It's not easy singing opposite Jennifer Hudson. Even when you're Forest Whitaker.
"I was nervous singing the songs," admits Whitaker as Hudson, sitting next to him, laughs. The actor plays Hudson's estranged father, Rev. Cornell, in Black Nativity, a contemporary adaptation of the Langston Hughes Christmas musical, in theaters Wednesday. "It's not my zone."
Both are Oscar winners, but Hudson admits she was nervous, too. "When I did my first scene with him I was like, 'Oh my God, I am standing here and it's Forest Whitaker and it's Angela Bassett (who plays her mother). This is intimidating.'"
The two previously played father-daughter in 2008's Fragments, and reunite for the Christmas story, which adapts Hughes' 1960s play into a modern, Harlem-based story of an African-American family struggling to bridge years of distance on Christmas Eve. Gospel music fuels the tale, and director/screenwriter Kasi Lemmons assembled an all-star cast of voices, including Mary J. Blige, Nas and Tyrese.
"Forest has a beautiful voice," says Lemmons. "I knew Jennifer would be the heavy vocal lifting. It was written into her character. But with Forest and Angela, I just wanted them to be the people who they are."
Lemmons first saw a production of Black Nativity in Boston as a child. "It's really ingrained in my childhood memories, especially of Christmas," she says. "I was interested in if that could be re-created in a film. Also Langston Hughes is very, very important to me."
She wrote the role of proud yet cash-strapped preacher's daughter Naima for Hudson, hoping the star would agree to take it on.
"This is the first musical I've done since Dreamgirls," says Hudson. "Everything else I had turned down up to this point. But just all the different elements of the church, the family and then the holiday aspect - the combination of those things drew me in. I feel like those things are missing today. There isn't much to pull the family together. (Black Nativity) reminds you of the meaning of that."
And in a season that finds Whitaker garnering Oscar buzz for his turn as a White House servant in Lee Daniels' The Butler, the actor hits a new note as a hard-line preacher attempting to reach out to his daughter and her teenage son (Jacob Latimore).
Lemmons says a line in Whitaker's bio gave her the courage to approach him. "I saw that he wanted to be a singer when he was younger," says the director, which is how Whitaker ended up leading Hughes' tale on the big screen. Whitaker also produced Fruitvale Station, the story of Oscar Grant, a young African-American man killed at an Oakland subway station.
"Hopefully these films will open up the doors for films of all colors to come through - Latin, Asian, until we get to the point where we're just telling stories," he says.