Emmanuel Itier: What was the attraction to The Secret Life of Bees?
Jennifer Hudson: I had been reading the script, and I’m still reading the book. It all happened so fast. It was like, “Here’s The Secret Life of Bees. Okay, here is the script, now shoot the film.” It’s just that the story is so powerful and it was definitely something worth talking about and being a part of. I’m extremely proud and happy that I was a part of this project.
EI: Who is there, in your own life, that was around in 1964 to offer you guidance about racism and what it was like before the Civil Rights Bill was passed?
JH: I did try to go to my mom. My mom would have been maybe about 13, and my grandmother was born in 1925. She was definitely in that time. I tried to draw from all of them — people who would be Rosaleen’s age at that time, just to get a sense, but what I ran into is that they were from the North versus the South. It was a totally different experience, which I would have never known and didn’t know, until I did my research.
EI: You said this role was heave-sent. What did playing Rosaleen do for you?
JH: It definitely made me more aware of where we come from as Americans, as African-Americans, as a people. It made me far more aware of things that I didn’t know. I would have to say that the character changed me in that same way.
EI: What was Rosaleen’s age during this period?
JH: From my understanding, she is supposedly in her late 20s or early 30s.
EI: What was it like working with Dakota Fanning? Wasn’t this the second time the two of you have done a film together?
JH: This is our second film together but our first time working together. The first was Winged Creatures, but our things were totally separate and we never ran into each other throughout the film. This was our first time actually working together.
EI: I understand you went through a mock situation in which you were treated like you would have been in the early 1960s so that you’d get some sort of idea what the racism might be like…
JH: Yeah, I was surprised. Gina (Prince-Bythewood), the director, loves to be very real and hands-on. It was the first week we arrived for production and she called for Dakota Fanning and me to come out. She said, “Just meet me here,” at this certain location. I’m like, “What is it for? Can’t I know what’s going on?” She said, “No, just come.” We get there, and I was already afraid to go anywhere in the South because I had done so much research. The only image I had in my mind, everywhere I looked in North Carolina, I’m like, “Oh my God, what happened here? Did somebody get hosed down? Did somebody get beat? Did somebody get lynched?” I’m like, “I don’t want to go anywhere!” I was just that terrified. That was my first outing and experience in North Carolina. We went to go meet Gina, and she gave us a grocery list and about 20 dollars. She said, “I want you to go in the store and purchase these items.” Before we went in, she looked at me and said, “Jennifer, whatever you do, don’t hit anyone.” I’m like, “Do I seem violent? Why would I hit anybody?” So, I was like, “Okay, alright.” I had to keep that in mind. We go into the store, I had the grocery list, and I sent Dakota to grab a few items while I was grabbing a birthday card on the list. I said, “Can you tell me where your birthday cards are?” They were extremely rude to me. All the employees were all white. The clerk didn’t even want to help me. He said, “They are over there.” Then Dakota was being catered to like a queen. I’m like, “Why can’t I get this assistance?” I asked the person at the register, “Where are your birthday cards?” but I never made it to the birthday cards when I initially asked for them, so when I did, he said, “Ma’am, I think you already went over to the batteries. Matter of fact, I think you put some in your pocket. I think you stole some cards.” I was like, “Are you serious?” Dakota was like, “Yeah, you didn’t ask me to empty my pockets.” He said, “Well, everybody in the department said you did.” I said, “Well, you empty yours too.”
We went on and were at the ice cream parlor in the same store. I am behind Dakota and she’s looking in, I’m looking in, and the clerk leans over to tell her, “You know she can’t be in here, right?” I thought, “I know I did not hear him right. He did not say that. Did he just say that?” I’m talking to myself. I sit at the counter and there is a white man sitting eating his food. I sit down waiting for Dakota and he leans over to the clerk. He says, “Excuse me, can you get this n***** out of here?” All I could hear in my head was Gina telling me, “Whatever you do, don’t hit anyone.” I was like, “What did you just say?” That was actors hired and it was an exercise to see how we would react in that time.
EI: When did you realize they were actors?
JH: After they told me. [Laughs] We went out and then they came out and introduced themselves. These were all actors and it was all staged. I was still in shock, regardless if it was a scene staged or if it was real. It was still like, “I can’t believe that just happened.” It blew my mind, it really did.
EI: Did the director do anything more, or was that the end of it?
JH: That was it.
EI: I’m sure that was enough…
JH: Yeah, to put us back in this time and see how we naturally react — I probably would have got beat.
EI: How do you think you would have reacted if you were actually in that type of circumstance?
EI: Back then.
