Jennifer Hudson was fresh off her Oscar win for “Dreamgirls” when she was summoned to meet Aretha Franklin in 2007. The two singers had technically met before, when Hudson, freshly cut from American Idol, opened for Franklin at a show in Indiana. But this time was different: The Queen of Soul told Hudson that she wanted her to play her in a film.
It wasn’t a total surprise: Hudson had been briefed going in. And her admiration for Franklin was not a secret: Not only did she audition for Idol with Franklin’s “Share Your Love with Me,” she also said in interviews that she dreamed about playing her. That meeting was just the beginning of what would be an almost 15-year journey to get “Respect” to the big screen. The film opens nationwide Friday.
A definitive Aretha Franklin-sanctioned biopic has been a long time coming, and Hudson’s wasn’t the only name floated over the decades. Halle Berry’s name came up, as did Audra McDonald’s. It would take another eight years for Hudson to even get a solid offer and, still, there was no script or director.
“Even when we started to film, I was like, wait, this is like really, really happening?” Hudson laughed in a recent interview.
The long gestation period ended up helping, though.
“I would not have been ready then,” Hudson said. “ I don’t know if I would’ve had the courage to do it or not and lived enough to be able to relate to the story, to tell it. I think I needed to live and have my life experiences to be able to do it.”
That included having a child of her own, honing her acting skills on Broadway and in more films, and surviving the horrific loss of her mother, brother and nephew, who were murdered. She also got to develop an actual relationship with Franklin, whom she spoke to almost weekly up until her death in August of 2018.
“Aretha is a very introverted person and her presence is always so royal,” Hudson said. “It took me a long time to simmer down.” Their last conversation, Hudson recalled, was an “I hope you’re ready kind of moment” gearing up for the film. Franklin’s death was heartbreaking for Hudson, who performed at her funeral. But everyone involved in the project seemed to emerge from the loss with a renewed sense of purpose.