The story goes that the legendary singer Aretha Franklin thought long and hard about exactly which multitalented performer had both the musical chops and the acting depth to play her in “Respect,” a big-screen biopic chronicling her rise. But years after she was handpicked by Franklin herself and ultimately made the film, Jennifer Hudson can’t tell you exactly what the Queen of Soul saw in her.
“I’m so mad at myself for not asking her that question!” laughed Hudson when Variety posed the question on Sunday at the Los Angeles premiere of “Respect.”
Even so, Hudson has a theory. “But I feel like while we were filming, I think it goes beyond the singing and how Jennifer sings and acts. It’s within the scene when Aretha’s mother comes to her; it felt so true to my own life. And in the moment I was like, ‘I don’t think I would’ve been able to tell the story without my own life experience and triumphs,’ and I feel like she saw far more than what I saw. In that moment, I said, ‘This is what it was – this is why.’ It was things that I discovered throughout the film that at least I told myself, ‘This must be the reason.’”
As much of own soul as she put into her performance, Hudson said that once filming was complete she’d absorbed something of Franklin’s essence as well, the self-possessed sense of power and purpose that defined her.
“Oh my God, definitely,” said Hudson. “I feel like that was the takeaway for me: owning your voice. She was always big about that. And it wasn’t until she owned her voice that we got our Queen of Soul. So if we all took that moment to go within ourselves and own what we have, what king and queen lies under there?”
“Jennifer shared a lot about her friendship with Aretha Franklin and how they spoke every week and texted all the time, and that was very moving,” director Liesl Tommy said. “It was definitely something that we talked about a lot in the beginning and we were able to pull from in the process of making the film, because there was such love between them. And I felt that the movie had to have that same love.”
Franklin, said Tommy, infused everything she did with a simple creed: “To that thine own self be true. She never pretended about who she was, what she believed in, what she cared about. She fought for herself and for Black people her whole life. And it didn’t matter what level of celebrity she was. She identified what she cared about and that was the center of her world. And I think that all of us could take a lesson from it.”
In the film, Marlon Wayans portrays Franklin’s early manager, songwriter and first husband Ted White, who purportedly had a volatile, abusive relationship with the singer; for him, the challenge was honoring all of the elements that made up the relationship, not only the unsavory ones.
“I hope Ted White sees the movie and is pleased by the way we handled his character, because we could have painted him as a monster,” explained Wayans. “When you fall in love, people don’t see you fall in love, so it’s so easy for them to go, ‘You should leave that person.’ No, no, no, no, you need to see them fall in love and see why they’re there and see them trying to rescue each other from their damage. And then she gets big and his insecurities and his jealousy steps in and there goes the little boy attacking his woman because he just can’t handle it. So I think you just give them layers and approach it with a delicate touch.”
For Marc Maron, who’s both a musician and has a long on-air history in radio, playing Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler was a terrific excuse to dive deep into a rabbit hole of music industry history.
“I read the autobiography and I have the records on vinyl, so I was really able to immerse myself and learn a bunch of new stuff about him,” said Maron. “I’m not that deep an actor – but I’m trying – but to have that as source material to put into my memory bank, I think it really helped. And it was exciting learning about his relationship with Aretha, but also his relationship with the music business and his part in it.”