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Influencers: Jennifer Hudson & the 'Respect'
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Jennifer Hudson & the ‘Respect’ Crafts Team

Influencers: The story of how Hudson collaborated with the "Respect" artisans to capture the essence of Aretha Franklin, and avoid the pitfalls of trying to impersonate an icon.

Influencers: Jennifer Hudson & the 'Respect'

It would be daunting for any actor to portray their idol on the big screen, but when that hero is an iconic performer like Aretha Franklin, the task can feel near impossible.

“How do you approach something like this, when you have a universally loved and known figure like [the] Queen of Soul? Am I supposed to try and sing like her?,” recalled Jennifer Hudson of her initial concerns preparing for director Liesl Tommy’s Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect.” Although the end result was a critically acclaimed performance — complete with Oscar buzz and music tracks embraced by Franklin’s most devoted fans — Hudson’s doubts were not only understandable, they were justified.

Franklin herself had hand-picked Hudson after seeing her breakout performance in “Dreamgirls,” a role that propelled the then-relative newcomer to claim the spotlight from the film’s parade of well-established stars, including Beyoncé, and win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Yet her talents on display in the 2006 film were hardly a facsimile of Franklin’s own. Hudson’s voice, demeanor, stage presence, even her body type, were different.

She knew instinctively that her performance could not be an Aretha Franklin imitation. “Who can sing like her? There’s only one Ms. Franklin,” Hudson said.

Hudson’s journey to finding her way into the role is a filmmaking story of calibration and collaboration. Surrounded by a team of talented artisans hand-picked by Tommy — including costume designer Clint Ramos, makeup department head Stephanie ‘Stevie’ Martin, hair department head Lawrence Davis, and executive music producer Stephen Bray — Hudson’s process focused on recreating the essence of Franklin by embracing her own experiences and studying her own God-given skill set as a performer.

Respect: Jennifer Hudson, exec music producer Jason Michael Webb, director Liesl Tommy

Jennifer Hudson, exec music producer Jason Michael Webb, director Liesl Tommy

MGM

“It was all about having Jennifer match the emotion of Aretha,” said Bray. “It can’t be an imitation. It can’t be an impression.” Davis agrees: “In [Aretha’s] everyday life, I wanted Jennifer to be comfortable: being visible as Aretha, but yet still Jennifer at the same time. It was definitely a total collaboration for the two of us.” Based on the notes she received from Tommy, Martin was on the same wavelength. “[Liesl] didn’t want it to look like we were trying to make Jennifer look exactly like Aretha Franklin,” she explained. “And so it was important to have her embody [Aretha] instead of [create a] duplication.”

For the “Respect” team research and getting the details right were simply a starting point. So many of their countless creative choices, both big and small, were not only filtered through the lens of Hudson’s performance, but made in collaboration with the actress over untold hours spent collectively trying to figure out how best to bridge the Aretha-Jennifer divide.

“Questioning yourself in moments like this comes along with the territory,” said Hudson. “But having the support [of] Stevie Martin and taking in her perspective, and then Clint Ramos, the acting coach, the dialect coach [helped me],” she continues. “Everyone brought their A-game. Each time they put me in a wig or a costume, it taught me that much more about [Aretha], helped me to embody her.”

"Respect"

“Respect”

MGM

An illustrative example of this was the costumes Ramos created for early scenes of Franklin breaking into the music industry. Through her research with the “Respect” team, Hudson learned how women, even a larger-than-life presence like Franklin, weren’t allowed to take up as much space in a room back in the early ’60s, as they were expected to sit demurely and only speak when spoken to. But this intellectual understanding was not something Hudson was able to fold into her performance until her fittings with Ramos.

“How they cut their gowns was very tailored and structured. And [women] were [only] able to take small steps as they entered the room. [The dresses] didn’t allow you to move in freely,” Hudson said. Ramos distinctly remembers the Columbia Records scene and the garment he created for it as an example to this visible restrictiveness. In it, Aretha is seen in a pink shantung dress with beading and embroidery, while her father presents her to the white record producers as “a Black Judy Garland” of sorts.

