For the January 2014 issue of ESSENCE, we caught up with the oh-so-lovely Jennifer Hudson, star of the moving Christmas film Black Nativity, in theaters now.

It is undeniable that the Grammy-winning singer had a whirlwind year in 2013. Looking back at the three films Hudson starred in, we are clearly witnessing an artist stepping outside of her comfort zone. The 32-year-old had already won an Oscar and Golden Globe for her role as Effie in Dreamgirls, but no one was quite sure that she was prepared for the parts to follow, most notably playing an anti-apartheid shero in Winnie Mandela.

She faced several challenges in playing the iconic figure. First, mastering a South African accent: “I was so nervous about doing a good job that I started working on the accent a couple of months before I even got there.” Second, relocating away from her fiance David Otunga and son, David, Jr., to film in South Africa: “I was like, ‘Oh, my God—You want me to leave my baby and my man?“” Third, the physical transformation and weight loss—well, we know how she conquered that one in style. And, most importantly, paying proper respect to a living legend: “So much was done to suppress Winnie’s voice, to keep her quiet. Winnie’s story needed to be told.”

What came next in 2013 was also out of character for Hudson. She took on the role of a prostitute addicted to heroin in The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete. To research for the part, she visited rehab centers and met with addicts. “It was a huge stretch for me to play Gloria. The drugs, the tattoos, the prostitution—her life is so different from my own.” The result wowed viewing audiences and earned Hudson some cred in the film industry.

Most recently, Hudson took on Black Nativity, a film adaptaion of Langston Hughes’ 1961 Off-Broadway stage musical. In the film, she shares the silver screen with acting greats like Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker. The movie’s director, Kasi Lemmons, tells us: “I wrote the role for her. She has such a unique combination of fragility and strength. She really exceeded my expectations.”

So, what’s next for the mega-watt star?  The new year promises a return to form for Hudson, with a new album slated for early 2014. For the album, she has collaborated with Pharrell Williams and Timbaland. (For more on the album, watch the Behind the Cover video below.)

“I spent my twenties figuring out what I wanted to do, and trying everything,” she says. “But by 30, my foundation was set. I became confident and clear about the path I wanted to take…Now I’ve really settled into myself. And I’m stronger than I’ve ever been.”

For our full cover story on Jennifer Hudson, in which she discusses her five-year engagement, details on her new album, and the challenges of playing both Winnie Mandela and a heroin addict, pick up the January issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands December 6.

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