Dreamgirls, which is based on a Tony-winning Broadway show by the great Michael Bennett of A Chorus Line fame, fictionalizes the story of Motown’s Supremes, with Jamie Foxx in the role of Curtis, the Berry Gordy-like producer who controls everything and restructures the group around Deena, the Diana Ross-like character played by pop megastar Beyoncé Knowles. Disenfranchised by the crossover dreams of Curtis, initial lead singer Effie is based in part on the Supremes’ original lead, Florence Ballard. Jennifer Hudson, a popular runner-up from the television hit show American Idol, makes her big- screen debut as Effie, and her performance won her a Golden Globe for best supporting actress in a motion picture. Bill Condon knew he and his actors were nominated for the Golden Globes when I spoke with him, and I could tell his hopes were high. Seeing him accept the award for best motion picture, musical or comedy, later that same day, I recognized at once the gentle and thoughtful presence I had experienced by phone just a few hours earlier.
The reception of Jennifer Hudson’s performance as Effie has been so overwhelmingly positive that one critic described your direction as “throwing her the picture.” Does that sound like a fair statement to you? Did you have to balance screen time with so many big stars involved? From its inception by Michael Bennett, Dreamgirls has always been an epic story with an ensemble cast. I didn’t change that. The screen version remains, really, a group story. In fact, if you look at it in terms of screen time per character, you will find that Effie doesn’t have more screen time than anyone else, in part because she is gone for a big chunk of the picture. But there is something about the force of her personality that makes Effie stand out, and I think that’s what people are reacting to when they say things like that. They are registering the force of the Effie personality and the power of her journey.
You have one of the most interesting résumés in Hollywood, and now you find yourself at the top of three big aspects of the entertainment world that don’t always overlap: musical theater, popular music, and the giant Hollywood blockbuster. How did this happen, and how does it feel? You are right — it is kind of amazing that, for instance, the soundtrack is so high on the pop charts. It’s almost a throwback to the early Hollywood musicals in that way, the fact that it is a crossover into pop. I may be forgetting something, but it seems to me the last time something like this happened was back in the late 1970s with movies like Grease and Saturday Night Fever.
I know I wasn’t always an obvious choice for this type of assignment, but Chicago [for which Condon wrote the screenplay] was a real challenge for me, and it became this great showcase that demonstrated I could cope with all the aspects of this kind of picture, including the adaptation, which is of course crucial. So I suppose that’s the main thing that got me here, Chicago. And I was available. (Laughs.)
And how does it feel? It feels great, incredible. I am thrilled. There were moments on the set when the depth of the cast of Dreamgirls was almost overwhelming to me. I remember moving a shot and the cameraman looked at me after he had gone from a close up on Eddie Murphy to a close up on Jamie Foxx and then to Beyoncé for her reaction — all in one long take — and he smiled at me as if to say, “This really is pretty amazing.”
What about the research process? Did you use any of the skills you developed on Gods and Monsters or Kinsey while preparing for this film? Absolutely. The research process is very important to me, and even though this was not a biopic in the strict sense that Kinsey was, I did spend a lot of time finding out about Diana Ross, Berry Gordy, and Motown, and looking at images of Detroit in that era. I immersed myself in the real world aspects of this production for months before I shot a thing, and I hope that shows. As for the fact that this was not a straight biography of Berry Gordy or Diana Ross, that was actually quite liberating for me. I didn’t have the same burden of representation I had when working with historical figures, and it allowed me to cut loose a bit more than I might have otherwise. So this was really the best of both worlds for me, because I got to indulge my passion for history and yet tell a story that was uninhibited by its real-world referent.