By Mary Milliken
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - For Oscar and Grammy-winning actress and singer Jennifer Hudson, the decision to play anti-apartheid activist Winnie Mandela in her first lead role was no easy matter, especially when she saw what the former South African first lady meant to the nation.
In the biopic "Winnie Mandela," which opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, Hudson plays the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela from the time she met him as a young woman, through decades as the public face for her imprisoned husband's fight against white rule.
The film also depicts Winnie Mandela's fall from grace when she is embroiled in murder and human rights violations before her husband is released from prison after 27 years in 1990 and goes on to become South Africa's first black president.
"It was very intimidating for me, actually," said Hudson, who came to understand the pressure of her role when she arrived in South Africa and heard people talk about Winnie Mandela.
"This is something they clearly treasure and take very seriously," she added. "I thought if I am going to do this I have to be all in. I thought maybe I should go home. And then I thought, this is a story that I would want to be a part of and tell."
Hudson, 31, plays opposite fellow Chicagoan Terrence Howard in the role of Nelson Mandela. She spent four months in Africa for the film, which was shot in 2011 by South African director Darrell Roodt.
"I had to lose weight for the film and also learn the accent," said Hudson. "Everyone was worried about the physical. I was like, I am not worried about the losing weight part. I am more concerned with the accent."
To conquer the accent, she immersed herself in the South African culture and spent time where the Mandelas lived "just to be absorbed by their surroundings."
She knew she was on a good path when South Africans thought they were seeing Jennifer Hudson, but then heard her "Winnie" accent and decided it was not the actress and singer who rose to fame in 2004 as a finalist on "American Idol."
'LET PEOPLE JUDGE'
On the physical side, Hudson undergoes a transformation to portray Winnie Mandela's own imprisonment, in which she becomes a bloated and disfigured woman spending months in solitary confinement and even talking to insects.
Hudson, who won best supporting actress in 2007 for her role as Essie in "Dreamgirls," said Winnie Mandela is "a huge role" in her career and shows how far she can stretch from her roots as a musical actress. It also conveys Hudson's ability to age on screen, portraying Winnie Mandela over some 50 years.
No doubt, Hudson's role will be compared to another performance of Winnie Mandela, that of the British actress Naomie Harris in the upcoming biopic on Nelson Mandela "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom." Hudson said she was looking forward to Harris' on-screen portrayal.
While Winnie Mandela continues to be one of the most complex and polarizing public personalities in South Africa today - admired by her supporters and vilified by opponents - Hudson said she didn't want to be judgmental of the woman who became known as "the mother of the nation" in her portrayal.
"There are two sides to every story. I thought let's tell the story and let people judge from there," she said.
After a spate of film projects last year, Hudson said she is focusing more on music right now and mulling a tour. She has three other films coming out, including the gospel musical "Black Nativity" later this year in which she stars alongside Forrest Whitaker.
When she returns to film, Hudson said she'd like to do some comedy. The film role that she really covets is playing singer Aretha Franklin, the "Queen of Soul."
(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy, Eric Kelsey and Andrew Hay)