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Jennifer Hudson on Playing Winnie Mandela in New Biopic: 'I Was Intimidated'

"Winnie is something that I worked really hard on," Hudson tells ESSENCE.
Jennifer Hudson on Playing Winnie Mandela in New Biopic: ‘I Was Intimidated’
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We’ve watched trailers for three years and wondered: When is the Winnie Mandela biopic starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard ever coming out? This weekend, the long-awaited film makes its American debut at the MegaFest International Faith and Film Festival in Dallas and hits theaters nationwide on September 6.

No one is more excited about this than Jennifer Hudson. “Winnie is something that I worked really hard on,” she told ESSENCE.com as she prepared to go into the studio with Babyface (more on that later). Here, Hudson dishes on why she was intimidated by the role, why she chose not to meet Winnie Mandela, and working on new music, with Babyface. 

ESSENCE: So many people know about Nelson Mandela. Was Winnie Mandela someone you had known about before getting into this project?
Jennifer Hudson: No—that was one of the things that shocked me the most about the script and made me want to be a part of it. I was like, ‘Why am I almost 30 years old and just learning about Winnie Mandela?’ You’ve heard her name but you never really knew about the contributions she made to history as well. So in reading the script I got to learn a lot about her. I remember when I arrived in South Africa I got completely intimidated by just seeing what she represents there. I realized she was a treasure. I thought I wouldn’t be able to portray her role because I was so intimidated. At one point I thought if I’m not going to be one hundred percent in it I should walk away because I respect it that much.

ESSENCE: Did you get to meet her?
JHud: I didn’t. Sometimes it’s best to stay away from that when you’re portraying someone that’s such a strong figure because you don’t want to be intimidated when you prepare for your role.

ESSENCE: Knowing what you know about Winnie Mandela now, can you relate to her?
JHud: I think we’re both fighters. I see that. I thought they picked the right one to play Winnie as far as her character and strength. She never backed down. No matter what you put her through you were not going to break her and she walked through everything and still kept her faith, the hardest struggle.

ESSENCE: She was critical of the biopic. How did you perceive that?
JHud: For the most part I didn’t really get exposed to those things so I probably wasn’t too aware of that during the time. I tried my best to do her justice and I have the upmost respect for her and her contributions to the world.

ESSENCE: The film premieres at MegaFest this Saturday then goes nationwide.  It’s been a long time coming. Jitters? What do you do before a big premiere?
JHud: I pray. It’s nerve racking when those things come out and Winnie is something that I worked really hard on and it took a long time to come out and now it’s finally here and it’s like being naked. It’s like baring it all so you have nerves and jitters and all those concerns. It’s the same musically and anything that you work on. That’s your baby.

ESSENCE: Just so you know, we stalk your Instagram page and it looks like you’re in the studio.
JHud: I’m working on my third album. I’m going into the studio with Babyface today. He wrote me a song and I’ve always wanted to work with him so this is a dream come true. I’m also working with Timbaland as well and Pharrell. It’s a different type of vibe on this album. I want people to get more of a perspective on me. Like, when you meet Jennifer versus the representative. It’s a completely different thing and I want to spray my energy through the music. We don’t have an official date yet [for the album release], but a single will be dropping in the next week or two.

ESSENCE: And I’d be remiss not to ask you about “the wedding!”
 JHud: [laughs] Just wait for it, that’s all I’ll say. Just wait for it.

Winnie Mandela premieres at the MegaFest International Faith and Film Festival this Saturday, August 31.