The Guardian

Jennifer Hudson: 'How do you be a cat? I sat with that for ever'

The Cats star was the only choice to sing Memory in the new film. She talks about lucky breaks, her 26 siblings – and being picked by Aretha Franklin to star in her biopic
Jennifer Hudson: ‘When I’m working, I have about 10 or 20 people talking to me at one time, and a dozen things going on.’ Photograph: Dylan Coulter/The Guardian. Dress, Missoni. Skirt, worn as a cape, Marina Hoermanseder. Shoes, Casadei. Earrings, House of Emmanuele. Bar-shaped rings, Maxior. Pinky ring, Anabela Chan.

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 Hooper’s 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 you’ve 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, old‑timey 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 that’s the cool thing,” she says with scrupulous blandness, in reference to the wild response to the trailer, “because no one knows what to expect. It’s 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, I’ve 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 she’s the heart of the story.”

Hudson is sitting in a hotel library in midtown Manhattan, 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 can’t tell exactly when the transition occurs, but it’s 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 you play a cat?

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