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Jennifer Hudson Gets Her Chance to Be Idolized in ‘Dreamgirls’

Once upon time—actually, it was 2004—a snarky British TV talent judge told a sweet-faced, big-voiced young singer that she was literally too large to become a huge star, and she was voted out the competition.

But Jennifer Hudson refused to let her loss crush her dreams, and now as the breakout performer in the all-star ensemble of the much-anticipated film musical Dreamgirls, she’s generating a full roar of awards season buzz and is poised to become the biggest star ever to emerge from American Idol. Why? It’s simple, Simon: her enormous talent.

HW: Was it intimidating to work with people of this caliber?
JH:
Well everybody played their parts. I did feel intimidated in the early stages of production, when we would read around at the table and go through the script, and they’d have all them sitting around, all of these superstars at the table. And I’m sitting at the head of it, like ‘Oh my God, why would you put me at the head of the table?!’ Thinking that they would say ‘Okay, why is she here? What credibility does she have?’ He has an Oscar, this is her fourth movie, she has a Tony award, and I’m from American Idol! [laughs] I mean, really! So I’m thinking they might say ‘Can you get somebody else on our level? But it wasn’t like that at all, and everybody played a part in it.

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HW: Who did you bond with most?
JH:
Anika [Noni Rose] was always there, and she was always really sweet and extremely supportive. If I needed her help at any time she was always there. Beyonce [Knowles] did just the same, and she was extremely patient. Jamie [Foxx], he was – that was the one, he was really extra supportive, and a lot of fun, and just helped break things and make it more quick for me. And of course Bill Condon, the director, as well.

HW: Do you feel there’s a parallel between your character Effie and what happened to you on American Idol, as far as having a great voice, but not being “showbiz pretty” enough?
JH:
I don’t know if it was an image, or if they were. Like, bold or blunt, they put it out there like that, maybe. Image had a big role to play in it. But I felt like yes, there’s a parallel between Effie and my story, but my experience with Idol—I’d been eliminated, and still having to go against all odds to pursue my goals, and Effie doing the same when she was kicked out of the Dreamgirls.

HW: How could Effie not get a job again, with that voice?
JH:
I think it goes with that thing: it’s not about how good you are, but how good you are to work with. And I think we all know Effie was not the most professional person. And I don’t think it was her talent that hindered her, I think it was more of her attitude. And therefore she would be rejected.

HW: How familiar were you with the original musical?
JH:
I wasn’t at all. I still have never seen the actual play. I only knew of, ‘And I’m Telling You’ and ‘I Am Changing.’ And I thought it was just Jennifer Holliday’s original material from her album. I didn’t know it was a full soundtrack, I didn’t even know there was ‘One Night Only,’ and Dreamgirls, until what – probably before my audition. And I thought the original character of Effie was Jennifer Holliday. I used to say, I want to play Jennifer Holliday on Broadway. [laughs] That’s how much I knew of Dreamgirls.

HW: How do you prepare for that climactic song, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going?’ How many takes did you do?
JH:
I don’t know exactly how many takes we did, but I know it was about three or four days of shooting it. And I had to get to know Effie, learn my character, and Effie and Jennifer had to meet and become one. That was the last scene filmed, so by that point I got to know Effie and live as Effie for months, and I felt I needed to know the character and know her relationship between her and her in the dreams, before I could even go into something like that. To understand what her relationship and connection was to each and every one of them, and what was her goal of this song, which I don’t feel is a song, I feel like that’s Effie’s story. And I needed to know her, to be able to tell her story.

HW: Was there a number that was even harder than the showstopper?
JH:
Good question! Actually, vocally challenging—I think “I’m Changing” was far more vocally challenging than “And I Am Telling You…” But as far as portraying the song, of course, “And I Am Telling You…” was the hardest. “And I Am Telling You…” is Effie’s story, in music to drama, and I felt like, ‘I’m Changing’ is her journey, but at the same time, from a singer’s prospective, I felt like “I’m Changing” is far more vocally demanding than I Am Telling You…” is. At least in my book. [laughs]

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HW: There’s a great deal of Oscar buzz about your performance. How does that make you feel?
JH:
Oh my God. I feel honored, and I’m just in awe of that, because last year this time, I had just gotten the role, and the only thing on my mind was not to disappoint the people who gave me the job. And wanting the part. I never, ever, ever dreamed of this, even thought about it. I just feel so special that my name is even being mentioned, I never would’ve guessed [laughs], so I have to cross that bridge when I get to it.

HW: You’ve signed a recording deal with Clive Davis, and will have an album out next year, but do you plan to make more movies?
JH:
I definitely want to continue to make more movies. But I would like to continue to do both movies and music, just separate the two. I would like to balance them both out by—like, I focused on Dreamgirls, and now I’m gonna focus on that album, and then after that album is done I want to focus on the next movie. So if I can balance it out by going back and forth and doing the two, you know? You should just focus on one thing at a time, and that’s how I’d rather do it.

HW: What do you have in mind for the album?
JH:
Goodness. Haven’t even had much time to think about it, but I do like Effie’s style. That’s where my heart is in music, and I just want to contribute to bringing back songs of substance and music with a message. And the only thing I can guarantee is a lot of soul.

HW: Have you seen Simon Cowell since you left American Idol?
JH:
No, I have not seen him, in the flesh. [laughs] I was on Oprah’s show, and she had him on satellite, and he gave me an apology and all that good stuff, because he heard the song, and he’s saying he heard all the buzz and he’s extremely proud. And he wants me to thank him later down the line.

HW: For what?!?
JH:
[laughs] Well I guess, Idol did give me the platform to be seen, because had it not been for American Idol—I’m searching deep, I’m stretching here! Had it not been for American Idol then for Dreamgirls, Bill would’ve never known of Jennifer Hudson, to call and say ‘We want you to come out and audition for Dreamgirls,’ and for that I guess I should say thank you.

HW: Would you go back and perform on Idol if they asked you to?
JH:
I wouldn’t mind at all. Yeah. I don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s a part of our history, and you can’t erase that. I don’t mind. I don’t see any harm in it.

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