Not just any movie can make an Oscar contender out of a former “American Idol” contestant. But “Dreamgirls” is not just any movie — and it’s certainly not “From Justin to Kelly.”
Boasting an impressive cast ranging from the top of pop (Beyoncé) to a comic icon (Eddie Murphy) to, yes, that former “Idol” hopeful (Jennifer Hudson), “Dreamgirls” is the film with the chops to make it all the way to Oscar night.
Based on the Tony-winning 1981 Broadway show, the film chronicles 15 years in the lives of a trio of backup singers-turned-superstars, all set against the backdrop of changing musical and social attitudes.
Since screening select scenes for the media months ago (including Hudson’s showstopper “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”), “Dreamgirls” has been the presumed film to beat come Oscar time. Now with the film on the brink of release (December 15), director Bill Condon shares his passion for the show that’s captured his imagination for 25 years.
MTV: Your interest in “Dreamgirls” goes far back. Weren’t you at the Broadway opening of the show back in 1981?
Bill Condon: I was. I was there in the last row with some friends. I was a fan of [director] Michael Bennett and a big Motown fan, so all the interests collided. It was an astonishing show with amazing staging. It was totally abstract. There were no sets. It was just this black space with these rotating lighting towers that would rearrange themselves. It was completely cinematic in a way.
MTV: There’s a lot of plot and character to juggle in this story. What was foremost on your mind when you tackled it?
Condon: The characters and their basic predicaments. That’s what’s most universal. [Hudson’s character] Effie is a very powerful story within the story, but it’s not just about that. It’s about everyone pursuing their dreams and reaching that point beyond which they can’t betray their own authenticity. I think that speaks to a lot of people. I know it speaks to me.
MTV: Has the way you’ve felt and related to the characters changed over the years?
Condon: Absolutely. For example, my take on [Jamie Foxx’s character] Curtis changed. Certainly he is villainous, but there is something about him and the way Jamie Foxx captures him that is heroic. He’s almost always right about something. His instincts are so good and what he wants to do is so important that the fact that he loses sight of people’s feelings and any kind of normal human interaction makes him tragic to me.
MTV: Was this a tough story to crack in the screenwriting process?
Condon: You know what’s tough about it? In that first scene you meet seven major characters, all of whom are in the last scene except for one. You have a movie that takes place over 15 years where you have to keep these seven balls in the air. It was like haiku. Every line’s got to carry a lot of weight. Every image has got to tell you a lot.
MTV: How did you cast Jennifer Hudson as Effie?
Condon: We had an open-door policy. We had this feeling that anyone who wakes up in the morning, looks in the morning and says, “I can play Effie” — let’s give them a shot. We had open calls in a lot of cities, and we put over 700 women on tape. I met with dozens, and then there were about 10 that we brought to Los Angeles who did screen tests with hair and makeup and rehearsal and the music.
MTV: Despite Jennifer having a clear inner strength, we heard you had to draw the diva out of her.
Condon: It’s not about drawing out her strength. It’s that extra diva thing. She’s sweet and unassuming in a way. The diva thing is thinking, “I am the center of every room, and I have no interest in other people.” It’s that kind of attitude that Effie has to have. Effie’s first line practically is, “Where’s our dressing room?” It’s a slight attitudinal thing that doesn’t come completely natural to the real Jennifer.
MTV: How many times did you have her record the showstopper, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”?
Condon: She recorded it four times — the last time about three weeks before we shot it. And she just nailed it. Each one was good, but it was the process of making it her own — especially those sounds she makes, those wails. That is a sound that’s specific to her that gives you chills.
MTV: It’s a brave role for Beyoncé to play — the singer who clearly is not the most talented. Did you talk her through this role extensively?
Condon: She was so serious about this as a chance to play someone completely different than herself, and she never broke that. In the film it’s never, “Here is Beyoncé behind all of this.” Frankly I was always nervous that when her line came up, “She’s right. I can’t sing,” that people would think it was ridiculous. But by then she has so disappeared inside of this character. I think she gives a very subtle performance.
MTV: It’s exciting to finally see Eddie Murphy take on a dramatic role like this.
Condon: I know! I think he got a real taste for [drama] when he was doing it. He was going through a rough time in his life, and he was feeling a little down. I think he just said, “God, I wish I had a flat-out drama to channel all of this into.”
MTV: This film has been the subject of Oscar talk for months. Were you able to forget about it while finishing the movie?
Condon: Yes, because I’ve [earned Oscar buzz] a few times before and I realize how little it means until about a month from now. The movie has to open and find an audience. You have to see how it lands. The talk started six months ago, and there was no movie at the time. [He laughs.] So what does that buzz mean? Nothing.
MTV: Was much cut from the film?
Condon: There are about eight minutes that I will put back in for the extended cut [on DVD]. There was one song called “Effie, Sing My Song” right before “One Night Only.” It’s where Keith sings this plea to her to kind of forgive him.
MTV: There’s been talk of bringing “Dreamgirls” back to Broadway. Would you be interested in directing?
Condon: Yeah, somewhat. That would be intriguing. It could be fun.
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