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The Cats star was the only choice to sing Memory in the new film. She talks about lucky breaks, her 26 siblings and the family tragedy that haunts her

The trailer for Cats was truly the gift of the summer, one which many of us have struggled to scrub from our minds. In Tom Hoopers forthcoming version, Jennifer Hudson plays Grizabella, the shabby outcast Cat who stops the show with her rendition of Memory, alongside a cast that plays like the kind of dream you have when youve eaten too much cheese before bed: Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson and Idris Elba, all dancing around with digitised facial prosthetics against a not-to-scale, oldtimey London, the most disturbing aspect of which is not even that the female cats have furry boobs. But Hudson is at the heart of the film, bellowing her little heart out and looking as if she is about to go the full Joan Crawford and take a bite from the furniture.

I think thats the cool thing, she says with scrupulous blandness, in reference to the wild response to the trailer, because no one knows what to expect. Its so exciting! Hudson had no prior interest in the show she knew the music, but that was it. Nothing about the material struck her as overblown, nor was she aware of the ringing piss-take tone that governed the commentary, in spite of having spent a lot of time in the UK for The Voice. What about the cat boobs?

Well, how else are they going to feed their kids? she says, archly.

Why do only some of the cats have shoes?

Each cat is different.

Goddammit. How do you go about playing a cat without succumbing to camp?

You know, that was a discovery. How do you be a cat? As a human, I sat with that for ever. Then, wait a minute, Ive got to sing Memory? Hoo! As a cat. It was the most bizarre not in a bad way and unique experience. I was like, what do I do? Especially with a character like Grizabella. I feel like shes the heart of the story.

Hudson is sitting in a hotel library in midtown Manhattan dressed in a black beanie and dark shades, a mildly eccentric disguise she takes off to reveal a cheerful demeanour. It is 15 years since the singers first appearance on American Idol, and she has grown accustomed, through the merciless drive of publicity, to saying nothing, very pleasantly and at length. In the first half of our interview, Hudson is bright and polished. For the second half of our conversation I cant tell exactly when the transition occurs, but its somewhere around the time the subject of her pets comes up she is funny and relaxed and a different presence altogether. The 38-year-old has won an Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe (all for Dreamgirls), and two Grammys one for her debut album, Jennifer Hudson, and the other for her work on the soundtrack to the stage production of The Color Purple and is at that pitch of fame wherein she has to cover her face when crossing a hotel lobby. But when she lets loose, she is pure joy. So how do you play a cat?

In Cats. The cool part about it is that each cat has a story, which maybe relates to us as humans. Photograph: Universal Pictures

The cool part about it is that each cat has a story, which maybe relates to us as humans. I suppose if Emma Thompson managed to be a teapot in Beauty And The Beast, I say. Exactly.

Hudson was still a young child when she started to notice a pattern developing. Like many in her family, she liked to sing, even though it made her tremendously nervous. In the choir at church, she would close her eyes so she didnt have to look at the crowd; at home, if there were more than a few people around to listen, she would often fail to get a note out. When she was 11, Hudson was due to sing at her grandmothers 91st birthday and, she recalls, everyone sitting at the table laughed and said, She cant sing. This time, however, she managed to get through the song, and when she opened her eyes it was to a standing ovation. So it would be from then on at school, at church and when she entered a talent show; every single time, singing with eyes closed, and the same outcome: Oh, I won.

Having a singing talent like Hudsons can be a liability in movie-making: producers and directors are always trying to get a song out of her, even when it doesnt belong. This is what happened, she says, during the filming of Winnie Mandela, the 2011 biopic in which Hudson played the title role. I had to say to them: Winnie doesnt sing. They were trying to get me to sing in a choir! And I said, Winnie, she does not sing.

They are always trying to find a way to make me sing, whether its film, commercial or theatre. Photograph: Dylan Coulter/The Guardian

I think wed have known if Mandela could sing like you. Right. And I like to stay as true to the character as possible. But they are always trying to find a way to make me sing, whether its film, commercial or theatre.

Hudson had accent coaching for the Mandela movie she showcases one of the three click sounds in the Xhosa language with impressive ease and when Hooper requested a British accent from the actors in Cats, found herself veering madly back into South African. First off I was like, Me? With a British accent? She laughs. Hudson was born and raised in Chicago, but her parents were from the south Mississippi and she picked up some of their inflections. But the African accent was the last thing stuck in my mind, so we had to undo that, first.

Her base is still Chicago; Hudson lives there with her 10-year-old son, David, whose father is the wrestler David Otunga (the couple split in 2017). Going home, she says, is a blessed relief from the rigours of her schedule. For a while, she was commuting between LA and London while filming both countries versions of The Voice: Id go from chair to chair. Those trips were long enough to bring David along, but ordinarily he stays in Chicago and when she gets home, I never have anything to do outside of just being a mom. When Im working, I have about 10 or 20 people talking to me at one time, and a dozen things going on. Then I go home and its, like, still. Just still. I appreciate the quiet and simplicity.

