Jennifer Hudson is fresh off a three-week summer break in Tampa, Fla., where she and her “Davids”—fiancé David Otunga and the couple’s 4-year-old son, David Jr.—kicked back in a tucked-away rental house, basked in blissful silence and spent hours sleeping.
Now the Grammy- and Oscar-winning singer, actress and Weight Watchers ambassador is ready to get back to work, and she would have been on time for her first post-vacation interview, too, were it not for a little back-to-reality car trouble.
It is Hudson’s assistant and childhood friend, the sweet-natured Walter Williams, who ends up fetching Hudson and bringing her to the designated meeting place, which happens to be his apartment. Hudson is glamorously dressed for noon on a weekday. Her slinky, leopard-print dress and big sunglasses are a fitting ensemble for a star ready to discuss her roles in two new movies, an upcoming album and the quick chat she had a day earlier with her friends, President Barack Obama and Alicia Keys, at the White House. The topic was health care, a cause that both Hudson and Keys are helping the president advance.
“In my life, I’ve learned that, yeah, everything can be great,” Hudson says in a bright voice, before snapping her fingers and turning serious. “But in the blink of an eye, it can all be so different.” She is, of course, talking about people from all walks of life needing insurance and affordable care so they can better prepare for the unexpected, but she’s also hinting at what we’re not supposed to talk about: the tragic 2008 shooting deaths of her mother, brother and 7-year-old nephew. It’s not easy to watch her liquid brown eyes as she remembers, then quickly moves on.
Refocused, Hudson continues: “Obama is so hands-on and aware. He’ll tell stories off the top of his head about people who’ve written to him with their health issues, and he’ll remember their names and every detail. He cares enough to know.”
It’s clear just how much Hudson also cares when she pulls up a black-and-white photo of David Jr. on her phone, irresistible curls framing the little boy’s impish grin. She says she thought about uninsured Americans earlier this year when her son, while playing in their backyard, rode down a slide on his cousin’s lap. “He hit the bottom and all of a sudden my baby’s hollering, and the pediatrician who lives next door came over and said his leg was broken. And we’re like, ‘From that?’” Hudson spent the rest of the day in the emergency room, wondering what a family would do if they weren’t in a position to pay medical bills. “See what I mean? You never know.”
Hudson has also sampled political life onscreen. In 2010 the actress spent three months in Africa filming Winnie Mandela, a foreign drama from South African director Darrell Roodt slated to grace U.S. screens on Sept. 6. But playing the plum role of Winnie Mandela, the controversial former wife of Nelson Mandela (portrayed by actor Terrence Howard) came with its own set of challenges.
“It was intimidating to play Winnie after seeing how much she means to the people there,” says Hudson, who is anxious for the movie to finally find its audience. “To some she’s an angel and to some she’s Satan, but either way, woo! The strength that woman possesses is amazing. We put so much into the story, and it took a lot out of us.”
More recently, Hudson got an education playing a heroin-addicted mother in The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete, an indie drama about two young boys trying to survive in New York. The George Tillman, Jr.-directed film, set to debut in October, includes Hudson’s pal Alicia as a producer.
“It terrified me to play that part because I had no reference point,” Hudson says. “I’m 31 and I’ve never, ever, ever had a drink or done a drug in my entire life. I stick with Diet Coke and Crystal Light and water.” Instead, two recovering addicts who shared their stories and taught her the mannerisms of users coached the actress. “That was extremely brave of them,” Hudson says. “They’re sitting there, telling me all these things about being incarcerated and losing their children—and who am I? I’m still a stranger to them.”
Even if they haven’t met her, there are plenty of Jennifer Hudson fans who don’t consider her a stranger because she doesn’t behave like one. For a celebrity who will have her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame come November, she’s about as real as it gets. She sings and acts with no-holds-barred emotion, and Hudson often returns to her old Chicago church. In the notoriously violent neighborhood where she grew up, Hudson personally hands out school supplies and Christmas presents to underprivileged children alongside her sister, Julia, with whom she founded the Julian D. King Gift Foundation in honor of her late nephew and Julia’s son. Hudson’s penchant for staying true to her roots is especially heartening given that since that long-ago 2004 season of American Idol, she has gone on to win an Oscar for her work in Dreamgirls and a Grammy for her first album, Jennifer Hudson, and nearly topped the charts with her second record, I Remember Me. She also performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl and became instantly recognizable thanks to her undeniably inspiring Weight Watchers commercials (she told Oprah the plan helped her lose 80 pounds). Although Chicago’s hometown-girl-made-good is grateful and proud, she admits that, once in a while, the spotlight that now follows her every move comes with drawbacks.
“It’s strange when you’re, like, grown, and you can’t go places by yourself,” because you might cause a scene, says Hudson. “I’ll literally be sitting in a quiet room waiting for the next thing to happen, thinking, ‘Are they coming to get me yet?’ My baby doesn’t understand why I can’t go here or there with him, because I don’t want to put him in a bad position.” And if she were even more famous, confesses Hudson, she would probably go crazy. “I always look at everyday people and think: They have no idea how blessed they are; how good they have it that they can do whatever they choose.”
For now, finicky cars and playground meltdowns bring sanity-restoring normality into Hudson’s life. But things will get hectic again when her third album drops right around the new year and she invites the world to get even closer to her.
“This record is not about me playing a part or me as a spokesperson. Should I give away the title?” she asks excitedly. “Let’s just say you’re gonna get Jennifer-ized.”
Hudson has been recording at a Manhattan studio with the likes of producers Timbaland and Pharrell. Most of the songs are upbeat enough that a party vibe has pervaded the late-night sessions. “What we’re doing feels so right that I never want to go home,” the singer says. “My sister and my manager will be sleeping on the couch while we work until 4 or 5am.”
There’s at least one deeply personal track, though. “My mom always used to say that if you moan, it’ll make you feel better,” says Hudson, who, one day—before her mother’s death almost five years ago—was feeling sad enough to sit down at her piano and write a song based on that piece of maternal wisdom. “Moan” is sure to be the tearjerker of the album.
As the interview draws to a close, Hudson is talking about singing in this year’s family-friendly holiday musical, Black Nativity, a movie version of Langston Hughes’ staged retelling of the classic nativity story with an all-African-American ensemble cast. Hudson plays a preacher’s daughter (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett portray her parents) and insists people are going to be blown away by Nas’ version of “Silent Night.” But she stops to read a text from Otunga, her WWE wrestler fiancé (she won’t discuss their wedding plans)—the message says Big David and David Jr. will see her at home soon.
“It’ll just be us tonight, which is rare,” Hudson says. “We’re going to hang out in what I call our Purple Heaven Pillow Room and watch our shows, Scandal and The Following.” She has a video on her phone of a recent improvement to their house, a huge built-in bookcase that holds all of her awards and also conceals a secret door that leads to an all-white office.
“See, you hit the button and it opens up. It’s another one of my big bright-ass ideas,” she says, laughing. “I had to Jennifer-ize it.”