It’s been seventeen years since 21-year-old Jennifer Hudson stood in front of the American Idol judges and belted out Aretha Franklin’s “Share Your Love With Me” for her audition on the highly-rated televised talent show. The Chicago native shook the rafters with her rendition and Randy Jackson declared her “the best singer I’ve heard so far,” that day. While she eventually placed seventh in the singing competition, American Idol launched Hudson into a career that now includes a Gold sales plaque and a Grammy for her 2008 self-titled debut album, an Academy Award for her starring role (opposite Beyoncé Knowles), in 2006’s Dreamgirls and numerous other entertainment accolades.
After several years of planning and release date changes, Hudson will now star as Aretha Franklin in the MGM biopic, RESPECT. Handpicked by the late Queen of Soul herself, Hudson steps into the shoes of the Detroit superstar capturing her rise to stardom, but also her battles with alcoholism and abuse. RESPECT, directed by Liesl Tommy (in her feature film debut) also boasts a stellar cast of Mary J. Blige, Forest Whitaker, Tituss Burgess, and Marlon Wayans as Franklin’s first husband, Ted White.
VIBE spoke with Hudson and Wayans about paying tribute to an icon, finding their on-screen chemistry, and coming full circle with her American Idol beginnings.
VIBE: Jennifer, your American Idol audition song was Aretha Franklin’s “Share Your Love With Me.” So, how does it feel to come full circle with this film?
Jennifer Hudson: It blows my mind. It just makes me realize how much of a blueprint Aretha has always been in my life. When I look back to that…when I think back to the audition I was like, “What song could I sing that I know would blow people away?” Who else but Aretha Franklin. Not only that, but my American Idol tour song was “Since You’ve Been Gone (Baby, Baby, Sweet Baby)” by Aretha Franklin, and when I got to record it for the film it was like “Oh my God.” It was like it was already there in a way. I don’t know what to call that, but it helped me be prepared when it was time to film because I already knew a majority of the songs before we started filming.
Marlon Wayans: Call[ed] Destiny.
If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.
JH: That’s right. I’ll take that.
Jennifer, in a 2016 Billboard article, Clive Davis was quoted saying, “I signed Jennifer in 2007 believing her to be the strongest candidate as the next generation’s Aretha Franklin and Whitney. She has become that.” How did it make you feel to be compared to Aretha? Was it more empowering or intimidating?
JH: Both. And they still are. Can you send me that article? Because I would love to have it. [laughs] Those two ladies, if it were not for them, I would not even exist. They have inspired me so much. So I do not take that lightly. And then coming from Clive, who is a huge part of this as well, it makes it exciting, but scary at the same time, because I know whose shoulders I stand on. And I respect it that much. Aretha and Whitney and the legacy they both laid down…my only wish…each and every morning I wake up “Aretha, am I doing ok? Are you proud?” This is a personal project for me. It’s different. Everything I’m passionate about in what I do…but this hits different. Like way different. I’m like Aretha about to take me out, but only because I respect it so much.
MW: I see why Clive said that. This woman is brilliant. She’s a living legend.
For both of you, what’s the first Aretha Franklin you remember hearing?
MW: What’s the one from Sparkle? You make me feel like? “Natural Woman?”
JH: No, no, no. “Giving Him Something He Can Feel.”
MW: That one. That’s the one. I remember “Respect” because as a kid my mama would play “Respect.” But when I got older, my sisters would be playing the Sparkle soundtrack. That was my introduction to her.
JH: For me? This is a trick question. I would say “Dr. Feel Good” and although I didn’t realize it, “Amazing Grace.” Doing research for the film I realized the “Amazing Grace” we grew up singing in church, that’s Aretha Franklin’s.
MW: I think I heard “Dr. Feel Good,” but I never wanted to think of my father as being Dr. Feel Good to my mom. So, it never really registered with me.
Speaking of your father and older gentlemen, your friend and mentor, Glynn Turman, was married to Aretha Franklin from 1978 to 1984…
MW: Yes, he was. Don’t think I didn’t call him, too. He was like, “I don’t know nothin’ about that man, Ted White. Me and Aretha, we had love, man. I didn’t really talk to him.” He started talking about them and I was like, “I ain’t call about YOU, fool. You ain’t in the movie. I’m talkin’ about Ted!”
