Respect’s Jennifer Hudson on Manifesting Success, Taking Risks, and Aretha Franklin
What does it mean to be innovative? For the past four years, Audi has explored how we manifest and harness innovation through its annual speaker showcase, Audi Innovation Series. Meant to spark a dialogue on the changing world around us, the series features various leaders every year who are known for changing the trajectory of their respective industries, with past guests including fashion icon Tommy Hilfiger, Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph, award-winning actor Jared Leto, and more. Now in its fifth year, the Audi Innovation Series welcomed Oscar winner, musician, and Respect star Jennifer Hudson as their guest of honour. In a discussion with journalist Sangita Patel, the duo discussed taking risks, manifesting joy, and what it was like to play Aretha Franklin
Sangita Patel: The last few days, I have to tell you, I fell into this J Hud vortex. I’ve been listening to your music. I’ve been watching your films and I get the chills and these emotions when I’m listening to your music. It is so powerful, such a gift. I’m curious. As an artist, when you listen to your music now compared to before, what are your emotions?
Jennifer Hudson: Wow. For me, It sends me back into the moment that caused the emotion. I’m the type of person that likes to live in the moment. I think that’s why a lot of artists don’t like to look at [their] work when it’s done because, at least for me, it taps me back into whatever I was feeling at that moment.
Sangita Patel: Your voice is so soulful. The one and only queen of soul Aretha Franklin absolutely loved you. I talked to her a few years ago and she told me she had three people that she wanted to be part of her biopic. Of course, you were one of them. What sealed the deal that you were going to become Aretha Franklin in her biopic?
Jennifer Hudson: Well first of all, I manifested it. It was an idea in my mind to the point that my American Idol audition song—my introduction to the world—was an Aretha Franklin song. I said, “Hello, my name is Jennifer Hudson and I’m going to sing ‘Share Your Love With Me’ by Aretha Franklin.” And then 20 years later, here I am playing her. But we had our first meeting 15 years ago about me playing her. And so from that moment on, I said, “Nothing is just. Everything leads to the next. If you give me the opportunity, I will make it work.”
Sangita Patel: In hindsight, she was a massive fan of yours. Your craft, your creativity, your innovation—she wanted you from the beginning. She was talking to you on the phone, she was telling you about her life. There’s a reason for that. What would you say are the similarities between you two?
Jennifer Hudson: We both grew up singing in the church, that’s one thing that we had in common. We both became the breakout talents of our family, and used our gifts to make our living. That was always my dream. Obviously she did that her entire life and it blessed the world. That was my biggest takeaway from the film. She was always big about owning your own special gift, no matter who you are, and blessing the world with it. It wasn’t until she tapped into her own voice and owned it that we got our queen of soul. If we all tap into ourselves and own that treasure that’s within us, what king or queen is under there?
Sangita Patel: Right now, a lot of people are talking about your journey again towards an Oscar with this performance. It’s exciting because it’s been 14 years since Effie White. Have you had a chance to sit back and reflect on your life and career
Jennifer Hudson: It comes in doses but don’t leave me sitting still for too long because that’s when I come up with my big bright ideas for what’s next. And I never stop. My mind never stops. A creative mind never stops. My wheels are always turning and I like moving forward, I love progress. I love to keep growing and seeing what else I can do. You know what I mean? That, to me, is how I’ve gotten this far. Speaking to you and hearing people say what I’ve dreamt in my mind, those are the things that let me know it’s real and that I achieved that goal. [It’s like,] “Wow, this is happening because you can see it too. And you’re witness to it.”
Sangita Patel: Would you say you’re a risk taker then?
Jennifer Hudson: My whole life is risk-taking. It’s like flying by the seat of your pants every day but that’s my fate. When you have a vision in your mind, that’s your path and the map to follow, so I kind of trust that. I never allow other people to distract me from it. Someone said, “If someone can’t see your dream, it’s only because they don’t dream as big as you do.” No one knows your potential the way you do.
Sangita Patel: What is the biggest risk you’ve taken?
Jennifer Hudson: That’s a hard question to answer. Well, I’ve got to say that playing Aretha was the biggest risk ever. It was the biggest challenge to me and the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my career. She is one of my biggest musical inspirations. To just meet somebody like that is a dream. But then to meet her and then for her to say, “Play me.” To know the treasure that she still is to the world, and to take that on, it comes in doses. All I want to do, at least when I started out, was to sing the world a song. And I did the whole American Idol experience for the experience, which is why we’ve all got to be careful with what we say. I didn’t say I was going to win. I said, “I want to do this for the experience.” And because I said that, look at all the amazing things I’ve gotten to experience since.