Winning her Oscar. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

What does she do?

I love getting up early in the morning and taking my dogs out. I have three dogs and two cats Grizabella and Macavity. They go with me when I travel.

Wait, what? The cats go with you?

Theyre here, now. In the hotel?!

Yes. Theyre upstairs right now.


Because its the one thing I have thats consistent, that no one can take from me.

Dont they freak out?

No. Well, Macavity is so chill, he loves being in his bag he doesnt want the ruckus of the people. Hes a sphinx. Then Grizabella, she doesnt love her bag as much, but if I sit her on my lap, shes fine. They have their litter tray. Im becoming a cat lady.

When Hudson is home, you wouldnt know shes the type of person who travels with her cats, she insists. She has a house full of boys her sonand his friends. Her sister, Julia, lives close by. Its a life full of family and friends, during which she tends to sleep during the day, while her son is at school, then starts work, responding to emails and taking calls on her various deals, after he goes to sleep in the evening. Thats when my day starts.

Dress, Hamel. Pumps, Casedei. Rings, Kallati, Dena Kemp. Earrings, Anabela Chan. Stylists: Wayman and Micah. Hair: Kiyah Wright at Muze. Makeup: Adam Burrell at The Only Agency. Set and prop styling: Graham Lott. Photograph: Dylan Coulter/The Guardian

The day-sleeping is partly a mechanism to catch up on herself. Hudson is constantly working. Since the release of Dreamgirls in 2006, she has appeared in more than 15 feature films and countless TV shows, while producing three studio albums and six soundtracks. She is currently filming Respect, the Aretha Franklin biopic, a huge and stressful project. I need to rest, she says, of the short periods in between. I try to balance it out more. Home is so quiet and I like it that way. Taking the dogs out in the morning, the sun just shining. She describes the dogs: Oscar is the dad; Grammy is the mother, and Dreamgirl is the baby. Oscar just had a birthday, his birthday is 16 October. Hes 13 years old.

In Dreamgirls with Beyonc and Anika Noni Rose a role that won her an Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Wow, I observe, you are invested in the backstory of your pets.

Uh-huh, says Hudson, and she looks dreamy. I had a goat, too, but he passed. His name was Prancer.


There is a guilelessness and a sunniness to Jennifer Hudson that she says comes from her mother. Darnell Donerson raised her son and two daughters to be confident, happy people. When Hudson showed promise in any direction, her mother would pounce on it. She used to tell us: No matter what you put your mind to, you can do. She said: I think you can act. Or, Jenny, I think you can draw. Im like, Whatever, Momma. As it turned out, her mothers confidence was well placed, or rather, her attitude as a parent enabled her daughters talent without overinvesting or putting too much pressure on her. One of my other favourite things shed say is, Whatever makes you happy. As long as youre happy, Mommas happy. And thats how it should be. No one knows what makes you happy, and whos to say what you should and shouldnt be? You know your value. Just because you value one thing, someone else may value another thing and you should respect that. And my mother I can just see her saying all that.

This is said with some weight. Just over 10 years ago, Hudsons mother, brother and nephew were shot and killed by her sister Julias estranged husband, who is currently serving three life sentences for the crimes. Her nephew, Julian King, was seven years old; her brother, Jason, was 29; her mother was 57. Hudson sat through the trial and the sentencing. Later, she set up the Julian D King Gift Foundation, an educational charity, in her nephews honour. During an interview in 2012, she talked to Oprah Winfrey about the emotional onslaught following the murders. Who do I grieve for first? she said. Who do I start with?

This is in the background when Hudson talks about her family. Julia is four years older, and although she cant sing She and I have the same exact speaking voice, but she cant sing a note the sisters are very similar in some ways. Unlike their mother, who was quiet, they are sociable creatures. Were very introverted in that we dont go out much and party, but well talk to people. And like Hudson, her sister, she says, is a workaholic.

What does she do?

With her sister, mother and nephew in 2006. Photograph: Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

Shes a school bus driver. Shes a character. She doesnt like to travel much like, to get her to come with me to something is a task. She doesnt like to leave Chicago.

Isnt there something mind-melting about the distance between your lifestyle and hers? Hudson smiles. I know.

How do you integrate those realities?

Most people dont understand my reality. Its kind of different. Like: the other day we went to see Patti LaBelle; my sister, and a bunch of her friends, and myself. And Julia said, Are you coming Wednesday? And I said, Whats Wednesday? And she said, My birthday! And I said, Oh, Lord. I know when your birthday is; its just my schedule is so crazy that I only like to know whats today. Dont tell me about tomorrow. So, from my perspective, it felt like her birthday was two weeks away.