Jennifer, you had 82 costume changes. How did it feel to wear all of those “Gowns, beautiful gowns.”?
JH: (Laughs) Beautiful gowns! It was amazing because it made me feel that much more like Aretha and helped me understand her better, to get into character. Clint Ramos outdid himself with each and every costume. Hair and Makeup as well. Yes.
MW: You should see her closet. 82 gowns is nothin’! She got like 849,000 gowns. Four bedrooms in her house is a closet.
“One time we were doing a scene and Forest Whitaker said ‘This isn’t working,’ and he turned it up and pulled out a gun! And this wasn’t in the script!” – Marlon Wayans
RESPECT has an amazing cast and you both share the screen with the amazing Forrest Whitaker, who plays Aretha’s father. What was it like working with him?
MW: Forrest was the master guru on the set. He does his homework, [when] you look at his sides, there’s all kinds of stuff written on ‘em. Different kind of writing. I think I saw some Arabic and Chinese on there. He writes his intentions down and he’s such a professional and you don’t know what he’s gonna do. One time we were doing a scene and he said, “This isn’t working,” and he turned it up and pulled out a gun! And this wasn’t in the script! And we got a natural reaction. There was something missing in the scene and he pulled that gun out and all the energy came. I don’t care if it’s fake, if it’s a gun, you gonna go, “Yo, Yo!”
When he said, “I told you not to touch me and mine!”
MW: That scene! There were things he would do when he would talk to me in a certain way that made me crumble. He’d purposely be trying to tear your ego down. So we had this little cat and mouse that we were playing with each other on set. But that’s what I loved about our relationship and Jennifer being in the middle, I feel like that’s a triangle offense.
How did you two prepare for your scenes together?
MW: We didn’t do a lot of rehearsal rehearsal. I would rehearse on my own, but after work, we’d work with the acting coach, the voice coach, and the movement coach, and we’d make sure we prepared before we got on set the next day. So by the time we got on set we had run a couple of rehearsals and we just kinda did it. But she and I have a natural trust and chemistry.
JH: (Sings) “Chemistry…”
MW: As soon as you feel that comfort and you feel safe and you feel like I can fall and they’ll catch me…
JH: It’s teamwork.
MW: And it came from trust. The hardest part was doing scenes where we had to argue. I was like, “I don’t wanna say these things.”
That was my next question. The scene with “Freedom” where you were on stage singing and Ted was in the back of the auditorium just stewing. What do you remember about filming that?
MW: That scene was emotional for me, but I really had to focus because she was giving such an amazing performance up there. Half the time it was hard to stay in scenes because this girl is special. It’s hard for me to stay in the moment because I want to get up and cheer. And that scene was hard, but the hardest was in the hotel lobby when I had to put hands on her. And this one is so crazy, she said, “You need to choke me more. I don’t feel that. You gotta make me resist, Marlon!”
JH: Yes, I don’t act, I react. So, give me something to react to. Even going back to the “Think” scene, the breakup moment, trust those feelings. Whatever I’m feeling in that moment is what I need to feel and I need to put it in that character. Ted is over here, Aretha is over there, and they’re no longer together, ok. But Jennifer and Marlon, we have a rapport, too. So, whatever that feeling was that I was feeling, put it in the character.
MW: I could hear it in the song and the way you were performing it, it had a definition. It was speaking to Ted and it felt like her grabbing her power back from him.
To that point. It took Laurence Fishburne a few years to recover from playing Ike Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It. Marlon, are you prepared for what’s gonna come potentially when people see you in the street after seeing you play Ted?
MW: I’ve been famous for thirty years so it’d be nice to have a change. It’d be better than people coming up to me saying, “Man, you a fool! You stupid as hell!” Maybe now they’ll see me and run away and I’ll get a little privacy. I’m prepared to be embraced hopefully for more dramatic work. I’m finally at this point in my life where I’m growing up and it feels good. You gotta prepare for thirty years to be ready to be a leading man. I feel like finally, I got shoulders, my chest is coming in. My beard is a little scraggly, but I can grow facial hair. I’m ready.
RESPECT is only in theaters August 13.