When Aretha Franklin anointed Jennifer Hudson to star in the story of her extraordinary life, Respect, the actress says she felt equal parts joy and fear.

“Even though it was a dream come true, you don’t just wake up one morning and decide, ‘I’m gonna be Aretha Franklin’,” Hudson tells STACK, explaining the complex process in which she re-trained her voice to emulate Franklin’s powerful vocal style.

Indeed, this was no overnight process; the American Idol star first met the Queen of Soul 17 years ago, even before her Oscar-winning performance in 2006’s Dreamgirls.

If Franklin was notorious for not allowing any female artists to open for her on tour, Hudson could not have been more surprised when she received an invitation to open for Franklin in Merrillville, Indiana.

“It was right after I’d been eliminated from American Idol too, and she allowed me to sing in her show. I also got to meet her and watch her perform. And then, two years later, we had our initial meeting about me playing her . So the rest is history. It’s like I’ve been holding my breath for 15 years just waiting for this moment. I’ve done numerous tributes to her throughout my career but, to me, this is the biggest tribute yet,”  says Hudson, 40, who was in constant consultation with Franklin even up until the week before the icon’s death, aged 76, on August 16, 2018.

Directed by Liesl Tommy, Respect landed at the US box office just five months after Cynthia Erivo’s Emmy-winning portrayal of Franklin in TV biopic Genius, although that version was blasted by Franklin’s family, who claimed various inaccuracies.

In Hudson’s portrayal she delivers an intimate interpretation of the singer; a vulnerable and confused young woman, searching for a hit and trying to escape the domineering forces of both her father and the other men in her life.

Despite her close relationship with the R & B legend, Hudson discovered much about Franklin in the process. “Firstly, I didn’t know that she was an activist to that extent,” says the triple-threat actress/singer/best-selling author. “I did not know she had eight albums before Never Loved a Man, when she became the Queen of Soul. Because with artists like that, you assume they always had it made, and it just happened for them. So it was inspiring to see her journey; to see her find her voice; to see her pursue her dreams.”

Portraying Franklin as a demure diva-in-training who would take years to finally speak up for herself, Respect features a strong supporting cast with Forest Whitaker as Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin; Audra McDonald as her sister Barbara; Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington; and Marlon Wayans as Ted White, Franklin’s first husband and former manager.

In some scenes, it’s hard to watch Hudson’s Franklin be dominated by the men in her life – emotionally, intellectually and physically – bringing to mind other R & B legends Tina Turner and Whitney Houston.

Hudson is diplomatic. “You see, that’s the thing: that’s the part of the power that I got from her, to know that, ‘Wow, Aretha dealt with the same struggles, but if she can overcome it, so can I.’ It’s something that is in many of us, as well, no matter what you do. It’s just a part of it, for some reason. But I feel like it’s a gift, and it’s given me all that strength to know that my power is within me.

“And when you look at it, they all needed her; she didn’t need them,” she continues. “But not that many people are going to voice that. And to be able to feel and find her power through all of those distractions – of people trying to make it look like she needed them, when in reality it was the opposite… So, again, I feel like that was the gift for me that I discovered and walked away with from this film.”

While Hudson makes the process looks effortless, it was far from it.

“It was definitely something that required a lot out of me,” she says. “I had to be present physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually – in every way. And I sang live, so to add that element along with emotion and then allow myself to portray someone else, but still kind of channeling my own emotions at times, it was like different entities all at the same time. The most challenging parts were when it was a very emotional scene, and [I needed] to sing and act in that while portraying someone else,” says the actress, who portrays Franklin over a 13-year period which culminates in her celebrated recording of Amazing Grace at a Los Angeles Baptist church in 1972.

“While I was filming, I always said: I know we always have respect for Aretha, but by the time we get to the end of this film, I want people to have a new respect for her, which I also have now – even more so.”

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