Jennifer Hudson is an Oscar winning actress with the voice of a true diva. This American Idol cast-off’s career has taken off over the past few years to great heights. In her latest venture, Hudson co-stars in the upcoming film “The Secret Life of Bees” where she plays the part of Rosaleen, a young black woman living on a peach farm in the south during the volatile sixties hired to care for Lily Owens; a young white girl with an abusive father whose mother died tragically when she was a child. Rosaleen is Lily’s surrogate mother and dearest friend and when the two take the monumental yet dangerous step of trying to register Rosaleen to vote, they find themselves in a world of trouble and are forced to go on the run.
I sat down with Jennifer to chat about her role as Rosaleen and how it has impacted her life today as a young, successful African American woman; where she keeps her Oscar and I even got a peek at her gorgeous engagement ring…its ginormous!
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JH: Well I just like anything with meaning and substance and I just felt like it’s a story that was worth telling. I did not read the book first. I got the script before anything and like I said I read the script and I was like wow this is…I like stuff with substance and meaning behind it and to me it had a story worth telling and that gave me the passion to want to do the film.
EM: Did finding out who your fellow cast mates were going to be play a part in doing this film?
JH: Well I was actually cast before Alicia was although I was praying and crossing my fingers she would get the role. Of course it helps to be in such a great line up and just to be able to work with all of the ladies, even Sophie (Sophie Okonedo)…oh my gosh she is so amazing and to work with Dakota as well. We actually had to meet before I was even cast to see if we had that chemistry to pull it off.
EM: Did you spend any time together to get a feel for one another in addition to finding out if you had chemistry?
JH: Actually, that was kind of like the audition process because there was really no one on one with the director, reading the script. She (Director Gina Prince-Bythewood) wanted us to sit down and meet and just get a feel for each other. We sat and she told me about her horses, I told her about my dog and we had a real moment. Other times we had crossed paths before was my first award for “Dream Girls”, she presented at the Show West Awards and I got a chance to hear her speak or in the airport we’ll see each other but that was really our first time sitting down.
EM: You’ve started to really make your mark in film and have become an established actress. Are you still planning to put out any albums and pursuing your music career?
JH: Well, my new album comes out in like days! I’m playing it in my room right now. September 30th my album comes out. I’m so excited so make sure you pick it up. I plan on touring and I hope to continue to do movies and music. That’s what I would like to do.
EM: Your character when through some pretty traumatic and emotionally damaging scenes. What did you draw from or did you draw from anything during those scenes?
JH: I really went in deep. Each of us had a journey to go through to develop our characters. But for me I had to focus more on the civil rights era for my character Rosaleen. Other than Lily (Fanning), no other character went through that except Tristans (Tristan Wilds) character (Zach Taylor). I was giving a bunch of books from the civil rights era and a bunch of documentaries and I also had “The Chronicles of the Civil Rights Moment” book and I went as far back as slavery just so I could get a better sense. I even searched for family members that would have been Rosaleens age at that time just to get a better sense and feel what it would have been like. Gina had many exercises for us to go through. I don’t know if you heard the story about what we had to go through to help develop the characters, to put us in the frame of mind. Before I started my research for this film it never really occurred to me that wow, this wasn’t really that long ago. There are still people walking around that were here during that time. But going through this, it opened my eyes in a whole new way. I don’t have a problem looking people directly in the face when I talk to them but here’s a character who can’t even look up off the ground because to those people she was nothing. We had an exercise where it was myself and Paul Bettany (T. Ray Owens, Lily’s abusive, racist father) and we had to speak to each other in character and describe how we felt about each other in front of each other and he said well she’s no different to me than a piece of furniture, a car or a dog. And I’m sitting there hearing that as Jennifer today…no, that would get you hurt! It was like, I don’t know. I went into it so much that the only image in my mind I had in the south was just all of the violence that took place in that time. So when I got there I was too afraid to go anywhere to do anything. All I wanted to do was go to and from set and that was that. So the story of the exercise was the first week we arrived and like I said I wouldn’t go anywhere and so she (Gina) for Dakota and I to come out and meet her at a certain location, which she would not tell us what it was, so I was like where are we going to and she said oh you’ll find out when you get here. We got there and she gave us a grocery list and she gave us twenty dollars and she said, “I want you to go I the store and purchase these items”. Then she looked at me and said “whatever you do Jennifer, just don’t hit anyone”. And I was like why is she telling me this? So I’m already nervous about being in the south you know, oh God what’s gonna happen. So we go in the store and all the clerks are white and Dakota goes to grab some items and then I’m going to grab a birthday card and I’m asking the clerk “Excuse me sir, where are your birthday cards?” and he was extremely rude to me and it was clear I wasn’t welcome then she’s (Dakota) been treated like a queen by everybody in the store and I was like wow, this interesting. So then I was like ok, let me try again. “Where are your batteries?” “There over there.” So I didn’t make it to the batteries when I first ask for them so when I did he accused me of stealing. He said, “You know I can swear you’ve already been to the batteries, matter of fact, empty your pockets. You took something.” So I’m like are you serious and Dakota was like “You didn’t ask me to empty MY pockets!” So we got through that whole ordeal and then we’re looking in the ice cream parlor for ice cream and the man behind the counter tells her (Dakota), “You know she can’t be in here, right?” And I’m like who is she? They’re talking about me? Because I’m not used to this, you know. So I sit down and wait for her and this man sitting at the counter eating his food and he leans over and tells the clerk, “Can you get this nigger out of here I’m trying to eat my food.” And all I could hear was Gina in my head, “Whatever you do, don’t hit anyone.” And I’m like, “Did he just say what I think he said?” But it turned out to be an exercise. That’s how far we went to see how we would act in that time, what it was like in that time.
EM: Did your spirituality help you throughout the film with difficult scenes?
JH: It definitely helped with scenes like with Mary (large wooden statue). Everyone has a base and everyone has something they believe in. To me it all boils down to God. Everyone has their own symbol and Mary was theirs (the Boatwright sisters). So that helped me through Rosaleen. They played Amazing Grace during a certain scene. I felt like for me, Jennifer, ok I’m back home and I’m in a church.
EM: Now that you’ve played this character how have you changed?
JH: I don’t think that I would be able to appreciate a time like now with the possibility of having and African American President as much as I do had I not gone through that because here I’m playing a character whose been beat just because she’s trying to register to vote. It makes you understand the importance of that and also I was able to be a part of the DNC singing the National Anthem. I might not have appreciated that moment as much as I did without experiencing what I experienced with Rosaleen.
EM: Over the last few years since American Idol a lot has happened with your career. You’ve actually become for success it seems from not winning. Do you ever just sit back and say, “Wow, look at what I’ve accomplished”?
JH: Even hearing you say this…when I’m sitting in interviews and they say “Your and Oscar winner…” and I’m like, “They’re talking about me!” It still hasn’t sunk in yet. But I’m still not jaded by…I’m still getting used to it, I’m honing my craft but I don’t take anything lightly. Even in this film when there’s the ending scene and it’s Queen and Alicia and it’s me and everybody’s whispering on set “Oh my gosh this is such a powerful moment! It’s three powerful women standing here.” And I’m like, “I’m standing in front of Queen Latifah and Alicia Keys!!!!” I still have moments like that.
EM: Ok final and most important question. Where do you keep your Oscar?
JH: I wish I had a picture to show you. It sits on its own mantle when you walk into my house and it’s lighted stand and it says “Ahhh (cue celestial music).” I need to get a case for it because people will pick it up real quick and I’m like ughhhh!
Interview by Tiffany N. D’Emidio