Jennifer Hudson plays the Queen of Soul in the upcoming Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, opening in theaters on August 13.
The American Idol season 3 alum spoke with CBS Sunday Morning about the challenge of taking on such a formidable role, especially after Aretha herself handpicked the singer for the part.
When Sunday Morning contributor Kelefa Sanneh asked Jennifer, “Why do you think that song, ‘Respect,’ has become such a touchstone?”
“Think about what it represents,” she replied. “You mean to tell me a Black woman in the civil rights era was bold enough to come and take a man’s song, make it her own song, make it an anthem, and it’s a representation of people and of that time? That’s powerful.”
She said, “That is the song, out of all the songs, that stunted me, that made me stop, say, ‘Wait a minute…'”
“You’re gonna win an Oscar for playing me, right?”
When Jennifer got nervous about playing the role, she’d hear Aretha’s voice in her head, “Jennifer, now you go do,” Jennifer said, “And it’s like, okay. Well, I got my marching orders.”
When Aretha first talked to Jennifer about taking on the role she said, “You’re gonna win an Oscar for playing me, right?” Jennifer “didn’t know what to say.” But it was when Jennifer performed in The Color Purple that Aretha gave Jennifer the call and said, “Young lady, I’ve made my decision. It is you who I want to play me, and don’t say nothing.” Jennifer responded “Yes, ma’am, I won’t.'”
Jennifer’s first visit to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals
During the piece, Sannah and Jennifer visited Fame Recording Studios, in Muscle Shoals, in Northern Alabama. Countless great singers recorded there: Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Etta James.
“You can feel, like, the magic I feel like that’s taken place,” Hudson said, visiting the legendary studio for the very first time.
It was in that room, and at the piano in that room, that Aretha recorded her breakthrough song, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”
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Jennifer studied her subject, putting herself through what she describes as “Aretha School.” She even learned how to play the piano.
Jennifer looking back on her American Idol experience: “That blows my mind!”
When asked about competing on American Idol in 2004, and leaving the competition in 7th place Jennifer remarked, “That blows my mind! Like, now when I look at those auditions, it’s like, ‘Woah, what is this?’ Like, well, keep singing those songs, Jennifer!”
Aretha suffered family tragedies. Her mother died when she was young, and her father was later killed by burglars. In 2008, Jennifer’s mother, brother and nephew were murdered by her sister’s estranged husband. The singer told Sunday morning that she used her own grief to help tell Aretha’s story.
Jennifer says she couldn’t have told Aretha’s story without her own tragic life experiences
“I was like, is this my life? Is this her life? But I know it’s my real emotion that’s telling this story. There’s no way I would have been able to deliver this or tell this in such a honest, vulnerable way to those depths without my own life experiences.”
Before Aretha died in 2018 at the age of 76, the two spoke weekly. “It was always her saying, like, ‘Make sure you own your voice and be who you are’,” said Jennifer. And at her Aretha’s funeral, Jennifer sang “Amazing Grace.”
“I can only try to continue to do everything from the heart,” said Jennifer. “And that’s another thing that’s helped me, sustained me through it all is, like, do it out of love. Do it out of respect. Do it out of appreciation. And I tribute her my whole career, you know? So it’s like, let the tribute continue.”
Watch Jennifer Hudson’s interview with CBS Sunday Morning below.