Academy Award-Winner Jennifer Hudson
by Tony Phillips
“I was the controversy girl,” Jennifer Hudson laughs, “I was eliminated. Well I was part of season three, I made it to seventh place, but Simon told me I was out of my league. Forget the runner-ups, he said, you’ll never see them again, things like that. But here I am, so…”
Here she is indeed, in what is hands-down the debut of the year, perhaps even this century. And if this billowing vision in the long green empire dress with black stockings is telling you anything this year, it’s that she’s not going. You can feel it in that spine-tingling moment when the credit “And introducing Jennifer Hudson…” rolls in the new movie musical Dreamgirls and everyone of her above the marquee co-stars echoes the feeling. They all talk about the self-assurance and gusto with which Hudson when after the part of 60s girl group rebel Effie White and nailed it.
“You know what's crazy?” her Oscar-winning co-star Jamie Foxx asks, “she knew! She knew the whole time. She faked us all out. I knew she was ready for this, because the first time she did her first line, she did not stumble and she looked me right in the face. And I said, ‘Uh oh! She is getting ready to rip this place apart.’”
“I don’t think I’d ever have gotten this part if I took it all the way on American Idol,” Hudson supposes, “but I wouldn’t change a thing. I’d rather be a Dreamgirl any day.” The point is, and she’s far to gracious to say it, you don’t see Fantasia — the Idol contestant who won the year Hudson was booted-in the breakout role of the year. And though it’s easy in hindsight to look back and say that flunking out of Idol was possibly the best thing for her career, things weren’t always that certain.
Coming off her Idol journey, Hudson found herself, if not exactly down and out, then at least singing for her supper aboard the Disney cruise lines. ”I would narrate the show Hercules The Musical,” she says, giggling through peach-glossed lips, “I did all the vocals.” Prior to that, her only acting experience was in the show Big River that she performed at high school in her native Chicago. “But in school,” Hudson adds, “they always just had me do the solos in the plays. I didn’t get a chance to act.”
“When I told people I was doing this movie,” her Grammy-winning co-star Beyonce Knowles says, “they were like, ‘Wow, that's incredible, but who's playing Effie?’ She had so much pressure, never ever doing an album, never doing a movie before in her life. And she had to sing ‘And I'm Telling You…’ and live up to the standing ovation that Jennifer Holliday got every single night. She has to live up to that song and the part where she sings, ‘And you, and you, and you…’, I could not imagine that. It's incredible that she did what she did and she was amazing. It's my favorite part in the movie. It gives me chills.”
And those chills during Hudson’s big number have been bumping audiences right out of their chairs. Filmgoers are not just applauding her star turn, but jumping out of their seats to do so. Though she’s only seen the film twice with an audience, the scene has been having the opposite effect on Hudson. “I curl up in my chair like this,” she explains, assuming the fetal position, “I’m about to roll up and die. Before it comes on I’m like I’m not ready for it! The first time I just wanted to stand up and say, ‘No, no I’m not ready for you to see this scene yet!’ So I get really nervous when that scene comes up.”
Perhaps it’s because Hudson was under-rehearsed. Oscar-winner Bill Condon, Dreamgirls’ out director, banned the 783 girls he saw for the role of Effie from singing the big show-stopper during auditions. So Hudson’s strategy? A number from Hair — “Easy To Be Hard” — that she belted in the same style. “They wanted me to sing a song that would tell the story,” Hudson remembers, “that could be portrayed to draw people in as a storytelling thing.”
What Condon remembers about that audition he calls, “That something extra which you need on film. There’s something original to her: this great vulnerability. I thought she brought all the stuff that Effie needs that we're used to seeing: the incredible power of her voice, the dominant personality and, of course, that amazing physicality and beauty, but underneath all that bravado there's insecurity too. That's an important element that maybe hadn't been brought before to that character.”
And perhaps that where we gays come in. I mean, what is it about a black 60s girl group that speaks to so profoundly to our identity? Well, of course, there’s the synchronized hand movements, but beyond that, Hudson just gives the question a broad, open, loving shrug. “I don’t know,” she says, “but I’m on it!” Her director steps in to help her out. “This show gets to the heart of something,” Bill Condon, who can remember seeing The Supremes at age eight, muses, “when you are in some way an outsider to society and you're breaking through those barriers, how much of your own identity do you sacrifice or soften, in your presentation in the world? I think that's something in this show that speaks to gays specifically.”
