movies

"I spoke to Jennifer Hudson about her movie Respect, she gave me a six-word mantra to live by."

Not everyone who is famous has the elusive It Factor.

That statement might come across as a grizzly, judgmental jab from someone sitting behind a computer screen, but I say it with both realism and relief.

Imagine if every person who graced the big screen, appeared on a TV show, amassed a loyal legion of fans, penned great books, or sang popular songs was also at all times dazzling, articulate, and just completely other worldly.

Sounds a little exhausting.

It's also difficult to explain exactly how someone has the It Factor, it's not like there's a test you can sit or a password you can ask for.

All I can say is that I recently interviewed Jennifer Hudson, and whatever that It Factor test is, she passed it with flying colours. 

My Zoom interview with Jennifer was scheduled for the early hours of a Saturday morning, taking place after I had dragged furniture and equipment around my apartment to create a haphazard studio, because Sydney was in lockdown and going into the office wasn't an option. 

Our interview also landed in that period of time when it had become clear that lockdown wasn't going to be short and sharp. There was a long bleak road ahead of us and it was hard to be excited about anything on the horizon.

Yet when Jennifer and I said our goodbyes I felt elated, just by hearing her talk about her work and life with such passion and pizzaz. 

Such is the power of the It Factor.

Take a look at the trailer for Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin. Post continues below.

Her new movie Respect chronicles the life and career of the legendary Aretha Franklin, also known as the Queen of Soul.

In the newly released film, the 39-year-old actress and musician stars as Aretha, portraying the award-winning musician from her early days as an aspiring singer who had suffered many great losses, through to her glory days as a musical powerhouse.

The movie takes the audience through Aretha’s childhood years singing in gospel choirs for her preacher father (Forest Whitaker), after the death of her beloved mother (Audra McDonald) through to her extensive civil rights activism work, and into her struggle to become a soul singer under the eye of her abusive husband and manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans).

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin in Respect. Source: Universal Pictures.  Jennifer Hudson first appeared on the world's radar when she competed on American Idol in 2004, but was eliminated in the top seven, in what is now widely regarded to be one of the most shocking exits in the show's history. 

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In 2007 she became the youngest African-American to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, for her screen debut in Dreamgirls.

It was after her historic Oscar win that Jennifer was summoned to breakfast at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel by Aretha Franklin herself, but it wasn't so the Queen of Soul could offer up her own congratulations.

Instead, it was because Aretha had handpicked Jennifer Hudson to play her in the movie about her life, with the legendary singer saying that no one else had the voice, the presence or the spirit to bring her story to life on screen quite like her.

In other words, the It Factor.

Aretha Franklin sadly passed away at the age of 76 in 2018, but up until her death she and Jennifer Hudson maintained a close bond, sharing stories and advice as they worked together on a film that sadly Aretha would not live to see released.

When I asked Jennifer the one piece of advice she received from Aretha that she will always remember, the actress said there was one lesson that immediately sprung to mind. 

“Her most memorable piece of advice was always to maintain my faith, she was a spiritual woman,” Jennifer said when remembering her time with Aretha. “She was very much a woman of faith and so am I. That is what has gotten me through life and through this whole process, which was not easy. 

"And that's what got her through her life," she continued. "So I use that as an example, always."

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“I remember Audra McDonald saying to me at that moment in the film where Aretha sees her mother, 'wow, this is a very heavy life to tell’. 

"I was really drained at that moment and all I could think to myself was that I wouldn't have been able to emote with such honesty and be so in-depth without drawing on my own life and experiences." 

When speaking about her own life experiences, Jennifer is referring to a life that has included extreme tragedy.

In 2008, Jennifer Hudson's mother, brother and nephew were shot and killed by her sister Julia’s estranged husband - who is currently serving three life sentences for the crimes. Jennifer sat through the trial and the sentencing and later, she set up the Julian D King Gift Foundation, an educational charity, in her nephew’s honour.

Now Jennifer, who is a mother to her 11-year-old son, David and who has an Oscar, a Bafta, a Golden Globe, and two Grammys to her name, says that being charged with continuing the legacy of her idol Aretha Franklin was a difficult task, and one she did not take on lightly. 

“It’s a lot of layers to Miss Franklin.” Jennifer Hudson on playing Aretha Franklin in Respect. Source: Universal Pictures.  "I had to work with a movement coach, a dialect coach, and an acting coach," she said of the time it took to prepare for the role. "It’s a lot of layers to Miss Franklin, you know. 

"As far as embodying her, her mannerisms, and how she engaged and interacted with people, that all stemmed from figuring out what it was like to be a woman in that era. It’s extremely different from the era I came up in and it causes you to move differently. 

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"For myself, I take up all the space in the room.

“I say whatever I choose to say or whatever I'm thinking, "she continued. "Whereas women, during a time like that, taking up space wasn't really allowed for them, you know. They were not given that space because they were oppressed. So that caused Aretha to move differently and sometimes not be able to speak up. 

"She could sometimes only express herself through small gestures, you know, so it affected how she existed in the room."

Then she repeated those six words again, six words every woman should hold in her mind for the moments when we feel small, unworthy, or unheard. 

Take up space in the room. 

"So one of the assignments was to figure out, how does she exist in the room? "Jennifer continued. "How does she take up space? How does she lead in that type of an environment?

"I always think of the Aretha Franklin song Walk in the Light, with the lyrics ‘walk in the light, beautiful light'. Even to this day I sing it to myself, always. That’s what we need to remember.”

If you are not in a locked-down area of Australia, Respect is playing in cinemas now. It will be available on-demand in the coming months.

Feature image: Getty/Universal Pictures 

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