Sangita Patel: What have you learned about yourself through this last year and a half?
Jennifer Hudson: It’s about power and planning. It’s moments when we are still, that’s the perfect time to plant those seeds. What can we do to make our time count versus worrying about it going away? Can we do something with it? I’ve taken this time to do that, and to have self care and live life and enjoy it. I think it puts a lot of things in perspective of what’s important and for us to sit and say, “Where are we now? Where can we go from here?”
Sangita Patel: You have a way to absorb your characters where we forget it’s you, and that’s powerful. This being the Audi Innovation Series and building conversation around creativity and innovation, what is your creative process of bringing these characters to life?
Jennifer Hudson: Allowing myself to live in the moment and experience whatever that character has experienced. It’s not necessarily from me, Jennifer, but who I am portraying. Even in Respect for example, Aretha is from a completely different era from which I grew up in. So how can I take my mind and that space, and live under those conditions and circumstances, which is completely different from the era of which I grew up in. It’s a mind over matter type of situation. I always say, “I don’t act, I react.” If you put me in that environment and allow me to feel what I’m feeling from that, when I tap into myself, that’s when things manifest and evolve.
Sangita Patel: You talked about the fact that you put it out there, playing Aretha Franklin, doing the Super Bowl, all of these elements in your life. [Then there is] Hercules. Did Disney call and set anything up with you?
Jennifer Hudson: Listen, my whole life is full circle. And that’s what I mean by saying nothing is “just.” I started on a Disney cruise ship. I was just sitting here thinking, this is Toronto, Canada. That was my first luncheon away from home. I had to go to Toronto and train for a Disney cruise ship. I told myself, “I’m going to use this.” I played Calliope, the head muse, on the Disney Wonder cruise ship. And I was the Circle of Life soloist. I said, “I’m going to use this stepping stone as the test. If I can get through this cruise ship, then I can go audition for a television show. But if I can’t, well Jennifer go home and sit down.” I used that as my test. Now the movie Hercules is coming up. Well Miss Hudson is already ready.
Sangita Patel: Your big birthday is coming up. Welcome to the forties group, first of all. Did you expect yourself to be at this point in your life and say you’re living your dream?
Jennifer Hudson: Wow. I mean, God always gives you a little bit more than what you asked for. I dreamt of winning Grammys, singing on stages, and I won an Oscar before I won my first Grammy. Someone once told me, “Acting is the reward God has given you for honouring your gift of singing.” And I said, “Wow, okay then. That makes sense.” Music has always been my first love and it’s still the undertone of everything, but look at all the things I’ve gotten to experience because I stepped out on faith. You will always see me try. I think we’re all too afraid to try. It’s okay to be different. It’s okay to have another vision, or something unique, or create something different, or explore. That is artistry. There is no right or wrong way.
Sangita Patel: How do you define success? What does success mean for you?
Jennifer Hudson: I feel like there are so many different definitions. My idea of success is simply singing the song and being able to do what I love. That’s my idea of success. I get to do that every day of my life. And as long as I’m doing that, I’m happy. That’s my personal idea of success. Success is when you can have a goal in your mind and it’s the most beautiful thing. That’s my favourite thing, the reward of the success. When I could think of a thought or dream up a dream, and then when I see it materialize, nothing is more fulfilling than that.
I’ve been dreaming since I was a little girl. I remember being in school at seven years old, and the teacher always asks the kid, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I was like, “I’m going to be rich and famous, and I’m going to be a singer.” I would love to see that teacher right now. She told my mom, “This little girl knows exactly who she is and what she wants to be.” My son recently turned 10. But around his seventh birthday, he looked at me and said, “I’m going to be a basketball player.” Who am I not to believe that?
Sangita Patel: What is your joy?
Jennifer Hudson: Peace is my joy. Again, simply doing what I love and bringing people together with it. I love that. I love seeing people come together. My favourite thing about what I do is being around creative people. Everyone is a specialist in what they do. Everybody has a passion. I love to be around people who are passionate about what they do and do what they do. That is what inspires me most.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.