The first time we see Jennifer Hudson in the romantic comedy “Sandy Wexler,” she’s singing and dancing up a feathery storm as the Ugly Duckling/Beautiful Swan in one of those over-the-top, costumed-character amusement park musical revues.
It’s the perfect metaphor for Courtney Clarke, the ingenue who will undergo quite the transformation in the Netflix film (available Friday), which stars Adam Sandler as the title character. It’s during one of her performances that Wexler, a bumbling 1990s Hollywood talent manager, spots Clarke, and their lives will never be the same. Courtney becomes the only truly talented member of Sandy’s paltry client stable, which boasts everything from a ventriloquist to a third-rate Evel Knievel wannabe, and not much else to speak of in between.
Wexler is the laughingstock of Hollywood; his rambling lies about the stars he may or may not have represented are the butt of everyone’s jokes and scorn. Wexler (Sandler affects a whiny, screechy Jerry Lewis sendup for his characterization) likes to feed his clients a load of bull, but his intentions are always good. He’s the ultimate sad sack, but Courtney finds him endearing.
“Once I read the script, it was a no-brainer,” the Chicago-born Hudson said during a recent chat, when asked about the project’s appeal. (The movie is part of a multi-feature film deal Sandler signed with Netflix in 2014.) “Adam’s camp reached out to me and said it basically was a comedic version of ‘The Bodyguard,’ and [that film] is one of my favorites and Whitney Houston is my absolute favorite artist. So, no-brainer.”
A “Bodyguard” tie-in might be stretching it a bit, but there are some vague similarities. Sandy, for all his nerdy, annoying affectations, does his best to “protect” Courtney from the fast-talkers and movers and shakers of the music business. And while Houston’s character was already a superstar, we watch as Courtney’s star ascends on the wings of her incomparable vocals.
Peppered throughout are the endless client/studio meetings, the demo tapes that have to get made, the publicity photo shoots, the mind games the managers and power brokers must engage in just to get a door or two to open. Courtney’s journey hit home for Hudson, who began her real-life professional career ascent first as a cruise-ship entertainer and then on season three of “American Idol,” where she finished in seventh place.
“Oh my gosh, that’s my life, all of it,” Hudson said. “Sometimes we’d be on set and I was like,’I don’t have to stretch far because I lived this in so many ways.’ It’s very true. It’s a comedy but a lot of it’s very true to the nature of the industry, the journey of [making it in this business].”
Hudson may have channeled a touch of Houston for her portrayal of Courtney, such as “little inflections, her charm and her smile,” she said, but Courtney is pure Hudson.
“She wasn’t too far from myself,” Hudson admitted. “In reading the script, I was like, ‘Some of this reminds me a lot of myself.’ There were so many similarities.”
Sandler amassed a cavalcade of stars for cameos playing themselves throughout the film, directed by Steven Brill. These include: Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Pauly Shore, Conan O’Brien, Chris Rock, David Spade, Lorne Michaels, Arsenio Hall, Penn Jillette, Henry Winkler, Quincy Jones, Babyface Edmonds, Darius Rucker and Dana Carvey, to name a few. (Not to mention Sandler pals Colin Quinn, Nick Swardson and Kevin James, who appear as some of Wexler’s goofball clients, and Rob Schneider, who stars as his millionaire landlord).
“It was just mindblowing,” Hudson said of the celebrities she got to meet and work with in the course of filming. “In reading the script, I was like, ‘Are these people really gonna be able to be in this?’ And then they were all there. And more were added as we went along. … You have to be a legend like Adam Sandler to pull that many stars together.”
Having pursued mostly dramatic film and stage roles (she won an Academy Award for her role in “Dreamgirls”), Hudson said she welcomed the chance to take on a humorous role. The film also afforded her the opportunity to pick up some tips from comedy greats.
“I learned to stay on my toes, live in the moment, and mostly just follow Adam’s lead,” she said. “Comedy is definitely harder, more challenging than drama. It’s harder to be cheerful and witty and joyful.”
As for her on-screen chemistry with Sandler, who “was totally disgusting” in one scene where he devours one of those giant roast turkey legs popular at amusement parks, Hudson said she found everything about the comedian to be “adorable.”
“I would have to attribute [their chemistry] to the fact he and I are both Virgos,” Hudson said. “He’s so familiar to me in that way.”