Jennifer Hudson talks playing Aretha as new 'Respect' trailer hits web

The Oscar winner said portraying the Queen of Soul in 'Respect,' opening Aug. 13, sent her back to music school.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Jennifer Hudson says playing Aretha Franklin took more than the simple flip of a switch. 

"Let me say, you ain't just gonna wake up one day and think you're gonna be Aretha. Do not be fooled, OK?" Hudson said Tuesday during an online chat with reporters tied to the release of the new trailer for "Respect," which debuts online today. (See below.) 

Hudson said playing Franklin meant reevaluating everything she knew about music, as well as learning to play piano. 

"Aretha sent me back to music school, which I am in Aretha Music School," the Oscar winner said. "I still get on the piano every day. And I feel as an actor, if I am going to portray someone who played, especially to the extent that she did? Oh Jennifer, you better get over here on this piano and figure out something."  

Hudson — who says while she's gotten better on the piano, "I will never be on Ms. Franklin's level, let me be clear" — and "Respect" director Liesl Tommy talked about bringing Franklin's life to the big screen and the importance of presenting not just the legend of the Queen of Soul, but the person behind the persona.

A new poster for "Respect" debuted on May 19. The film opens Aug. 13.

"I pitched the journey of becoming Aretha Franklin as we know her, and all of the parts of her life that were so powerful: her faith, her relationship with her family, her journey from a person who sang standards to a person who sang her own music, and finding that authentic voice," says Tommy, the theater director turned filmmaker who makes her feature film debut with "Respect." "I pitched that story and they loved it, and that's the story that I shaped."

Tommy said her experience as a Black woman was integral to telling Franklin's story.

"I felt strongly that we have been at the mercy of the white male gaze telling us who we are for a very long time," Tommy said. "(Franklin) always knew who she was, and she always loved Black people, and I felt that this movie was going to be about that as well. That it was going to be a movie that you could see all shapes, colors, dimensions and nuance of this Black woman. Not just somebody strong, somebody sassy, all the things that we've been told, 'that's the only part of us that's interesting.' She can be fragile, she can be scared, she can be unsure, and she can be strong, and she can be powerful, and she can be intimidating. She's a human being, a woman, who has so much to her, and that was the part that I was interested in: complexity."

After various delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, "Respect" will be released nationwide on Aug. 13, and Tommy spoke to her desire for audiences to experience it on in theaters. 

"I made the film to be seen on the big screen," Tommy said. "It shows our lavish locations we chose, our costumes are lush, and the sound, we labored over the design of that sound. It all has to live up to Ms. Franklin, she embodied excellence and taste, and so our movie has to live in that same place.

Marc Maron, Marlon Wayans and Jennifer Hudson in "Respect."

"And I think there's something glorious about her journey, and I don't know about y'all, but I need a little glory in my life right now after COVID," she said. "I want to share the highs and lows, I want to share joy, I want to share music with a community. We have been isolated, and the amazing thing about movies is you can be in community and have a shared experience that can transform you, that can be transcendent. That's what she did, she was transcendent, and I feel people will be healed by this film."

Hudson said she's already waiting to grab her popcorn and watch the movie on the big screen.

"It's Aretha Franklin, and we all love her," she said. "She's a world treasure, not a national treasure, a world treasure, and what better way to bring people back to the theaters than through the Queen of Soul?"