Who would you want to play you in a movie? For most of us, it’s a fun icebreaker, a way to dream about what our life would look like through the lens of beautiful celebrities, interested in getting all our quirks and nuances just right. But for the late Queen of Soul herself Aretha Franklin, it was a real consideration. Franklin knew Hollywood would want to tell her remarkable life story, and she also knew how often these kinds of movies can go wrong. So before her passing in 2018, she took it upon herself to cast the starring role.
She selected Jennifer Hudson, and the result is this year’s Respect, which follows Franklin’s journey from singing before her father’s sermons when she was just a child to her long struggle to break into the recording industry to her eventual icon status with hits like “I Say a Little Prayer,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and, of course, “Respect.”
Hudson is no stranger to fame, but being handpicked by Franklin to star in her biopic is a lofty honor for even a seasoned pro. She talked about the experience with rapper and producer Derek Minor, sharing what it felt like to get the job from the Queen of Soul herself, why maintaining Franklin’s faith was so key to the movie and how Respect’s depictions of church really just ended up being actual church services.
Derek: Do you remember where you were when you first heard that Aretha wanted you to play her?
Jennifer: Well, let’s see. When we first had our first meeting about it, I was in New York and we met at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. When she finally made her decision that she wanted me to play her, it was during my Color Purple run. I was in New York yet again when she gave me that call said, “It is you, young lady, who I want to play me.”
Oh, my goodness. What was that feeling? How did that feel?
I’m still feeling it, OK? That’s a lot to take in. It’s the Queen of Soul and someone that I’ve always looked up to. To meet her alone is a freak-you-out moment and then for her to say she wanted me to play her, it was also my dream too. When you add all of that up, it’s like I have to take it in parts, even still now.
Now you said that was your dream. What was one of the first experiences you remember with Aretha or with her music just growing up?
I don’t remember a time without her music, but “Dr. Feelgood” comes to mind. I remember hearing people talk about the subject nature of the song and how bold it was coming from a woman and stuff like that, but I was a small, small kid at that time.
She had always been present in my church roots, unconsciously so, which I didn’t realize until filming. Like, “Wait a minute, the rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ we grew up singing in church was from her Amazing Grace album.”
Speaking of that, so what was the most surprising thing that you learned about Aretha during this whole time?
I didn’t know she had eight albums before her big hit, “Never Loved a Man.” I didn’t know about her activism and how close she was to Dr. King.
Looking at the timeline of that and really going back in time and putting all that together, it was really cool.
All right. As you got a chance to go through her life and to study what her journey looked like, was there anything that you personally thought, I have to get this right? If I don’t get anything else right, we have to make sure that we get this right.
Her faith. That was key from start to finish. Keeping the gospel in every song. It didn’t matter what genre she went into, the gospel was always the base of it all. The blueprint.
I walked out of the movie with my wife saying I felt like I was watching actual, real people. Can you talk more about the research behind that? Was that a conscious decision or is that just the way that her life was?
A bit of both. I mean, all of that. The goal was to try to experience it as she did in her life. Like, the church scenes. You can’t script that. You roll the camera, and let’s just have church.
I’m a church girl. In those scenes, it didn’t feel like a film. It didn’t feel like a set, it felt like church. So we kept it authentic in that way. It was live. Everything was live. Those were real musicians on the set. It’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to sing these songs right here. We’re going to experience this.’ And the reactions were real. We were really just in the moment. Maybe that’s what you sensed.
Absolutely. It really came through.
So you feel like being raised in the church helped you a lot as you were making this movie?
Oh my god, yes. Without it, ain’t no way in the world I would have been able to do this. That’s what carried me through it. It brought me all the way through it because it’s not an easy thing to do or to want to do either. It was needed, because that was a huge part of her life, and it’s just as real to me. All the time, every time we was in a church scene, I’m like, “you can’t script church. Let’s just have church and you just roll your camera and you catch it.” You know what I mean? We have to be in the moment and that’s church. You can’t duplicate that. You can’t fake it. You will only know that if you come from the church.
What was the most rewarding part of telling Aretha’s story in this way?
The fact that she entrusted me to do it and to try to approach it in the most careful, and honest and conscious way. I feel as though I used my own pain and triumphs in life and story to tell hers.
What do you hope people walk away with at the end of this movie?
While filming, I would always say, “I know we all have a respect for Miss Aretha Franklin, but by the time you get to the end of the film, I want you to have a newfound respect for her.”