This logic dont ask me to plan, or to remember your plans is why celebrities have such trouble holding down relationships, of course. Cant Hudson see that, from her sisters point of view, her dismissal reads as thoughtless? Well, I just bought her another house, is that thoughtless? she explodes. Ive bought her two of em. She laughs uproariously.

The two women were raised in a largely single-parent household; Hudsons father was absent until, in a move that seems an early example of Hudsons well-adjusted and emotionally businesslike approach to most things, she went to find him and tell him it was absurd he wasnt more in their lives.

He was a bus driver, she says. He drove Greyhound. When I was 14 or 15 because he has a whole lot of kids; like, 27

Wait, are you serious?


Jesus Christ.

Oh, yes. Eleven girls, 16 boys. Im the youngest, or at least in the last two or three. And it was always my dream because I love family to have a giant table with all my siblings. Just imagine the giant table! So when I turned 15, we went to go look for our dad, me and my sister.

What did your mother say? She said, If you want to, go ahead. Once we found him, he moved in with us and never left us until he died. His name was Sam. He was supposed to drive me to college, but he passed before he could. That was when I was 16. She smiles. Im almost 40 now.

Have you met all of your 26 siblings?

Not all. But quite a few. Im trying to count. One of my brothers half-brothers passed recently, or was it two of them? My sister Dinahs around, she was just fussing that she didnt get to see Patti LaBelle. I said, Dinah, I didnt know you loved Patti. And they got me Macavity [the cat] for my birthday.

There is a good humour and a resilience that has obviously played a large role in Hudsons ability to come back from the unimaginable trauma of what happened in her family. She has not, she says, been twisted wholly out of shape by the murders. Thank God. I think I attribute that first to God, next to [the fact that] when you experience trauma, it comes and goes. Its always there. But its a matter of how you deal with it. For Hudson, it has been a question of honouring the lives of the people she loved, by doing what they would have wanted me to do. It would be worse, to me, not to press forward. Im hearing my brothers voice say, Jenny, knock it off! He would be angry at me for giving up. Or all the things that my mother instilled in us. She prepared us. She would say, You know, Im not always going to be here and I want you all to be able to make it. She used to say, without family, you have nothing, which is why its so important to take care of family. So if Im doing that, I know Im pleasing my mother. As for my nephew; thats where the Julian D King Gift Foundation comes from, because he was strong and very smart. So to live in a way that honours them is what presses you forward. Not to mention, thank God, that I have a child to live for.

It has taken a presence of mind to enact these lessons and Hudson is ruthless in their execution. Of course you still get sad, she says. Thats what I go back to: what would my mother say? What would she do?

These are questions she has been asking herself since the earliest days of her career, when she got her first professional singing job on a cruise ship. She nearly bolted on the first day. Im a homebody, she says. I love family, and that was my first time away from home. Talk about terrifying. And when I got to the ship, we had to do a wet drill, which I thought meant they were going to sprinkle water on us. Instead, they were made to jump into a body of water, on to a life raft, flip it over, and swim. And I was like, Excuse me, do what? Im not jumping off of this. She thought of her mother, then. I told myself, this is my test: if I cannot get through a cruise ship contract for six months, then I dont need to go and audition for American Idol. This is not for me, but if I can get through this, then I will go forward. Its now or never; you jump in, or were going home. And I jumped. Two days after she left the ship, in 2004, she turned up at the American Idol audition and her life changed.

Its sometimes overlooked that Hudson didnt win the singing competition; she was a finalist but came seventh. Her performance was so powerful, however, that a year later, she was cast alongside Beyonc in the movie Dreamgirls. It was a terrifying experience. Hudson had never done a days acting in her life her roles on the cruise ship, as the narrator in Hercules The Musical and the soloist in The Lion King, were taken as acting credits to fudge things with Equity. And while she could obviously sing, I didnt start singing with my eyes open until I was 19. I was afraid to look into the crowd.

She got through it with humour, a shrug, and the reminder that if I got through the last thing, I can get through this. So it has been, ever since. Between takes on Cats, Hudson would look around sometimes and gulp. It was Ian McKellens chair, Judi Denchs chair, and my chair! Im like: Im sitting next to Judi Dench. Hudson had heard and admired Elaine Paiges original of Memory, and was in awe of the Streisand version. But it struck her that the only way to approach the song without succumbing to nerves was through the drama of the material around it. A classic like that, you dont want to take it out of its context. (This is smart; I once saw Catherine Zeta-Jones have a crack at Send In The Clowns in a Broadway production of A Little Night Music, and she snapped so smartly out of role to enjoy the big moment, it broke the shows surface tension as decisively as someone putting up hazard lights and drilling a hole in the stage.) We have to stay true to the context of the song, Hudson says, because everyone knows it. But then the challenge of that is, well, what do you all want me to do with it? She laughs. I was putting the story in it and then the emotion. I dont think theres ever been a Grizabella as emotional as the one in the film.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2019/nov/30/jennifer-hudson-cats-how-do-you-be-a-cat