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TV and theater director Liesl Tommy (Insecure, The Walking Dead) is making her feature debut on Respect, the Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson from MGM/United Artists and Bron. And she did so by arriving to set with one firm rule: No divas allowed.
“Except for the ghost of Miss Franklin,” Tommy explained on May 18 during an exclusive virtual media event moderated by ESPN’s Kelly L. Carter and held a day ahead of the trailer launch. According to Hudson, the rule had a profound impact on the set. “There was not a soul who did not want to be there,” explained the Oscar and Grammy Award winner, who won her Academy Award for her debut acting performance in Dreamgirls. “It was a family environment, and every single department put their heart into this project.”
The cast also includes Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Heather Headley, Tate Donovan and Mary J. Blige. With a story by Callie Khouri and Tracey Scott Wilson and screenplay by Wilson, Respect follows Franklin’s rise from the church choir to international superstardom.
According to Tommy, when coming up with her pitch for what the film should be, she settled on a take that followed Franklin as a young woman fighting to find her own voice. “She had to go on a journey to become a brilliant musician and that, to me, felt like the most profound investigation of her legacy,” Tommy said, adding that it allowed for the filmmakers to explore the depth and complexity of her life, including her social justice activism and her faith. “It was going to be a movie where you could see all shapes, colors, dimensions and nuance of this Black woman — not just somebody strong or sassy. She can be fragile, she can be scared, she can be unsure, she can be intimidating, and she is a human being.”
She’s also the human being who handpicked Hudson as her star. Hudson revealed that she and Franklin first sat down almost 15 years ago, after Hudson won the best supporting actress Oscar in 2007. At the time, there was no script, and so they stayed in contact over the years and had many conversations during which Hudson said she was constantly learning about Franklin and absorbing who she was as a person and as an artist.
“She taught me more about life while teaching me about her life. She was speaking from her real-life experiences and that didn’t hit me until later. She was really schooling me in those moments,” she explained. Now that the film is prepping to hit the big screen on Aug. 13, Hudson said she hopes it sparks a major return to cineplexes.
“It’s Aretha Franklin — we all love her. She is a world treasure — not a national treasure, but a world treasure,” she said of the late Queen of Soul, who passed away Aug. 16, 2018. “It’s something we’ve all been waiting for, including myself. It’s the perfect film in the perfect way to go back and head to the theaters and get your popcorn. I’m going to have mine, too.”
Tommy agreed: “I need a little glory in my life right now. We have been isolated, and the amazing thing about movies is you can be in community and have a shared experienced that can be transcendent. I feel people will be healed by this film.”
A version of this story first appeared in the May 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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