Chi-Raq, Spike Lee’s film about gang violence in Chicago, features Jennifer Hudson as Irene–a mother whose young daughter is killed. This was an especially difficult role for Hudson on a personal level, because her mother, brother and nephew were victims of Chicago gun crime in 2008. As Hudson says, “I was definitely reluctant, I mean it’s something that was definitely close to the heart. In filming it, I was like, this is my reality.”

Part of her coping strategy was to eschew table reads and preparation, a move Lee understood and accepted. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to do that and I can’t do that,’” she says, “so he just said, ‘when it’s time to shoot, you just show up.’ Because it came from a real place. I said, ‘OK, I hope you realize what you’re asking me to do.’ Every bit of it from beginning to end of playing Irene, I was literally holding my breath until it was over.”

Jennifer Hudson
“Portraying Irene was a really raw feeling. He (Mali Music) instantly got it…That became I Run,” Hudson says, pictured at the Grammys

But bringing attention to gun violence was worth so much to Hudson, she was willing to deal with the difficulty. “I felt as though if you can help get the message across, to get others’ attention, maybe you can relate to my story and maybe that will tap into people to be able to start something to stop the violence. It doesn’t matter who shot who, we need to stop the killing across the board. Just making a film isn’t going to change the world, but it’s a start. Spike was very focused on just telling the truth.”

Hudson also performed the original song I Run for the film. “Spike came and said, ‘I want you to do a song for the soundtrack.’ He had some writers in mind and I was like, ‘if I do this song I know exactly who the writer should be for this song–Kortney Pollard (Mali Music).’ I sent him my version of A Change is Gonna Come and the inspiration mainly came from the feeling of the ending of the song. I was like, ‘I want to keep that same feeling’ because it was so in-depth, it felt really raw, and portraying Irene was a really raw feeling. He instantly got it from me sending him the clip of the song. That became I Run. I didn’t even have words, I was like, ‘this is it.'”

Hudson has also been hard at work on her Broadway debut, something she calls “a dream.” As Shug Avery in the John Boyle-directed production of The Color Purple,  Hudson has been getting rave reviews. “There are times we’ve been on the stage doing curtain calls in tears,” she says. “It couldn’t be a better cast. I can’t imagine taking this journey with anyone else other than this group of people. It’s like things were meant to be.”

For now, Hudson is taking her time with getting back to her music career, saying, “I want it to come from me this time, not some writer or some random producer, I want it to come from me. I want people to hear my voice, my thoughts, my reality, my music.”