Even though I’m opening my mouth and her voice is coming out for a second, I felt like I was Whitney Houston.
Already a member of the vanguard of young British stars—in part thanks to her breakout turns in 2016’s Lady Macbeth and 2019’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker—Naomi Ackie is having her main-character moment with Kasi Lemmons’ Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
Capturing on screen a life as well-documented as Houston’s—and that persona—is a mountain to climb. For Ackie, it required dialect lessons, many wigs, and a whole year spent with Polly Bennett, the same movement coach behind Emma Corrin’s Princess Diana, Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury, and Austin Butler’s Elvis. Beyond the facade, she had to negotiate between Houston’s heady triumphs—as a music and film icon, with a storybook rise to global stardom—and the soul-sapping lows she endured. The latter included her turbulent relationship with her domineering father-cum-manager, mounting financial problems, the self-destructive refuge she sought in Bobby Brown, her closeted affair that a homophobic society made her feel compelled to repress, and her eventual descent into drug addiction. The combination of a heroic rise and devastating decline made Houston’s life almost worthy of a Shakespearean saga—a doomed heroine who inspired multitudes, while battling demons from within and without. And as Houston, while far from the singer’s physical double, Ackie nails the hardest part of all: Channelling a singular incandescence.
Ackie also has two other exciting projects on the horizon: Zoë Kravitz’s directorial debut Pussy Island, and Bong Joon-ho’s Mickey 17 starring opposite Robert Pattinson, set for release in 2024.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is exclusively in theaters on December 23rd.
How is your day shaping up, Naomi?
Good! I got in today. God, when did I get in this morning? I’m slightly spacey and crazy. [laughs]
Everywhere I turn, I see your face in LA, on billboards, on TV… This really is your moment.
Thank you so much! God, that’s really nice.
I have this quote from you: “The most challenging part of portraying Whitney Houston is portraying Whitney Houston.” How did you manage expectations versus what you wanted?
I think it’s a very hard thing to balance, you know? With a film like this, you know that there’s so many eyes on it and you never want to make a wrong step. But that sometimes helps what your instinct is telling you. I think I went on a journey of, at first, trying to be really “perfect” and being frustrated with myself for not being “perfect.” And I found my freedom when I got down to what I believed the core of Whitney to be. I found that essence in me and reflected on that and knew that would be enough, or hoped that would be enough. It feels like it’d be too metaphorical, but I think that was the journey for me. It was a way to soothe my anxiety as just a person in the world.
There’s a moment in the film where Whitney admits that she’s exhausted “being everything for everyone.” It was impossible for her, and for you. It’s just impossible for anyone to do.
Yeah! And the thing is, that line, “being everything for everyone”— it’s the best part of stories, really. I think many people have felt that. The thing that’s special about biopics and things like that in general is that you get to see people that you’ve idolized for so long in a very personal light, where you actually see that there’s so much more to them that’s like you than you previously thought. I know I’ve felt a lot of the kinds of things that Whitney is feeling in the film. I have experienced it. So it was quite gratifying to know that someone that amazing has gone through similar stuff as I have. That made me feel closer to her as a person.
It’s one thing to emulate a public persona, but to breathe truth into an interior life is a different animal. Where did you start in your research, and how did you know when to stop?
That is such a good question. Because there was one point where I didn’t know where to stop. Everyone was like, “Naomi, take a break!” [laughs] I just got too crazy about it. I started with two books in particular—by Cissy Houston [Remembering Whitney: My Story of Love, Loss, and the Night the Music Stopped] and Robin Crawford [A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston]—because I think there’s something quite special about the written word. It was also about seeing Whitney’s different aspects through two people who loved her so much and were so close to her. It was really helpful. Then you’ve got, obviously, the plethora of interviews that she’s given over the years. What I found fascinating about that was, you can really see her attitude change about her public image as time goes on, which helped inform what was in the script for me. Then you’ve got the performances. And I had the privilege of talking about Whitney with people who knew her, like Clive Davis, Pat Houston, Gary Houston, and Rickey Minor. These are all people who were the closest to her, and who were present during the making of this film. So I was checking in a lot. That was extremely comforting, to know that they were there to support and also to advise.
Clive Davis went on the record to say, “Naomi Ackie’s screen test was so powerful. It sent shivers up my spine.” That’s quite an endorsement, not only from Whitney’s friend and colleague, but from the film’s producer. He’s somebody who’s used to discovering talent. He knows it when he sees it. As you just mentioned, he must’ve had so many stories to share.
So, so many stories. It was amazing the first time I met Clive. We drove to his house and we spent the day there. He shared with us pictures and memories and his extensive knowledge about Whitney as a person, as a performer, and as a businesswoman. He loved her. I think his involvement with this film was about sharing his love for her with everyone else. He was a facilitator of that. It was beautiful to see. Looking at his face, watching him talk so fondly of her, was really warming to see.
