BEST PERFORMANCES

Jennifer Hudson Rocks Steady

For years Hudson has consistently delivered great performances. With Respect, she takes on her most personal project to date.

Interview by Lynn Hirschberg
Photography by Tim Walker
Styled by Sara Moonves

Jennifer Hudson wears a Dior gown; Bulgari earrings, necklace, and bracelet; Cornelia James gloves.
Jennifer Hudson wears a Dior gown; Bulgari earrings, necklace, and bracelet; Cornelia James gloves.

More than 15 years ago, a starstruck Jennifer Hudson had just wrapped up a season of singing competition series American Idol when she met Aretha Franklin, her idol. The inimitable star told Hudson, who would then go on to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Effie in Dreamgirls, that she was in the planning stages of a biopic, and she wanted Hudson to portray her. After receiving Franklin’s blessing, Hudson’s dream came true: She starred as the Queen of Soul in Respect, the 2021 film that focused on the legend’s rise to international superstardom. In order to channel the icon, she donned 83 costumes, 11 wigs, and let her powerhouse vocals do the talking. For W’s annual Best Performances issue, Hudson explains her process.

Where did you meet Aretha Franklin?

I first met Ms. Aretha Franklin in Merrillville, Indiana, when she allowed me to open up for her concert. You know what? Aretha said, “Don’t sing none of my songs.” [Laughs] When I got to open up for her concert, she allowed me to sing my own songs, but I got to watch her perform her songs.

How did she tell you she wanted you to play her in the film based on her life?

We had breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York City. That was our first sit-down meeting about me portraying her. And then, eight years after that, that’s when she called me and said, “I've made my decision, and it is you who I want to play me.” I was very excited in the moment that I learned that she wanted me to play her. But then, the next second, like, Oh my god. Like, it's Aretha Franklin. Where do you even start? So, it's exciting, but the scariest thing at the same time.

Jennifer Hudson wears a Fendi dress; Bulgari earrings, necklace, and bracelet.

What is your go-to karaoke song?

Get this: My American Idol audition song, my introduction to the world, was “Share Your Love With Me,” by Ms. Franklin. I feel as though Ms. Franklin’s songs have kind of always been there, but now I feel like I have permission to sing them because of her blessing. I feel like I get to help carry on her amazing legacy. Now, Aretha Franklin’s “Never Loved a Man” is my go-to karaoke song.

Were you nervous to play her in Respect?

It felt like holding my breath for 15 years until filming the movie. And then another year after the pandemic, waiting for the film to come out. [The nervousness] still sits with me because this is the most personal project to me, for obvious reasons. I know how dear she is to the entire world, being a fan. I still think about it and say, “Did I cross every T? Did I dot every I?” Because that’s a massive assignment to be given.

What part of Aretha’s life does the film cover?

We covered Aretha from birth to age 32.

What was the first job you ever auditioned for?

It was for Disney Cruise Lines. I worked on Disney Wonder Cruise Ship, Wonder Seven, where I was Calliope, the head muse in Hercules the musical. We are the muses, goddesses of the arts, and proclaimers of heroes. I did all the vocals and the soundtrack, pretty much, of Hercules the musical. And I was also in Disney Dreams, where I did the “Circle of Life” solo as Mother Earth. It was a dream. I felt as though it was a good training course to prepare me for the industry, so I used that as my test. I said, "If I can get through this contract and being on the ship and singing, then I can go audition for American Idol. But if I can’t, then I should go back home.” And I made it. So, here I am.

You came in seventh place on your season of American Idol. Were you upset that you didn’t come in first?

Of course you’re going to be disappointed in that moment when you're eliminated. But right after that, I said, “You know what? I'm walking away with my talent. As long as I have my talent and the desire to keep going, I’ll be okay.” I told Simon [Cowell], “I'll be back. I don't know when, I don't know how, I don't know where, but I'll be back.” Two years later I was back with Dreamgirls. It was, to me, the golden dream second chance.

In 2007, you won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for your performance as Effie in Dreamgirls. Where do you keep your trophy?

I have an award wall in my home, and I now say it’s dedicated to the Dreamgirls era of my life. The Oscar sits in the middle of the Emmy and the Grammy.

Is there a movie that makes you cry?

My Girl. I know that’s an old movie. I haven’t shown it to my son yet because he has a very sensitive heart. He’ll probably be like, “Oh Mommy, that made me sad.”

What’s the first album you ever bought?

I’ve always been a fan of old-school music. I want to say my first album was by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. I would go in the store and dig and dig and dig for the little ones that would be $1.99 at Walgreens, and find the old Motown records.

Do you remember the first time you ever sang onstage?

See, for me, the stage would’ve been church. I grew up singing in church, and I come from a singing background in my family. But I didn't start singing with my eyes open until I was 19 years old. Because in church you sing for God, and it's internal.

Hudson wears a Dior gown and shoes; Bulgari earrings, necklace, and bracelet; Falke tights; Cornelia James gloves.

Who was your celebrity crush growing up?

I love D’Angelo. I had a basketball crush, B.J. Armstrong. And I had a crush on Omar Epps too.

Where was your first kiss?

Probably in the hall of my mother’s house, or on the porch or something. I had a little neighborhood boyfriend as a kid. But I used to like to keep my boyfriends a secret. Don’t nobody need to know my business! That’s how it was growing up.

Have you ever spoken to your pets in a weird voice?

Yes. My dog is named Dreamgirl. And two of my cats are Macavity and Grizebella. And then I have another dog named MVP, but that's my granddog. It’s my son's dog. I’m the grandma.

Hair by Ali Pirzadeh for Dyson Hair at CLM; makeup by Daniel Sallstrom for Chanel at MA+ Group; manicure by Michelle Saunders for Nailtopia. Set Design by Gary Card at Streeters.

Produced by Wes Olson and Hannah Murphy at Connect the Dots; Production Manager: Zack Higginbottom at Connect the Dots; Photo Assistants: Antonio Perricone, Jeff Gros, Morgan Pierre; Digital Technician: Michael Preman; Lighting Technician: Keith Coleman; Key Grip: Scott Froschauer; Retouching: Graeme Bulcraig at Touch Digital; Senior Style Editor: Allia Alliata di Montereale; Senior Fashion Market Editor: Jenna Wojciechowski; Fashion Assistants: Julia McClatchy, Antonio Soto, Nycole Sariol, Sage McKee, Josephine Chumley, Rosa Schorr; Production Assistants: Tchad Cousins, Juan Diego Calvo, Gina York, Brandon Fried, Nico Robledo, Kein Milledge; Hair Assistants: Tommy Stanton, Sol Rodriquez, Andi Ojeda; Makeup Assistants: Tami Elsombati, Bridgett O’Donnell; Manicure Assistant: Pilar Lafargue; Set Coordinator: Sarah Hein; Set Assistants: Olivia Giles, Seth Powsner, King Owusu; Tailors: Suzi Bezik, Cardi Mooshool Alvaji; Tailor Assistant: Elma Click.