The Oscar-winner and powerhouse singer opens up about the role of a lifetime, portraying her idol in the highly anticipated upcoming biopic

By Janine Rubenstein
July 01, 2020 04:35 PM
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Not many actors can say they were hand-picked by an icon to portray them in film. Jennifer Hudson is one such actor. The Oscar-winner and gifted singer, 38, is set to light up the big screen as late music legend Aretha Franklin in the upcoming biopic Respect, due out in December. Filming the role, she says, is a dream come true.

"Back in April 2003, I got to open up for her in Merrillville, Indiana, where she held a concert. That was before Dreamgirls, before I ever dreamed of playing her one day," Hudson, 38, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "I've gotten to pay tribute to her many times since then, but every time is like the first time."

"Jennifer may be one of the most talented people I've ever worked with," director Liesl Tommy says of Jennifer Hudson (pictured)
Quantrell D. Colbert
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin
Quantrell D. Colbert
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin
Quantrell D. Colbert
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin
Quantrell D. Colbert

Hudson did just that during this past weekend's 20th BET Awards ceremony, for which she performed Franklin's rendition of Nina Simone's protest song "Young, Gifted and Black," before debuting the trailer for Respect. During the performance, she also showed off a new skill she picked up while prepping for her latest role.

"I started piano lessons," she says of just one of the ways she got into character. "Aretha got me back in music school. It's still a process, but the film has made me more passionate about learning an instrument and expressing myself musically."

Jennifer Hudson performs at the BET Awards
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Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin
Quantrell D. Colbert
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin
Quantrell D. Colbert
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin
Quantrell D. Colbert

The hard work paid off, says the film's director Liesl Tommy. "Jennifer may be one of the most talented people I've ever worked with," she says. Adds the filmmaker, "we were both so humbled by the task that we just agreed that there would be no ego in the process and that Aretha would be the diva in the room at all times, not us."

Now, months after filming, the experience still sticks with Hudson. "I still feel like she's in me, I really do," she says of Franklin. "I just hope to meet her requests. You think you respect Aretha, but once you see the film and you learn her story, you can't help but to have a newfound respect for her."