Hudson then brightens to remind us that she’ll be speaking to gays specifically when the ball drops this year. “Goodness,” she gushes over headlining One Night Only, The Saint at Large New Year’s Eve party at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom, “I always take it one step at a time, but that’s one big date on my calendar. I have to get through this first and then I’ll think about what’s next. All I know is I perform here on the 30th, but I’m not even sure of the full details of it all. I do suppose I’ll be singing my big number, but I also think I’ll be beating my gay friends off with a stick. I mean, I’m not sure how many tickets they think they’re going to have for me,” she laughs, “but I’m going to need lots.”
Seeing as DJ Junior Vasquez will be spinning that evening, we can’t help but wonder how far under the big gay wing Hudson is likely to nuzzle? I can remember the last time Junior adopted what Billy Porter calls a “black Broadway bitch” and it didn’t go strictly as planned. Tony-winner Heather Headley decided to bump up the gay appeal for her Grammy-nominated debut by submitting to the maestro’s remix treatment, but when the time came for Heather to step out onto Junior’s stage at Twilo and perform, she found the Sunday AM call conflicted with her church-going.
Hudson does not anticipate such a clash, though she also comes from a religious background and learned to sing in the church choir. “I don’t see the conflict between the two,” Hudson explains, “if I have to work on Sunday, I say, ‘Lord I gotta go to work today.’ Church is my favorite place to sing and be, but I don’t have perfect attendance.”
Another upcoming highlight on her calendar is, of course, February 25, otherwise known as Oscar night. Although the nominations are more than a month away, early forecasters, like The National Board of Review, have already named her one of their breakout performers of the year. The buzz, even pre-release of the film, is deafening. And while most performers can be superstitious and don’t like to talk about it until it happens, Hudson manages to get off her soon-to-be-trademarked signature phrase when she’s asked point blank about a date with Oscar.
“Goodness!” she exclaims, “there’s so much excitement going on. I think that is such a great honor and I can’t believe I’m hearing this, you know? All I wanted was the part, so I’ll have to cross that bridge when I get to it.” And superstition? Well, that’s not for Hudson either. “I’m just a person of faith,” she explains, “if it’s meant for me then I guess it will happen, but I try not to think about it or worry about it too much.” And the already-brewing controversy over whether her name will come up in the supporting or lead category? Hudson takes the larger view. “I’m content with whatever,” she laughs, “I’m just in awe to even be considered, so hey.”
But that and other manufactured controversies around this film are something Hudson watches with a cocked brow. First off, there’s the Simon baiting. And she’s willing to engage it a bit. When asked if she’s getting Mr. Cowell tickets to the films premiere, she responds simply, “No, I’m not.” When pressed, she explains, “I already gave my tickets away, but I’m sure he’s already seen it. It seems like everybody in Hollywood has seen it by now. But no, Simon is not on my guest list.”
And then there’s the perceived rivalry between Hudson and Knowles. Perhaps it’s a carryover from their adversarial relationship in the film, but it seems like the assembled press corps would like nothing more than to see these two tumble into the lily pond ala Dynasty’s Alexis and Crystal. And, of course, the movie doesn’t skimp on catfights. “That was a lot of fun to shoot,” Hudson says of her on-screen dust up with Knowles, “there was a lot of, ‘I’m sorry, but we have to be mean to each other now.’”
But why does this rivalry spill over onto Page Six? “I just think that people automatically do that anyway,” Hudson explains, “anytime something good is going on they’ll find some way to throw something in there. I don’t understand why it always has to be that way, you know? It’s an ensemble cast and we all had a great part in it. Whatever happens, it’s a part of our work as a whole.”
But Hudson’s not content to leave it there. “It was my dream to do this movie because Beyonce and Jamie are two of my favorite artists,” she says, “to be able to work with them and be a part of such a great cast was an honor, really, and it was a learning experience, a chance to be able learn from the best.” Asking what she learned in particular elicits another signature, “Goodness,” but then she continues, “just watching how they build their characters, things like that.”
When pressed for an example, she answers, “They would give me advice. Beyonce always told me make sure you take your time and evaluate things before you make a decision and Jamie would always tell me give 100 percent, never half do anything. And just to watch them work and figure out, Jamie’s an Oscar winner, why? Let me try and figure that out and learn from him in a steady, intimate way.”
So we know there’s some gown shopping in her future, but what’s next career-wise for our self-described controversy girl? “Clive Davis!” she yells, “I just signed my record deal with Arista records. Because it’s very fresh still, we have not even had that creative meeting to decide what kind of material is going to be on the record. I want to balance both movies and music and continue to do them both. That’s a little snippet of what I’d like to do.”
But in the end, Hudson would like to leave us with a little bit of Effie White. “I think my inexperience with American Idol mirrors Effie’s career in music. My journey on Idol, being eliminated, going against the odds, seeking my dreams: that’s Dreamgirls. That’s Effie’s story. You know, she was one of The Dreams and then she was kicked out of the group, but she still goes for it.”