As expected, Jennifer Hudson used her acceptance speech at Tuesday’s ELLE Women in Hollywood event to pay homage to Aretha Franklin—but not before reflecting on what the Queen of Soul taught her about the shifting roles of women in America. The actress plays Franklin in the new biopic Respect, which covers the late singer’s childhood trauma (including the untimely death of her mother), the abuse she suffered at the hands of her first husband and manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans), and, above all, the triumph of her musical career, which included one of the most memorable repertoires of all time.
Hudson, who wore a sleek all-white Ralph Lauren suit to the event, said the most challenging part of playing Franklin was not matching the artist’s voice but embodying her physically. “As I came in tonight, I couldn’t help but to look around the room at all the women, to see how well we take up space today,” she said. “And I related that to playing Miss Franklin because, doing the research, I was studying the era she grew up in, where women didn’t have the capacity, the opportunity, the chance to speak their minds or take up space. And one of the main things I had to keep in mind was the minimal space women were allowed to have. I remember thinking, ‘How am I supposed to play this role when I am very outspoken? When I walk into a room, you’re gonna hear me. I’m gonna say what I’m gonna say.’”
She continued, “Because women back during that time, that era, couldn’t even say what they thought or how they felt. But to look at us today, to see each and every one of us hold our space? We’re on the right track. The thing that got me through filming was Miss Franklin’s encouragement, and her faith that she had in women, and that’s what we’re supposed to do for each other as women—encourage each other. And that’s not an easy task to take on.”
Before Hudson took the stage, actress Debbie Allen said of her friend: “She is somebody who embodies what it means to be a support system, a friend, a confidante…Jen is someone who is paving the way for other young women who come after her.”
In her ELLE cover story, Hudson called it her “dream to play [Aretha Franklin].”
“I sit and think about it, like, What artist is built like that?” Hudson told ELLE. “She was music. She was anointed, and her life was anointed.”
Hudson’s costar Marlon Wayans told ELLE he was struck by her dedication to the role. “She did take after take after take, singing live. The woman never even asked for lemon and hot water or salt water to gargle with. She was a machine,” he said. “I’m just so happy that I got to watch that type of greatness. A queen played a queen. It’s a beautiful thing to see.”
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