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Jennifer Hudson talks her Broadway debut in The Color Purple

Jennifer Hudson has her sights set on the Great White Way (which, we’re guessing, is NBD when you’re a Grammy and Oscar winner)

Photograph: Jake Chessum
Jennifer Hudson

The air-conditioning is broken, but Jennifer Hudson isn’t complaining. It’s an oppressively humid afternoon in a tiny basement studio in Dumbo, and everyone is trying to move slowly enough to not sweat through their shirts. Or collapse on the small table laid out with tiny cheeses. Everyone who doesn’t have an Academy Award, that is. “I like the heat,” Hudson says, before kindly turning a small table fan in my direction. “It calms me. Also, it’s good for your voice!”

RECOMMENDED: Read Adam Feldman's review of The Color Purple

The upkeep of that thrilling, emotional, earth-shattering voice—she won an Oscar for Dreamgirls in 2007 and a Grammy in 2009—is on her mind for good reason. The actor recently moved here from Chicago to make her Broadway debut, and it’s a biggie: Come November, she’ll take on the role of the glamorous Shug in a stripped-down, Oprah-produced revival of The Color Purple on Broadway alongside British actor Cynthia Erivo and Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks.

It’s a lot to take in. And Hudson, who has managed to stay poised through cutthroat reality television competitions and devastating personal tragedies, confides that this first Broadway foray is one she’s surprisingly extremely nervous about. But whatever. We’ll bet she keeps her cool.

How long have you been in New York?
Since August, actually. I did the big move early, because I wanted to become as much of a New Yorker as I could be—and also because I wanted to get my son and nephew registered for school, all of that, just so everything wouldn’t hit me all at once.

Have you all been to a Broadway show yet?
I took my son to see The Lion King. By the first scene of the show, I was like, I’m done. I can’t believe I’m sitting here, crying like this. It just meant so much to me, being able to witness my son’s experience. He’s old enough to understand it. I was just a wreck. So emotional. [Her son, David, walks into the room and asks what she’s doing.] I’m in an interview that you just walked in on. Would you like me to do anything for you? [David exits.] He’s so funny. “Why’s it quiet in here?” Because I’m in an interview!

Is he musical?
Yeah. He sings. He likes to play guitar. He wants to be the next Michael Jackson.

What kind of music does he like?
Everything! Half the stuff I’m listening to now is because of him. The other day, he told me, “Mommy, you’re my second favorite—Michael Jackson is my favorite.” I was like, Okay!

If there’s one musician you might be able to let slide…
Yeah. I’m like, I can let that slide.

What music are you into?
All kinds. I love B.B. King. I’m loving the Weeknd’s new album.

It’s so dancey.
Yeah, it just makes you…even if you can’t find a rhythm, it makes you want to move. I love that.

I was worried about his hair at the MTV Video Music Awards.
With the flames going, yes, that scared us all a bit. But there’s something about him. He’s got that “[X] factor,” as Simon [Cowell] would say.

Speaking of the VMAs, your video “I Still Love You” was nominated for the best Video With a Social Message. What made you want to do a video dealing with gay rights?
Well, the gay community has always been my biggest support. Growing up, I used to go to the gay clubs and sing and do all the talent shows, and I had my queen glam squad and all of that. And they supported me first, so it was like, Okay, now I can give something or try to give something in return to help out. What better way to do that, you know?

Are you political?
I’m not. I’m not a politician, I’m a musician.

I’ve heard you’re friendly with the Obamas, though.
I am. They’re beautiful people. He is the president, but you know, he’s a Chicagoan. And I just think they’re amazing people.

The upcoming Spike Lee film that you’re in, Chiraq, centers on violence in Chicago. What made you want to get involved with that project?
It’s a very impactful, powerful film, and it might come across as political, but I think it’s something that’s very necessary for my hometown, due to all the violence that’s been happening. And it’s something that’s just trying to stop the violence. Too many of us, including myself, suffered from that in our hometowns. [Editor’s note: Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew were murdered in Chicago in 2008.] It’s the worst thing and it’s so sad. Even while we were filming, each day another story came out about a kid being shot dead. That made us realize, This is why we’re doing this [project].

Do you think art can change things?
I think it’s the biggest attention-grabber, definitely. If I sat here and maybe told you what was happening, people probably wouldn’t pay attention. But if it’s tied through music and art, it grabs your attention. In a way, that’s why I think music is so powerful. So why not use that platform, you know, to get people’s attention.

The Color Purple has a lot to do with women's and race issues. Do you feel like it’s a good time to stage the production now, in today’s climate?
Wow, that's an interesting question! I didn't think about it in that way, but I feel as though…I went to see Straight Outta Compton the other day. When the movie started, it said 1986, and I was like, Wow, you would think that they're talking about right now, today. Because we're still dealing with the same issues. Those battles are still there.

Obviously you’ve done a lot of work in musicals, from Dreamgirls to Smash, but this is your Broadway debut. Is it also your stage acting debut?
Actually, no! I mean, in a way, yes, because nothing is like Broadway. I feel crazy saying, “Oh, I’ve done theater before,” because this is a whole ’nother level. I am highly aware. But when I was 19, I did a production of Big River in Chicago. Then I worked on a Disney cruise ship where I was Calliope, the head muse in Hercules—A Muse-ical Comedy.

I went on that cruise! I loved Hercules!
That was me! [Sings song from Hercules: “Back when the world was new / The planet Earth was down on its luck.”]

