Character Study

10.11.13

How Jennifer Hudson Played a Drug Addict—Despite a Lifetime of Sobriety

What does it mean to see Jennifer Hudson ‘like you’ve never seen her before.’ In ‘The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete,’ the Oscar-winner plays a tattooed, prostituting mother who shoots up heroin in front of her son.

“Like you’ve never seen her before…”

We see that phrase often, when an actress dirties up her image to play a lowdown character, a criminal, an unglamorous villain—like, for example, Jennifer Hudson as a drug-addicted, neglectful mother in this Friday’s indie release The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. As a method of promoting a role, it’s a bit silly. Isn’t it literally the job of the actress to transform themselves completely for each role?

Using the line to describe a Jennifer Hudson performance, however, is a special case. We’ve seen her go gritty before. In fact, we’re used to it.

In Dreamgirls, she bellowed “I’m not going” as a desperate, defiant decree delivered from the pit of her soul. It also won her an Oscar. She’s moved the record industry to tears so many times—at the Grammys following her family’s murder, paying tribute to Whitney Houston, singing with the Sandy Hook Elementary School choir at the Super Bowl—that she must be on-call now for such situations.

So what does it take for an actress we’re so used to seeing delve so deep into dark roles to live up to the “like you’ve never seen her before” hype? For Hudson, who has been sober her entire life, playing a tattooed, prostituting mother who shoots up heroin in front of her frazzled son fits the bill.

“I was terrified,” Hudson tells The Daily Beast about signing on to play Gloria in the film. “I was forced to go places that I wasn’t even comfortable with.”

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete is a survival story—not one of Gloria’s survival—but of the two inner-city kids under her care, Mister and Pete, who are left to fend for themselves in the Brooklyn projects once Gloria is arrested.

So many of her scenes with Mister and Pete are hard to watch. Nearly all of them, really. She takes them to a restaurant where she is meeting a man who is paying her to perform oral sex. When Mister calls her out on it, she slaps him. She curses at the boys. When she’s arrested for drug use, she’s so out of it that she doesn’t even realize that there’s no one to watch Mister and Pete, or that they’re hiding in the apartment from the police.

‘I just never had a desire to do it. Never. To this day.’

But those scenes are an episode of Care Bears compared to the one in which Mister walks in on Gloria, dressed only in underwear, tying a tourniquet to her arm and shooting heroin and basking in the high that follows. It’s an achingly realistic scene, owed largely to a lack of vanity in Hudson’s performance.

Plenty of actors have played addicts and abusers and characters battling demons without actually facing those vices themselves in real life. But that doesn’t change the fascination that comes in seeing an actress “like you’ve never seen her before,” particularly when it involves the poised-and-proper Hudson injecting herself with smack.

We chatted with Hudson about what it’s like as a person who’s been sober her entire life to play a drug addict, working with a recovering addict to develop Gloria’s character, and how playing such a bad mother rocked her world.

So you’ve really been sober your whole life

Yes. That was another challenge in this, because going to the rehabilitation center. It was like different ex-addicts and they would tell their stories. They would be like, “You know what it’s like when you’re high, or when you’re…”—oh geez, I barely know the terms. Have a hangover, or whatever. And I’m like, I don’t. I’m discovering sitting there, like oh wow, this would be a huge part of it. Like, duh Jennifer. And then I’m just like, oh my god I have nothing to pull from, as far as myself. So I was like, OK, the next best thing is to find one of them that I connect most to and somewhat tell their story through Gloria. And that’s what I did.

What was your behind the decision to stay away from drugs and alcohol your entire life?

I just never had a desire to do it. Never. To this day. A lot of people are like, really? But no.

So that scene when you were shooting heroin and we see Gloria ride the high, how did you prepare for that? It’s so far outside what you can relate to.

Oh god. Just thinking about it, like…oooh. What can I say? I was lucky enough to work with an ex-heroin addict by the name of Lisa, and she walked me through everything. She dissected what it’s like. We went through every phase of addiction. So, like, when you are—what is the word?—when you’re going through withdrawal, when you need your high, the different phases of high, what it feels like, what the rush is like. She described it like an orgasm.

Really? That’s how she described it…like an orgasm?

Yep. She said it’s like an orgasm. And I was like, OK. I can relate to that. [Laughs] She said, like, it’s better than sex. And she talked about the different phases of it. Like it’s warm. You feel its warmth. I asked, “Are you conscious?” She said it’s like a stupor in a way. You’re very much awake, but you’re almost—I don’t want to say “frozen,” but delayed, or something. She just broke it down in every way.

What was it like to be transformed every day?

I actually loved that part of it. Gloria wasn’t a character that could be compromised. I wanted to make her as raw and real as she can be. George [Tillman Jr.], the director, was impressed that I was willing to go that far. But her appearance is a huge part of her story. To me, she was a girl who once had her life together and was out there having fun and fell into the wrong things. It makes you wonder just looking at her, like, wow, who was she before? How did she get to this place? It could not have been compromised. As far as the tattoos, it took a long time to obviously get into it, so even off-set on days I’ll be walking around covering myself from head-to-toe. Because, you know, I can’t be walking around with tattoos from my neck, down.

The paparazzi would have a field day.

Exactly. And we wanted to save the look for the film.

Did seeing the tattoos on yourself make you want to get one?

No! And that’s just the thing. Gloria is the complete opposite of me. I would never get a tattoo. I’ve never done anything that she’s probably ever done. So it’s like, oh my god. But it was fun to experience it. Like this is what I’d look like with tattoos. Or this is what I’d be… It was fun.I can’t imagine, with your own son, what it’s like to play a character like this and a mother like this.

Wow. My son, anytime he sees me on screen with another kid, he’s like, “That’s not your son! I’m your son!” This role, in particular, freaked him out a bit. When I was rehearsing for the role, he was like, “Mommy why are you acting like that,” or, “Mommy why do you look like that?” It’s like, “OK, well mommy’s going to go play a really bad mommy today.”

Does he understand the aspect of this that you’re playing someone else?

A little bit. He’s starting to understand it. He’s getting there now. He still gets frustrated. He gets a little jealous. “That’s not your son!” Stuff like that.

What about acting such dark, traumatizing material with such young actors? That can’t have been easy, as a mother. How do you get through that?

It can be challenging and difficult. I always think of the scene where Gloria has to smack him in the restaurant. Like, this is somebody’s kid! I really gotta smack him? That kind of thing. Or the things we’re saying to each other. It’s like, oh, I don’t know if he should be saying that. Or, I don’t know if I should be saying that to him. My motherly instincts kick in. Again, they both handle it so well. I was just there to follow their lead and tell the story.

How does playing a mother like this, who is so different from you and your relationship with your son, change your own feelings about being mother?

It makes me want to step my game up as a mother. And it makes me grateful. It makes me appreciate the relationship I have with my son, or be a better mother. Like, thank god I’m not that. Or what else I can do to be a better mom to my son. You know?

Watching this movie makes you want to swoop in and rescue all the kids who go through things like this in real life.

Exactly! Yes.

Has playing Gloria inspired you to do just that? Or have more kids?

Well, I want one more kid. I want a little girl really bad. It did it for me. It makes you think about the kids that are out there that don’t have parents. You know what I mean? Who are out there on their own. They’re forgotten. It re-puts it in people’s minds that there are kids out there struggling on their own, just like Mister and Pete.

Well after this I think it’s safe to safe you deserve to move on to a much lighter film next.

Yes. I would love to do some comedies. That’s my next goal. Something completely different. Much lighter.