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'Respect' Star Jennifer Hudson On The 'Surreal' Experience Of Playing Aretha Franklin

Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in "Respect." (Quantrell D. Colbert)
Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in "Respect." (Quantrell D. Colbert)

Before her death, legendary singer Aretha Franklin hand-picked Jennifer Hudson to portray the “Queen of Soul” in a biopic.

The starring role in “Respect” is one the American Idol finalist doesn’t take lightly. Hudson auditioned for the show with Franklin’s “Share Your Love with Me” back in 2006.

Hudson says playing Franklin — her idol — on screen is a dream come true.

“The magnitude of it is so huge. I have to take it in doses,” Hudson says. “Like even when we started to film, I was like, ‘Is this really happening now?’ ”

Hudson also served as the executive producer for “Respect.” She says she appreciates the opportunity to take on such a personal project.

The film marks one more iconic role for Hudson. She made her film debut when she starred as Effie White in the 2006 film “Dreamgirls” and subsequently won an Oscar for her groundbreaking performance.

Reviewers are singing Hudson’s praises once again in the role of Franklin, as the soul legend moves from obedient daughter and wife singing jazz standards to Black Panther-supporting music visionary who shaped a singular sound in popular music.

Franklin worked for almost two decades to try to bring her story to the screen. People know Franklin’s legacy and the film gives audiences a new opportunity to honor her, Hudson says.

“That’s the most beautiful part about this, to see her legacy being celebrated,” Hudson says, “because she gave us so much in her life.”

Watch on YouTube.

Interview Highlights

On Aretha Franklin’s struggles to define who she wanted to be

“I’ve taken that as a lesson from the film, like you want to take ownership of your own journey and destiny and your voice as well. And that’s what this has inspired me to want to do even more.”

On how Franklin created her own legacy

“That’s the thing, there’s no artist designed like her. It’s beneath her to call her an artist. She was a composer. She was music. So I think that’s the beauty in the film as well, when people get to see her musicianship, her artistry, her as a vocalist and her as the beautiful human being that she was?”

On what Aretha Franklin means to Hudson as a singer

“Wow, I mean, she’s like the ultimate everything when it comes to music. And now we know through the film, she’s also that much more impactful in her life. But for me, like I grew up in a church singing and it’s every church girl, every church singer’s dream to want to be like Aretha Franklin and then a singer at that. And so when I was going for my American Idol audition and I’m like, well, I’m going to sing in a talent show honey, I need to have the best soul. And who better to go through than Aretha Franklin, [and] pick her song for my audition.”

On Franklin’s tumultuous life, including her parents’ divorce, her mother’s death, and Franklin giving birth at the age of 12.

“To see the triumphs that she endured in her life and then to see her prevail and still overcome them, it can’t help but to be inspiring. And I think that’s the power of the film. Everyone always tend to think that when it comes to legends and icons, that it’s simple and easy for them. But under that is a life and a story. And while we were filming, I said, ‘I know we all have a respect for Miss Aretha Franklin, but by the time you get done with the film, I would love for people to have a newfound respect for her.’ ”

On the tragedy Hudson experienced in her own life and the tragedy depicted in the film

“Well, we all have tragedies and triumphs in our lives … They can differ. But the thing is, everyone has a life and everyone has things to get through. And I look at her story and mine as well as a testimony.”

On what’s next for Hudson

“You know what I always say, only God can say that and decide. He brought me this far. So we will have to see. And I’m just grateful to be able to be here today. And for her to entrust me with this.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Jeannette Muhammad adapted this interview for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.