Is there something about her that you found particularly intriguing and want to foreground?
I guess one thing that would always make me laugh was that she really liked vacuuming, which is the opposite of me. [laughs] Beyond that, it feels like she was a really down-to-earth girl, and that carried on throughout her life. It feels like there were two different sides to her. One was public facing as the queen of music, and of so many different genres, which I didn’t realize. She had this tension about the styles of music she was singing, and I didn’t know that about her. The fact that she fought against that and was still like, “I want to explore any genre that makes me feel joy”—she’s a pioneer within her field.
On the subject of dichotomies, you once spoke about inhabiting her princess and tomboy sides at once, which would manifest in her physicality. This sounds like mental gymnastics.
A lot of mental work. But I would say that it was way more physical than mental. It was understanding that Whitney, or my imaginations of Whitney, in different spaces would do different things to her body, down to even how she talks. I’ve been talking a lot about the fact that, if you look at home videos of Whitney, and then interviews of Whitney, you can see where the code-shifting is. We all do it, especially people of color. I’m doing it right now! [laughs] You can’t help it. It just happens. I’m from Northeast London. When I’m around my family, I talk very, very different. The most fascinating thing about Whitney was finding where those contradictions came face to face, where the tension is. It’s like, do you want to be something else right now, but you’re having to be this other thing? What are those opposites, and how do they live in the same space?
We can’t know for certain, but had Whitney been around to see your portrayal, do you think she might’ve appreciated it as a sort of impressionistic art from one artist to another?
Yes, I hope so. I hope that she would look at it as a poem or something. My goal very quickly became about creating my idea of Whitney through the work I have done in learning about her, and not about imitating her down to a T because that’s impossible. That’s also not enjoyable for me to do because I’m a creative, not a mirror, you know? Once I got my head around the fact that, no matter what I do, I will not look like Whitney Houston, I was able to find my freedom as a performer and do what I do—what I do best in my life anyway, which is to tell a story.
You told W magazine that one of the first things you ever saw on TV growing up that left a big impression was The Prince of Egypt. How crazy is it that you’re playing Whitney now?
It’s mad. It’s mad!
Did you already have dreams of acting at that young age?
I really did. And these were videos that played on a VCR. [laughs] My sister and I genuinely would watch these movies on repeat. We did this with three films: The Prince of Egypt, Mulan, and Grease. We would watch them all the way through, rewind them, and watch them from the beginning again. Like, wow, we were obsessed with those films. I think the idea of play, and the idea of music and movement, were sparking me from a really young age. And to know that Whitney was partially responsible for that feels like a very full circle experience right now.
I was talking about this with another actor the other day: The constant pursuit of something in the craft that’s hard to put into words. That magical moment on set where everything is clicking, everyone is in sync, and you’re capturing lightening in a bottle on camera. That something, which keeps you coming back. Did you have a moment like that on this film?
You know what? I had it on this project. It was mostly when I was performing if I’m being honest. The stage performances. I think it strengthened my understanding of why she did it. Because it’s one of the best feelings in the world. I’m not a singer or a musician or anything like that. I’d never done anything like that before and it was quite scary to me. But the thought that you can harness people’s energy in that way, it’s an addictive feeling. So even though I’m opening my mouth and her voice is coming out for a second, I felt like I was Whitney Houston. [laughs]
It was the best feeling in the world. It’s a sharing thing. You’re sharing your voice with people. You’re communicating a feeling through your voice and it reverberates around a room. “I Will Always Love You” was one of my favorite performances to do. “Home” was another one of my favorites to do. In those moments, all the practice and rehearsals and all the stress just suddenly made sense, and it was a very freeing thing for me.
I have to ask you about Mickey 17.
I actually just finished it yesterday.
No way. How did you get involved with that project?
I was asked to have a meeting with director Bong, and we just chatted. I was talking to him about how I like to work, and he was talking to me about how he likes to work and what his inspirations are. He asked me to read the script in the most loveliest way. I read it, and then a few weeks later, we had another chat about the script, and then the offer came through. It took me completely by surprise. It was genuinely one of the most beautiful experiences working with director Bong. I would do it again and again and again. He creates such a beautiful space to create. I think he’s just one of the best. I’m obsessed with that man.
And you play a character named Nasha?
Yeah, and I think that’s all I’m allowed to say, which is really hard for me because I want to scream everything about it from the rooftops. But I’ll leave it til next year when we start promoting it.
2024 seems so far away all of a sudden.
I saw the teaser, too, and I was like, “Oh my god—years from now.” [laughs]
It’s something special for you to hold on to at least.
Yeah, exactly. Thank you, my love.