'Empire's' Jennifer Hudson on Her "Modern" Religious Role

The Grammy and Academy Award winner talks with THR about her turn on Fox's hip-hop soap opera.
Chuck Hodes/FOX

Grammy and Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson has come to Lee Daniels and Danny Strong's Empire in a role that marks a departure for the singer-actress.

Unlike Courtney Love and Estelle before her, Hudson is not playing an already successful singer in the Empire Entertainment world. Instead, she's playing Michelle, a music therapist brought in to work with Andre (Trai Byers), who is also a devout Christian. In her first episode, "Sins of the Father," she asked Andre to pray with her, something she acknowledged could get her in trouble at work.

With all his schemes and dishonesty, Andre never seemed like he was religious, but Michelle, Hudson says, is leading him down a new path. As Byers previously told The Hollywood Reporter, "It showcases to Andre that he can potentially be in a way that steps away from the needs of Empire Entertainment. It's a beautiful thing."

THR spoke with Hudson about her new role portraying a kind of woman not often seen on network television and what's to come during Wednesday's two-hour Empire season finale.

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When the concept of "music therapy" was presented to the Lyon family, Cookie responded by saying it sounded like something white people would do. How much did you know about the practice before taking the role? 

I knew nothing about it. But music has always been that for me. It was my therapy in a way. I just never knew there was such a [formal] thing. When this role came along, I learned about it through the character. Music is a form of therapy, and it makes perfect sense. I know music has helped me, but now, it can be used to help [a lot of others]. Music is powerful; music can change you. And [Empire] is showing you just how powerful it is. 

Did you have much input in who she was and whose storyline you got to be part of?

Originally when we talked about her, I was like, "I don't know if she should sing," but then it was decided for this show that it would make more sense [if she did]. They put a different spin on it, where she's a music therapist, and that allows the series to show music in a different way. The character somehow was created in the process. She felt quite similar to myself, so I was able to combine some things, and that allowed me to establish her. She came to light in the making.

It is rare to get deep into openly religious characters on television. How much did getting to explore something unique really play into your attraction to the role and the show?

One of my favorite things about this show is that it talks about so many things that television never talks about, and it is so real. It's almost like reality meets television, to a certain extent, and I love that it touches on those real-life subjects, such as mental illness and religion. That's why I related to it. That's why so many others relate to it; it's real.

Michelle is a modern professional and religious girl. She's young, but she's educated and successful, and she's in her career, and I love to see that representation for our youth on television — having a steady foundation and then also being a spiritual girl but being very aware of herself [too]. She's an attractive girl, and she's different, but she's still spiritual, and I think that whole combination makes her very unique.

Is there added pressure to portray her a certain way — or to show enough about her outside of her faith — because religion can be so polarizing?

I think it's smart to do that because a lot of times if you're [labeled] as religious, you're just that. But religious people are people too; we're human too. And that's what Michelle is. Yes, she's spiritual, and she believes in God, but there's more to her [which you'll see]. She has other layers.

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How strong does Michelle and Andre's bond become?

They definitely have a serious bond — a connection — that is just there, no matter what they may face or what they're dealing with, and there is some confusion because they don't necessarily know what it is or how to deal with it. But they know that they can lean on each other.

How does Lucious getting in the mix affect things?

This is the first time ever in my career that I'm on the fence with [a decision] my character [makes]. I'm not sure if Jennifer agrees with Michelle's [actions], if I can say that!

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Thankfully as a music therapist, Michelle can sing and gets to do so quite a bit on Empire. What song from the show has had the closest place in your heart since recording it?

"Remember the Music," definitely! I love how you're learning about Michelle through the song. It connects her with Andre and every character in the story and that, at the end, for me I was reminding myself, "This is our truth being in an industry like this." People are telling you what you should be or how you need to change this, and it's easy to forget why you do what you do. I always tell myself, "I do it because I love it." It's not about how many YouTube views or Twitter followers. I do this because it's what I love to do, and that's what this song is about.

What have discussions been like with Lee and Danny for season two?

It does seem like it's open for [a return], but I don't know about that yet! Once you go on the journey with Michelle [in the finale], it does seem open. You kind of want to see who's going to win the battle. Is Andre going to win the battle? Is Lucious going to win the battle? Or is church going to win the battle? What's going to happen with her?

Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. What do you think of Michelle so far? Sound off in the comments below. Stay tuned to The Live Feed for complete Empire coverage. 

Twitter: @danielletbd

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