Jennifer Hudson went to some dark places to score the Oscar for her debut performance in “Dreamgirls,” but none darker than the ones she plunges into in the gritty indie “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete,” out today in select theaters. In George Tillman Jr.’s drama, Hudson plays Gloria, a heroin-using single mother, who prostitutes to get by. When she gets taken away by authorities, her son Mister (Skylan Brooks) and his friend Pete (Ethan Dizon), who also comes from a damaged home, go into hiding. Hudson called up Indiewire to discuss the challenging role, and why she still feels insecure about acting despite having won an Oscar.
As Gloria, you go to some pretty incredibly dark places with the character. Was any part of you was scared to take on the role?
All of me was afraid to take on the role. I literally was terrified all the way to the start of filming and through it because it is the complete opposite of myself, but I really wanted to take a chance and I felt that it was necessary for the character.
What made you take that chance?
Just the depth obviously in the role. You hear of people like this or you may see them, but I don’t think we have ever really seen them portrayed on screen, so I thought it was something, I don’t want to say fresh, but something that we don’t see.
Did you surprise yourself in playing Gloria?
I really did because you always have this reserve in the back of your head like, Okay, am I really going to go through with this? Am I really going to go there? I had those things in my head and I was impressed and proud of myself that I did.
The screenwriter, Michael Starrbury, really didn’t go out of his way to make Gloria a sympathetic character. How did you empathize with her?
There’s not much to sympathize with. She still clearly loves her son. Although her struggle with the drug addiction would always win, you can tell somewhere in there she was a good person. Somewhere in her, she wants to do right. At least she knows she’s wrong. Like the scene where he’s telling her to get a job — to me you can see in her that she’s felt the feeling I’m wrong for this. But it is what it is. And it is a good sign when you can acknowledge or somewhere you can tell in someone that they know it’s not necessarily right.
Did you just solely rely on the script to form Gloria, or did you meet with any addicts to get a surer sense of the character?
Without having someone I don’t think I would be able to do it. I went to a rehabilitation center in preparation for the role and sat and listened to different stories of different ex-addicts. There was one in particular that I gravitated to and I was like, I want to be able to tell her story through Gloria. And she shadowed me throughout the whole process of filming it and walked me through everything. I got to sit and listen to her story over and over again from how she was introduced to drugs to her addiction and what it did to her life. How it ruined her relationship with her daughter. Things like that. It was so helpful to know how it really was because I didn’t have much to pull from.
Do you know if she has seen the film?
Oh she’s seen it. I took her with me a week or so ago in New York to the screening of the film. I was like you should see what you did and what you helped create. So she was able to see it.
What was that like to share that experience with her?
It was emotional. You would never guess a journey like that would lead her to a place like this. So it’s good to see positivity still come from something that wasn’t so positive to her and her life, but through it all you still made it through and look at what you achieved or helped create. It was emotional.
Skylan, who plays your son in the film, is remarkable. You’re not the best of mothers to him. Was it tough to act so harshly opposite such young performer?
It was a conflict of interest at times. He’s a kid, but like the scene where I had to smack him, I’d go, “Wait a minute, this is someone’s child!” Or with certain lines in the script, I’d go, “This is a kid. I shouldn’t be saying this or he shouldn’t be saying that.” Things like that. That kind of made it a little weird at times, but both of them are so amazing and they carry the entire film. I would be like, “Are you guys tired yet?” They’re in every single scene. They were on the set. They set the tone and we followed their lead.
Do you still feel like you’re finding your feet as an actress, or did your Oscar win make you 100 percent confident in your abilities as an actress?
I’m still finding that. I grew up singing and never thought of acting before and so when “Dreamgirls” came along it was like, I’m going to have a career in acting and singing. With my singing I’m really comfortable with it and it’s second nature to me. It’s like breathing. I don’t really second guess myself, think about it, it’s, Oh I got it. But with film I’m at the stage where I’m like, Okay, I don’t know, I’m unsure. But I feel as though by exposing myself and trying new things; I’m getting more comfortable where I feel, I’m trusting my instincts now and not second guessing myself and I feel that comes with the experience eventually. Now when I walk on to the set to anything I’m like, Hold on, I know I won an Oscar on my first film but I’m here to learn and I don’t know everything. I let everyone know right off the bat. Even in this film I’m learning from the boys. I’m learning from everyone because I want to learn as much as I can.