To emphasize Aretha’s discomfort even further, Ramos decided to overdo the boning on the dress to limit Hudson’s movements. “It is almost like an Elizabethan corset. [And] she eventually had to negotiate how to take up space. [When] you see the actor actually using that, you feel like not only are you doing your job as a designer, you’re actually doing your job as a storyteller,” he said.

Hudson concurs, “I could feel [the restrictiveness] in the material. So for [Clint] to consider those things is necessary, because as an actor, I need to feel it. I need to believe it. And when you’re put in costumes like that, you can’t help but make it that much more real.”

Watch how Jennifer Hudson and Clint Ramos used costumes to shape performance and visually tell the story of Aretha Franklin in the video below.

Naturally, Hudson’s singing and dialect had to be calibrated just like her outfits — not to impersonate Aretha, but to channel her holistically. The two had distinctly dissimilar techniques that Bray and Jason Michael Webb (the film’s other executive music producer) had to be mindful of throughout the production. So the team, including Hudson’s dialect coach Thom Jones, were constantly fine-tuning the blend of Aretha vs. Jennifer in her speech and singing. “Jason was our riff police,” Bray said. “He was there to say, ‘That’s not how Aretha sang.’”

Indeed, Franklin and Hudson’s bodily instruments were built differently even though they had the same vocal range. Franklin approached singing from the top of her head, aiming for the roof of her mouth for a falsetto sound, whereas Hudson sings from her chest. “And apparently it comes from my feet,” Hudson noted. “[Aretha’s] voice is a little lighter, so it flows more, whereas mine is heavier and has more width. Fortunately I’m a fan and I know her music really well. So the best I [could] do is learn the songs inside and out as if I’m going to sit in them the way she does. Which is why I made a point that the first thing I started with was piano lessons. If I’m going to play the queen, I [needed to] learn that aspect of her.”

Propelling Hudson’s authenticity was a decision Broadway alum Tommy made: all songs were sung live on set, a method that Hudson strongly preferred. “Having a background in theater and the music world, I know how powerful the performance is when it’s sung live,” said Tommy. “The actor immediately connects with their core self when they’re using their vocal cords and diaphragm to make an emotional sound. It’s a full-body experience. And if you’re making a story about Aretha Franklin, who was the quintessential full-body singing experience, you can’t skip that step.”

Watch how Jennifer Hudson and the “Respect” music team bridged the differences in the two singers’ vocal instruments in the video below.

Once Franklin found her voice, both literally and figuratively, her records transformed the music landscape. It was during this period of the mid-to-late ’60s that she developed a swagger and sense of style that stems from knowing you are the best, and a confidence in her performances that comes from being recognized as such. There were handful of distinct costume moments that were crucial towards shepherding Hudson’s physicality of this era.

One occurred in a birthday scene for Aretha, where she was dressed in an enormous fur coat and gold gown. “And I was like, ‘Who puts this on for their birthday?’ And then I thought, ‘Oh, the Queen! The Queen of Soul would wear this,'” Hudson said. “And then I couldn’t help but feel like the Queen of Soul. It taught me how she felt about herself, and the signal she sent out by her wardrobe.”

Another breakthrough costume was the glimmering Amsterdam gown (worn during Franklin’s first European tour) with head-to-toe beading — a Ramos favorite that made it onto the poster. “Once Clint brought in the costuming, it affect[ed] [my] walk,” Hudson said. “When [Aretha] walks into the venue, she has this tight, very minimal walk. The dress is catching her feet; it’s heavy. But it feels very regal and royal at the same time. It helped me understand and move in the way she did. It’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t help but to move that same way.’ [Clint] nailed that because it gave me that same presence.”

To Ramos, it was all about finding a happy medium between Franklin and Hudson, who is much taller than Franklin. Unable to work with vintage sizing, Ramos had to reimagine and believably recalibrate Aretha’s looks on Hudson, researching the era extensively and landing on around 80 custom looks.

"Respect"

“Respect”

MGM

Elsewhere, Hudson’s makeover wasn’t always about glitz and glamor. The process required her to be openly vulnerable at times and lean even closer into her artisan collaborators’ judgment. A key scene in which Franklin struggles with alcoholism and has visions of her mother required exactly this kind of mutual trust. Ramos brought in a vintage slip for one of her most “startlingly beautiful acting moments,” according to Ramos. “The costume there is super simple. It was about how we [could] show Jennifer as Aretha in her rawest, most vulnerable state. That shows what costume design is for me. It’s not necessarily about beauty all the time, but actually about storytelling.”

