Jennifer Hudson on Playing Aretha Franklin in New Film Respect: ‘It Still Feels Like She’s in Me’

Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin / Photo: QUANTRELL D. COLBERT

By Janine Rubenstein – The Oscar-winner and powerhouse singer opens up about the role of a lifetime, portraying her idol in the highly anticipated upcoming biopic.

Not many actors can say they were hand-picked by an icon to portray them in film. Jennifer Hudson is one such actor. The Oscar-winner and gifted singer, 38, is set to light up the big screen as late music legend Aretha Franklin in the upcoming biopic Respect, due out in December. Filming the role, she says, is a dream come true.

“Back in April 2003, I got to open up for her in Merrillville, Indiana, where she held a concert. That was before Dreamgirls, before I ever dreamed of playing her one day,” Hudson, 38, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I’ve gotten to pay tribute to her many times since then, but every time is like the first time.”

Hudson did just that during this past weekend’s 40th BET Awards ceremony, for which she performed Franklin’s rendition of Nina Simone’s protest song “Young, Gifted and Black,” before debuting the trailer for Respect. During the performance, she also showed off a new skill she picked up while prepping for her latest role.

“I started piano lessons,” she says of just one of the ways she got into character. “Aretha got me back in music school. It’s still a process, but the film has made me more passionate about learning an instrument and expressing myself musically.”
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