franklin],” says Tommy. “I can’t even imagine the pressure that she was feeling. But the proof is on-screen.”
It’s a performance that certainly deserves, well, respect. During a recent promotional visit to Franklin’s hometown of Detroit — where she visited the artist’s childhood home and sang in the local New Bethel Baptist Church — Hudson sat down to share the rigors of living up to the Queen’s standards.
You were Franklin’s handpicked choice. When did she first tell you?
It was about eight years after our initial meeting. We had several conversations about it, but she made it official in 2016. She called me while I was on Broadway doing The Color Purple — and [Tommy] just so happened to be right next door doing the play Eclipsed. She said, “I’ve made my decision and it’s you I want to play me. Do not tell a soul.” I said, “Yes ma’am,” and the next day she told the press. But she did not give my name away. That’s when she made it official. [Note: Hudson’s name was formally announced in 2018 prior to Franklin’s death.]
How did you prepare to become the Queen of Soul?
A lot of my influence came from being a fan first of all. And then it came from being able to know her and get a sense of who she was as a person; being around her through conversations and watching how she existed in life — even her influence in my life as well. Obviously, it’s one thing to look at her as a fan or as a singer. But when it’s now “you have to portray the singer,” it’s a completely different perspective. Putting it all together helped me to channel her — or at least try.
By knowing her, what did you learn that you were able to bring to the screen?
Her presence, first and foremost. If you were around her, it was like, “What do you do? How do you be? How do you exist? How does she feel about me?” It wasn’t a bad feeling, but you knew you were in the presence of royalty. I used to tell the cast members, “If I don’t make you feel like that, if I don’t make you feel uncomfortable, then I’m not doing my job.” I wanted to create that presence.
Before she died, did Franklin give you any marching orders or explicit direction?
No, but she would tell me, “OK now, I’m the Queen of Soul,” and I’d say, “Yes, ma’am. I know my place. You just point me in the right direction.” But other than that, other than saying “I want you to play me,” not really.
What did she mean by her “Queen of Soul” comment?
That it’s her legacy. I think it was important to her that who she was giving [her life to] understood and respected that. And I do. It’s her legacy and her sound, which is why it was also important not to imitate what she did but to pay homage to it. Her story is her story. Her voice is her voice. And to me that’s the premise of the story. It wasn’t until she owned and found her treasure, her voice within her, that we got our Queen of Soul. So if you go within yourself and look, what is your treasure? That helped me to own my voice and who I am that much more. I hope it’ll do the same for everyone else that sees [the film].
By immersing yourself in the character, did you find more of her within yourself?
There were a lot of times while filming where I was like, “Wow, she really knew what she was talking about!” She was speaking from experience and saw things in me that may have been similar that I didn’t even realize were there until we were filming. Coming off of being someone who’s had a lot of life trials myself, I think she knew I could relate in that way. In those moments I was like, “This goes beyond Jennifer the singer and actress,” even in the church scenes. That’s home to me as well, so they couldn’t help but be genuine, authentic and treasured. I understood it.
What other input did you receive?
Patti LaBelle was someone I called to help me understand what was it like being a Black woman during that time. What it was like being a celebrity, artist and a mother. All of these things played into it. I wanted to discover how women existed during that time as opposed to how we exist today. I wanted to live in the moment as she did. I’m an artist of this time that’s paid tribute to her heavily. But how, as an actor, can I do it differently and be who she was in her time?
Was there a moment when you started to feel like you were really nailing it?
The walk! We did a screen test, and that was the first thing I got to do, the walk. I remember [costume designer] Clint Ramos busting out laughing at how well I was doing it. I was like, “Oh my God, please stop …” But that was so important because it was such a huge part of her, her walk. And for people to react that way I was like, “Oh my God, this is about to be amazing!”
What was it like co-writing “Here I Am (Singing My Way Home)” for the film’s end credits and channeling Franklin into an original piece of music?
First, working with Carole King. What better way to put the cherry on top than to have Carole King write this original song. And it helped because I know her as well. So talking with her about her experiences with [Franklin] as well as mine and the texture of the film is how it all started out. Then her allowing me to put my little two cents in was amazing. It was about connecting a lot of those dots. I couldn’t imagine a better way to pay tribute to Ms. Franklin.