That moment was also a revelation for Martin, who spent ten to 12 hours with Hudson every day. “We both had to trust each other. So we [were] not going to put on any foundation,” Martin said. “We [were] going to put on eyeliner [to] just smudge it all underneath her eyes, to allow the audience to see and feel that emotion, because she was crying. Most actors don’t necessarily want to go on camera without any makeup, [but] she was totally committed to it. You know, let’s tell a story!”

Hudson’s long-time friend and collaborator Davis also commends the actress for having complete confidence in the process. “I knew that in order for us to be 100 percent authentic and raw, we needed to strip her down: no wig involved, have her natural hair in its natural state,” Davis explained. “Not brushed out, not combed. It helped her get to where she needed to be.”

Armed with copious research and a resolve to perfect Franklin’s signature winged eyeliner on Hudson, Martin approached Franklin’s changing looks strategically. “[In] early ages, we just focused on the skin, focused on everything being natural. She did have liner, but it was very thin and you couldn’t really see. No false lashes and a soft, defined brow,” Martin said. Martin then accentuated Franklin’s transition to different color palettes as the singer aged, planting faux stage sweat onto Hudson’s face for her live-singing scenes. “For the performances, she would have the blue-green eye shadow and [false] lashes. She definitely would smoke her inner liner out and make sure [her upper] liner was dark and winged out,” Martin explained.

Watch how hair department head Lawrence Davis and makeup department head Stephanie ‘Stevie’ Martin helped Hudson capture the most vulnerable aspects of Aretha Franklin in the video below.

Through reading and other research, Davis similarly broke Aretha’s evolution down to specific periods, creating 10 to 12 wigs for Hudson. In creating the beehive ‘do — Hudson’s favorite hairstyle of those she donned — Davis didn’t want to mimic Aretha necessarily, as complementing the story’s ambitions was his priority.

“I remember building that wig from a small pixie and then adding another layer of hair on top of that, sewing it together, then cutting it, curling it, teasing it, making it one unit,” he said. Having personal associations with the material also helped the artisan and Hudson relate to the story in a more profound sense. “We had wigs everywhere and each one of those wigs told a story we all could relate to,” Davis said. “Whether it was my mom’s hairstyle or my grandmother’s hairstyle. We would be in the trailer and I’d show Jennifer, ‘This wig is up next.’ She’d go, ‘Oh, my God. I remember this.’ So it brought back a lot of memories for all of us, about growing up in our families and things that we could all relate to.”

The stylist also reflects on Franklin’s ‘70s look, when her civil rights activism was at the forefront. “Afro was quite refreshing, because it was a change of pace for us. It was a period when Black people were actually calling themselves Black,” Davis said. “[Aretha] embraced it herself and went natural. [She] actually appears more powerful because she came into herself then. To contribute to that look made me proud because of the entire collaboration [between departments]. It was just like icing on the cake.”

“For that moment to have resonance, you had to spend time in the ‘50s,” Tommy added, drawing attention to an early scene from Aretha’s childhood where she watches her sister get her hair straightened in the kitchen.

"Respect" makeup dept head Stephanie ‘Stevie’ Martin

“Respect” makeup department head Stephanie “Stevie” Martin

MGM

“It is such a significant scene for Black women. You know, at an early age, someone is putting a hot comb near your scalp and burning your hair. That’s what the culture said we had to do,” Hudson said. “To me, [afro] has always been a symbol of power, especially in a time like that. Whereas today, it’s more like a hairstyle. [But] it was a statement then. It did represent something of that era.”

To complement Franklin’s shift to her natural hair, Martin purposely went lighter with her brush, fashioning Hudson with a thinner brow line. “Because she became an activist at that time, her makeup wasn’t [as] strong,” she said. “It was more focused on the community, the rights of the people. No need to do a lot of foundation, a lot of lipstick [or] liner.”

Looking back, “Everybody knew the assignment,” Hudson said. “We were all there out of love and respect for Ms. Franklin.” –Tomris Laffly

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