Jennifer Hudson in the title role of “Winnie Mandela,” opening Friday.
Chicago native Jennifer Hudson has one heck of a busy fall. The Grammy and Oscar winner will soon release a new album and has three new films coming out — “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete,” “Black Nativity,” and “Winnie Mandela, opening Friday.
In a recent chat about tackling the role of iconic ex-South African president Nelson Mandela’s controversial former wife, Hudson talked about the enormous challenges that faced her in making that film.
Q: I’m sure there were many challenges to playing Winnie Mandela, but what was the toughest ones for you?
A: If anything, the thing that I was most intimidated by was the accent. When I was first considering the role, others were concerned about the physical demands of the role, and I was like, ‘I’m not concerned with the physical issues. I’m concerned about the accent!’
Also, taking on such a huge personality — someone who is still alive — someone like Winnie Mandela — that was just incredibly overwhelming. Especially, after I got to Africa and met people who made me realize just how influential she was. She was like a treasure to so many.
Q: Have you had the opportunity to meet her?
A: No. I have not had a chance to meet her — yet.
Q: If you could — or when you do — what would you like to ask her about her life?
A: I would just love to be in her presence and then hear her tell her story. I’d like that more than anything. I can’t think of one particular question, because she’s a true, true fighter. People like that — you just want to get inside their head, and just listen to what they say.
Q: What about meeting President Mandela?
A: Oh, my God! I probably wouldn’t be able to get anything out of my mouth! I’d be so overwhelmed.
Q: What did you learn about Africa while you were filming “Winnie Mandela”?
A: To know this is the motherland — this is Africa. To learn the culture was amazing. To perfect my accent [as Winnie Mandela] I had dialect coaches and one of the girls that I worked with made a big impression on me. She was fun to travel with. She was younger than me, but she seemed so much wiser and mature. To grow up there — compared to where I grew up on the South Side of Chicago — you realize they just mature faster than we do, because they have to overcome so much.
Q: Terrence Howard plays Nelson Mandela. What’s your favorite memory of working with him?
A: Terrence, first of all, is an amazing actor. The one thing I’ll never forget is him always talking to me in that South African accent — in his ‘Mandela voice.’ He would come to my trailer, playing his guitar and singing songs — but always and only in his Mandela accent!
Q: In the film, you portray Winnie Mandela as she went through many months of solitary confinement in prison. That must have been tough physically.
A: It was definitely very, very, very draining a lot of time. When we were doing it, I said, ‘Wow! I’m telling this amazing story — their story -— and they survived it.’ I wanted to get across what they went through. When I did those solitary confinement scenes, I asked that we do them all back-to-back-to-back — because I wanted to feel as overwhelmed as possible.
In those four days I was drained and overwhelmed, but it helped build the character — to give me just a small peek at what she went through. That was four days — she was confined for so much longer. Imagine the strength it took to survive that.