Jennifer Hudson on the pressures of playing Aretha Franklin on screen – and why she deeply misses the legendary singer

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Film still from Respect, in which Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin (PA Photo/© 2020 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
Film still from Respect, in which Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin (PA Photo/© 2020 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

There was only one person who Aretha Franklin wanted to portray her in a feature film of the singer’s life.

Before her death in August 2018, the Queen of Soul was in touch with Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson who she handpicked for the leading role in what went on to become biographical drama Respect.

“I miss hearing from her,” notes Chicago-born Hudson, 39, who won the best supporting actress Oscar for musical Dreamgirls at the 2006 Academy Awards. “Aretha had a presence like no other. It was always so regal and royal. A very mellow and strong presence, but very quiet, in a way.

“And so, I pulled from that, even while developing the character. And she’s funny as well. She was always so present. She would tell me what was going on in my life, and I’d be like, ‘How you know that?!’”

The poignant new film, directed by Liesl Tommy, follows Franklin’s rise from a child singing in her father’s church choir in Detroit to becoming an international music icon.

Known for hits such as Respect, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman, and I Say A Little Prayer, her voice is arguably one of the most culturally significant of all time, with her songs becoming anthems of the civil rights movement, representing the resistance and resilience of black people. She continued to be an activist throughout her life, using her platform to advocate for social justice, equality, and women’s rights.

Franklin has already been a huge part of Hudson’s career so far. She performed her song Share Your Love With Me in her audition for American Idol – she was a finalist on the talent show in 2004 – and went on to secure a spot opening a show of hers in Indiana.

When it came to vocal training for the role in Respect, Hudson had a helping hand from Welsh crooner Sir Tom Jones who she previously starred alongside as a judge on the ITV singing contest The Voice UK.

KK9X3J The American blues and soul singer Aretha Franklin during recordings for a TV show in a Cologne studio, pictured on 13th May 1968. | usage worldwide
KK9X3J The American blues and soul singer Aretha Franklin during recordings for a TV show in a Cologne studio, pictured on 13th May 1968. | usage worldwide

“We studied her instrument and my instrument, and we discovered that our instruments are built differently, but they can lend to the same things,” recalls Hudson.

“Her approach, like the place she sings from, she sings from the top of her head, he was saying. I said, ‘Where do I sing from?’ He was like, ‘Well, you sing from your feet’. I’d never thought about it, how I sing.”

The star used various elements of Franklin’s technique “that is so familiar to us all, when we listen to her records, to help tell the story and to create my Aretha”.

And while it was “a singer’s dream” to be selected for the project, she certainly felt a huge amount of pressure while filming.

“It’s like, ‘Oh wow, Jesus, what am I supposed to do with this?’ How do you approach something so huge, of the magnitude that it is? And being a fan, I’m aware of that, which is what made it an even more personal project to me.”

Undated film still handout from Respect. Pictured: Actor Jennifer Hudson and director Liesl Tommy on the set of Respect. See PA Feature SHOWBIZ Film Hudson. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/© 2020 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature SHOWBIZ Film Hudson.
Undated film still handout from Respect. Pictured: Actor Jennifer Hudson and director Liesl Tommy on the set of Respect. See PA Feature SHOWBIZ Film Hudson. Picture credit should read: PA Photo/© 2020 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature SHOWBIZ Film Hudson.

With so much story to tell about Franklin – who was married twice, and had four children – what was the overarching thing South African-American Tommy wanted to communicate through Respect?

“Because we think of her as such a powerful classic diva, I was interested in showing how she became that way,” muses the filmmaker, who’s primarily known for her stage work.

“And when I found out that she had almost a crippling shyness as a child, I was like, ‘How do we get from that to what we understand about her now?’ So that was what was the driving force of me focusing it on her childhood and her 20s.”

Even though Tommy knew Franklin was happy with the casting, there were many other creative choices that had to be made with the singer no longer with us. And the director admits she was always thinking about whether Franklin would approve of the film, especially where it dips into some of the darker aspects of her life.

She was certainly an extremely reserved woman when it came to her private life, so there were definitely times when I thought, 'Oh God, would she kill me? Would she literally scratch my eyes out if she saw what I was putting in this film?

Liesl Tommy on Aretha Franklin

“I never met her, I never spoke with her about it, I really took a lot of initiative,” she notes.

“I pitched my idea of this film to the studio, and they brought me on to execute that vision. And I felt that, in order to understand her, we had to dip into some of the darker parts of her life, her childhood.

“She was certainly an extremely reserved woman when it came to her private life, so there were definitely times when I thought, ‘Oh God, would she kill me? Would she literally scratch my eyes out if she saw what I was putting in this film?’

“But at the same time, I felt that there were so many of her songs where she had that ache. In addition to the great joy and triumph of some of her songs, there was also this beautiful, vulnerable ache, and I felt like part of my job was just to show all aspects of how she manifested her life in her music, in the film.”

Franklin suffered a lot of trauma as a young woman; by the age of just 14, she had given birth to two children. Respect explores her relationship with her first husband Ted White, who also worked as her manager, and was controlling, and includes distressing scenes of domestic violence. But while wanting to be truthful to Franklin’s lived experience, Tommy was careful about what was depicted.

“I definitely feel like as a woman, as a woman filmmaker, the female gaze was very present for me because I am tired of seeing women being brutalised on screen, on television, and in film. We’ve seen it so many times.

“So, for me, less important was the punch than the emotional fallout of the abuse. And so, every single step of the way, I was thinking, ‘How can I tell the story of these darker things without brutalising and dehumanising our lead, as well as brutalising the audience?’

“I feel like we’ve all seen too much, and I just wanted to stay focused on her emotional journey and not make it about somebody being beaten to a pulp. That’s just not what I wanted for the film. Those images will live forever, and it was important to me, in that way, to protect us and her.”

She continues thoughtfully: “I do hope that we can have more conversations about what we’re doing to women’s bodies, and also to black people’s bodies. The violence that we can carelessly and casually show is really something worth examining.”

Respect is in cinemas from Friday, September 10

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