So are you nervous or excited about doing Broadway?
Broadway is, and has always been, a dream I’ve had. Back before I got Dreamgirls, I wanted to play Effie on Broadway. But God always gives you a little more than you asked for, and I ended up in the film.

Speaking of firsts, I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about your new haircut. I’m very into it.
Oh, thank you! It has been an amazing reaction. I am so random. Even with the haircut, I was on an airplane, and I was like, I’ll cut my hair. And then I was like, Okay, chop it off.
 
Just like that?
Yeah, I just love to experiment. I don't like limits. They say, You have to be this, you have to be that, or to be a girl, you have to have hair. That's not true! I love to be that person to prove them wrong, you know what I mean?

What has your relationship with The Color Purple been like over the years?
The first time I saw The Color Purple, obviously it was the movie. And eventually I read the book. Once the play came out, I saw it at least four times—twice here and twice in Chicago.

Did you always see yourself playing Shug?
If any of them, I probably would have seen myself playing Celie [the meek, guarded protagonist]. I think the most surprising role to see me in is Shug. She’s so glamorous, and I don’t think people see me like that. When they called me about playing the role, I was like, Weird. But then I realized, I do got some Shug in me.

In what way?
The feisty personality. She’s like a ball of energy. But Celie has a vulnerable innocence about her, a box of emotion that people always tap into, and that’s a huge part of me, too, you know.

You’ve had so many big, public moments. The Whitney Houston tribute at the Grammys, the Super Bowl…. Has there ever been a time when you felt more like a Celie, nervous and vulnerable?
Oh my God, many a time. Many a time. For instance, the Whitney tribute. After Whitney died, not even 10 minutes later, they called me and asked me to sing at the Grammys. And I was like, Wait. I didn’t even grasp that Whitney had died. I wasn’t even going to the Grammys that year. And then I was performing on the stage. I didn’t know where I was, what was happening. And that’s pretty much how my life works. I don’t know where time’s going to take me, where I’m going to go.

That sounds like a whirlwind. Do you remember it at all?
Yes and no, yes and no. In those moments, it’s almost like, most women will understand, it’s like having a baby. It’s like a dream. That’s what it felt like. It was like bam bam bam.

Well then, Broadway shouldn’t be that crazy!
That’s what I keep telling myself! But I’m nervous about that, too. Right now, stepping out and doing something like this and not knowing what’s to come, how it’s going to work…. To me, there is no more frightening world to walk into than Broadway, because it’s probably the industry I’ve always respected the most.

What’s the role you’ve played that you feel is closest to you?
Hmm…Effie? Maybe I’d say that. I mean, because the story of Effie is a lot of people’s story, especially in this business, in this industry. And I remember being the big girl of the group, growing up and singing and having the quote unquote big voice back then. It’s always been about marketing and image. I know that feeling of being thrust to the back.

Do you still see that in the music industry?
Oh, yes. It’s still very present. It’s by far more about image than it is, you know, talent. It’s so political in this business. It’s not about who has a great voice. It’s about who can sell that record, who can sell some sex to sell that record or create some controversy—things like that.

Is there a singer you’d love to play?
Aretha Franklin, No. 1.

There are rumors you might star in an upcoming Aretha biopic from Straight Outta Compton producer Scott Bernstein.
You are right.

Why do you want to play that role?
I feel like that would probably be the most challenging and the most motivational for me to play since Effie. I feel like that would be the next, most similar thing and challenging at the same time. You know, I’m going to be honest: I did not actually grow up listening to Aretha Franklin the way most people think I have. I grew up listening to my older cousins, and they were obsessed with Aretha. They were heavily influenced by her, and I took it from them. But I love her now. I love all her music. I just love that era. Atlantic, Motown—I wish we made music like that today.

Did you watch Abbi Jacobson from Broad City doing your version of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” on Lip Sync Battle?
I loved it. It was hilarious. I had never seen the show, and I was like, Look at that lip-synching! I love stuff like that. She did it. She made me want to do something like that. That was dope.

Also dope? I heard your dogs are named Oscar, Grammy and Dreamgirl. Is that true?
They’re at the house right now, yes! Let me pull up a picture, because you have to see them. [Pulls out phone] I got Oscar the Christmas before the Academy Awards. And I was like, I’m going to name it Oscar because then I might win one. So there’s Oscar. And then a few months later, I won an Oscar!

Oh, man. I should name my dog Raise.
Name your dog Raise. Name it how much you want the raise to be! And then I was like, Wait a minute, Oscar needs a girlfriend. Maybe I should name her Grammy, so if I get a dog and name her Grammy, maybe I’ll win a Grammy. And that summer, I got Grammy.

Adorable! Your dogs are like The Secret.
They are! They are The Secret! And then Grammy season rolled around, and I won my first Grammy. And then they had babies. And this dog is Dreamgirl. She’s named after Dreamgirls. Oscar, Grammy and Dreamgirl.

Wait a second. So Oscar and Grammy had Dreamgirl?
Yeah!

You’ll have to get a new dog and name it Tony.
Tony, yes! [To her dog] So, Dreamgirl, we need to have some babies, okay?

See our photos of Jennifer Hudson

See the show!

The Color Purple

Danielle Brooks (Orange Is the New Black), Jennifer Hudson and Cynthia Erivo star in this revival of the hit musical based on Alice Walker's bestselling novel. Director John Doyle tries the minimalist approach for this gospel and blues-driven tale of self-respect and sisterhood.

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Nov 10–Dec 31

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