JH: Back then, if I had the attitude I have now, I would have been arrested and beat. I probably would have done the exact same thing she did, being from now. I don’t think my reaction would have been too different.
EI: Voting was such an important thing. Your character first got beat up while trying to register. It’s an upsetting scene because she was simply walking through town to register to vote. Do you think it’s even important now, particularly with a black man running for president?
JH: It’s that much more important to me because I did have to go back into that and see what we went through as a people to be able to have the right to vote — people period. It raised the importance of it and the value. Even for me, although we still have not seen an African-American president or ever the possibility, it raises the bar for me to say, “Wow.” It really wasn’t that long ago that it took place, so it made me say, “Wow.” A few months ago, while I was doing my research for The Secret Life of Bees, I was in a dental office. I saw a little black girl with a little white boy, and they were reading a book together. Any other day, I would have been like, “Whatever,” but because I had done my research for Secret Life of Bees and I know that would have never happened back in that day, I was so moved. I sat there and thought, “Wow, this is such a beautiful sight to see –- a little black girl and a little white boy sharing the book and reading together.” That wasn’t even realistic. You can imagine how much more this means to me now, looking through that.
EI: What was it like singing for Mr. Obama in a stadium full of people?
JH: That was another thing. I had to literally separate myself emotionally from it and not think about it. All the things that we’ve come through, being knowledgeable sitting there, I had to remove myself so I wouldn’t get too emotional, so that I could sing my song. I called my mom and said, “I don’t know. I hope I don’t get up there and cry.” She said, “No, baby. You get your tears out now. Cry now, and don’t worry about it later.” It’s really emotional, when you think about it.
EI: That was a big crowd, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it close to 70,000 people?
JH: All I remember is that it was huge. Huge! [Laughs] I had to take a moment and say, “Wow, look at this!” I sang the national anthem and you can actually get it on iTunes.
EI: How old were you when you realized your voice was unusual and different from others?
JH: It was definitely grown-up at an early age. I would notice the reactions were different from anyone else. The things people would say were like, “Wow, this little girl sounds like a grown woman. She has something different. Her voice is extremely powerful.” And also how people wanted to be a part of it, and how much help I had from others. Everybody was like, “Let me do something to help her get to where she should be.” I would notice the other talent around me was admiring it. They would say, “We don’t have people supporting us the way that you do.” That let me know that this was something different.
EI: How is the life of a film actress coming along? Are you getting used to promoting your movies?
JH: I am. Now this feels a little more normal. When I did the Cannes Film Festival or the movie junkets back then, everything was so fast and I was nervous, and I didn’t know what to expect. Now it’s like I can sit back and be comfortable
EI: So are you an old pro now?
JH: I don’t know about that. I’m getting there. [Laughs]
EI: There’s a musical moment in The Secret Life of Bees where you are singing in the kitchen. I understand that it wasn’t part of the script.
JH: I love the song. The music was a part of the film, but I love the song. I thought that all of us were supposed to be singing together. It’s called “I Can’t Break Away.” I love the song. Gina would always say, “You should record this. You should do this song.” I thought all of us were singing in the scene, but it just turned out to be me, I guess.
EI: How would you feel about doing another film musical?
JH: I would love to do another musical.
EI: Are they working on one for you? Have you heard about any musical films?
JH: I did speak with Aretha Franklin, but that was that one time. I don’t know where they are with the Aretha film. They were still in the very early stages. I don’t even believe there was a script yet. That would be something I would love to do. I would also love to play Mahalia Jackson one day as well.
EI: What is your personal sense of style? Do you think it has been evolving? I ask because I understand that Andre Leon Talley had been mentioned as a fashion mentor to you.
JH: Andre does step in when he thinks he needs to. He’s actually dressing me for the album listening party in New York.
EI: Who are you wearing?
JH: I don’t know yet. Andre didn’t tell me.
EI: Is it an original creation?
JH: I just learned about it, so I don’t know too much. I am just trying to find my own way, as far as fashion and still be comfortable, original and all of those things. I also want to start a fashion line as well. I’m trying to be more aware. Being a part of Sex and the City, how can you not be fashion conscious?
EI: Are you thinking of starting a fashion line for full-sized girls and women?
JH: I would like to call it the average-sized woman. That’s what I would like to target.
EI: When do you think the clothing line will happen?
JH: Next year. By then, I might have fashion, music, and film.
EI: Do you have any other films lined up?
JH: There are possible films coming up, but I can’t really say at the moment.
EI: Are you going to tour for your new album, Jennifer Hudson?
JH: I will be on tour starting in October, probably through January.