Interview By: J.P. Mangalindan

What a difference a year makes, especially for someone like Jennifer Hudson. Until then, the 25-year-old self-taught singer could claim modest experience in Hollywood and the music industry: a stint singing in a cruise ship production of “Hercules: The Musical,” a non-speaking role in a Broadway run of “Big River.” Many will remember the vocally-bombastic Hudson as a wildcard finalist in American Idol’s third season. Having been the sixth finalist to be voted off, Hudson recalls Simon Cowell infamously saying once, “You only get one chance at it, and the people who don’t win will never be seen again.”

Lucky for us, Hudson proved the persnickety English producer wrong, though she still credits the television phenomenon for even putting her on people’s radar to begin with.

“Had it not been for American Idol, the [Dreamgirls] producers would never have known of a ‘Jennifer Hudson’ to pick up the phone and call!” she exclaims.

In Bill Condon‘s dazzling adaptation of the 1981 award-winning musical, Hudson spellbinds in every number she performs. “When she sings ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ — one of the most heartfelt cries of pain ever written for a musical — Hudson inscribes her name on an Oscar,” remarked The New York Daily News. And during early test screenings, audiences honored Hudson with a standing ovation when her credit appeared onscreen.

Hearing such rapturous praise tends to leave the humble Hudson with little to say other than a soft “wow,” as though she’s still coming to grips with her newfound fame. And to think, she nearly “blew” her audition.

“I really messed it up because I mixed up my sheet music and I had prepared the song a certain way,” she says. “They only sent me bits and pieces of the song. With the first audition, it was like, ‘Oh, wow. She didn’t miss a beat.’ The second time around, I barely knew the main song because the music was so mixed up.”

But Condon reassured the shaken singer that mix-up or no, he’d seen something in her that day, a quality and talent that not only recalled the hutzpah of the character she would eventually play, Effie White, but the same star power and vocal sensitivity that Jennifer Holiday, the original Effie, possessed in her famous Broadway turn.

“He said to me, ‘It was still something really special. Yours was the only one I received chills from.”

She found herself among an all-star cast: Beyoncé, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx. For Hudson, who had never appeared in a movie or recorded an album, it meant playing catch-up with these seasoned performers, namely hours of dance lessons and voice lessons.

“The most challenging thing for me was the dancing because I am not a dancer,” she says with a giggle. “I had to work overtime to even nail a step.”

But Hudson not only nailed the choreography, she nailed the role.

“One thing I thought about was my blessings and how I’m in a movie with all of these stars and I get the biggest stage. That alone made me emotional, you know. I’m a baby! And of course, getting to the source or inspiration of Effie, which is Florence Ballard [the original Supremes lead singer].

“In reading Florence’s story, I got angry for her. There were things that she wanted to say and things people wanted her to do. I feel like Effie is their way of giving Florence justice. So, I got angry and also, I lived in the moment, as though it was really happening to me. What if my sisters who I’d been with all of this time betrayed me? Or my boyfriend dumped me for someone else? How would I feel? Everybody’s been rejected and I just tried to take whatever was close to me to make it that more real.”

With a Golden Globe nomination and the potential to nab an Oscar come February, we’d say Hudson accomplished that and much more.