"She would sing and sing and sing and sing on those days. It was astounding," Respect director Liesl Tommy says of Jennifer Hudson

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Liesl Tommy, director of the new Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, can recall the moment when she knew she had the perfect Queen of Soul in Jennifer Hudson. It was the first time the Oscar winner sang live in character in front of the film's crew.

"There were grown, hardened grips crying," Tommy recalls of Hudson's tear-jerking rendition of a Franklin classic. "I think that's part of why people worked so hard [on the film]. They understood how much she was giving, how hard Jennifer was working. She would sing and sing and sing and sing on those days. It was astounding."

Respect follows Franklin's rise from child gospel singer to global R&B and pop superstar, with Hudson, 39, channeling the spirit of the icon, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2018 at age 76.

Hudson tells PEOPLE she steered clear of mere "imitation" in embodying the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer.

jennifer hudson
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin with director Liesl Tommy
| Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert

"Even when I do a tribute, I like the people [I'm honoring] to be able to see themselves how we see them," she explains. "They never really get to see themselves. So it's like, 'How can I help you get to see how we see you?'"

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Tommy, a Tony-nominated stage director who makes her feature film debut with Respect, describes the moment when Hudson nailed Franklin's physical presence on-set: "We were doing a rehearsal, and she just dropped into a physical movement. We had been watching Aretha videos, and we were all like, 'Oh my God, that's it. That's it! That's Aretha right there.'"

Hudson, who turns 40 on Sept. 12, one month after the film's Aug. 13 debut, is already generating Oscar buzz for her performance. Potential accolades aside, the mother of one says she already feels "grateful and blessed," adding, "I'm the happiest I've ever been."

For more on Respect and Hudson, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE.

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