Sultry Singer and Actress Ledisi Packs on 40 Pounds to Portray Gospel Legend Mahalia Jackson

by Xara Aziz

The highly-anticipated film, Remember Me: The Mahalia Jackson Story, won the hearts of fans when it premiered at the Pan-African Film Festival and ESSENCE Festival of Culture earlier this year. And while it garnered critical acclaim among movie buffs, many could not fail to notice the visible weight the film’s leading actress, Ledisi, gained during the film.

“I wanted to feel that weight,” she explained to ESSENCE in a feature interview. She said she committed to gain 40-60 pounds for the role in order to bring Jackson’s character to life. In addition to the weight gain and weeks of research on the life and legacy of Jackson – a prominent gospel singer who rose to fame during the Civil Rights Movement – Ledisi knew she would have to carry the emotional weight as well. Her first scenes included learning about the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a dear friend of Jackson who was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

“It took me a minute to get it out. I can’t lie,” Ledisi recalls. “The second day, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.”

The movie was originally tapped to be a short project but quickly gained traction among movie executives who helped turn it into a feature-length film, a reprisal of Ava Duvernay’s award-winning film, Selma.

“I hung out with a few pastors to understand the purpose of ‘Jericho,’ and studied the Bible a little more. Preparation was really going into deep study of the spiritual work because she was anointed,” Ledisi said. “She could have easily done R&B and other styles of music. And she loved Bessie Smith. Her phrasing was like jazz music, the way she sang. I really studied her technique, and it was very hard to figure out all of that.”

The singer turned actress also made a conscious effort to tap into the vision of the film’s director Allen A. Miner (The Twilight Zone and The Catcher) as well as her castmates, an all-star cast including Columbus Short, Vanessa Williams and Wendy Raquel Robinson. To her, it was important to “reintroduce this notable figure to the world in a meaningful way.”

“It takes all of us, not just me. Janet [Hubert]. Columbus [Short], and all the different Mahalias. All of us. Every little piece mattered. So I couldn’t see that part until the end.”

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