Respect: Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin

Jennifer Hudson on Why She Thinks Aretha Franklin Chose Her to Star in Biopic ‘Respect’

Jennifer Hudson arrives at the premiere
Michael Buckner for PMC

The legendary singer Aretha Franklin thought long about exactly which performer had both the musical chops and the acting depth to play her in Respect a biopic about her rise.

But years after she was handpicked by Franklin herself and made the film, Jennifer Hudson can’t tell what the Queen of Soul saw in her.

“I’m so mad at myself for not asking her that question!” said Hudson on Sunday at the Los Angeles premiere of Respect.

But Hudson has a theory. “I think it goes beyond the singing and how she sings and acts. It’s within the scene when Aretha’s mother comes to her; it felt so true to my own life. And in the moment I was like, ‘I don’t think I would’ve been able to tell the story without my own life experience and triumphs,’ and I feel like she saw far more than what I saw. In that moment, I said, ‘This is what it was – this is why.’ It was things that I discovered throughout the film that at least I told myself, ‘This must be the reason.’”

As much of own soul as she put into her performance, Hudson said that once filming was complete she’d absorbed something of Franklin’s essence as well, the self-possessed sense of power and purpose that defined her.

“Oh my God, definitely,” said Hudson. “I feel like that was the takeaway for me: owning your voice. She was always big about that. And it wasn’t until she owned her voice that we got our Queen of Soul. So if we all took that moment to go within ourselves and own what we have, what king and queen lies under there?”

“Jennifer shared a lot about her friendship with Aretha Franklin and how they spoke every week and texted, and that was very moving,” director Liesl Tommy said.

“It was definitely something that we talked about a lot in the beginning and we were able to pull from in the process of making the film, because there was such love between them. And I felt that the movie had to have that same love.”

Franklin infused everything she did with a simple creed: “To that thine own self be true. She never pretended about who she was, what she believed in, what she cared about. She fought for herself and for Black people her whole life. And it didn’t matter what level of celebrity she was. She identified what she cared about and that was the center of her world. And I think that all of us could take a lesson from it.”

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Director Liesl Tommy and Jennifer Hudson at the premiere of MGM’s Respect at the Regency Westwood Village in Los Angeles on Aug. 8, 2021. Michael Buckner for PMC

In the film, Marlon Wayans portrays Franklin’s early manager, songwriter and first husband Ted White, who purportedly had a volatile, abusive relationship with the singer.

For Wayans, the challenge was honoring all of the elements that made up the relationship, not only the unsavory ones.

“I hope Ted White sees the movie and is pleased by the way we handled his character, because we could have painted him as a monster,” explained Wayans. “When you fall in love, people don’t see you fall in love, so it’s so easy for them to go, ‘You should leave that person.’ No, no, no, no, you need to see them fall in love and see why they’re there and see them trying to rescue each other from their damage. And then she gets big and his insecurities and his jealousy steps in and there goes the little boy attacking his woman because he just can’t handle it. So I think you just give them layers and approach it with a delicate touch.”

 

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Marlon Wayans at the premiere of MGM’s Respect at the Regency Westwood Village in Los Angeles on Aug. 8, 2021 Michael Buckner for PMC

Marc Maron as Jerry Wexler

For Marc Maron, who’s both a musician and has a long history in radio, playing Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler was a terrific excuse to dive deep into a rabbit hole of music industry history.

“I read the autobiography and I have the records on vinyl, so I was really able to immerse myself and learn a bunch of new stuff about him,” said Maron. “I’m not that deep an actor – but I’m trying – but to have that as source material to put into my memory bank, I think it really helped. And it was exciting learning about his relationship with Aretha, but also his relationship with the music business and his part in it.”