5 Minutes with …
Was it challenging to play an iconic person like Whitney Houston in I Wanna Dance with Somebody?
What I realized, and this helped to put everything into perspective, was that she was only human. She was amazing in part because she was only human and achieved that much. To me, true empathy when it comes to working on something like this is to go, Yes, she had one of the most amazing voices in the world. But she was just as human as I am. Whitney had as many conflicts as I do, as many arguments with herself, as many problems as anyone else. In that context, it then didn’t become a challenge—it actually became like a dance between me and my imagined Whitney. And as soon as you kind of take people off of a pedestal, when you take people and you ground them, it becomes so much easier to do your job.
How did you prepare for and research the role?
I had coaches for dialect and movement. But I actually overdid it when it came to research. I watched every single one of Whitney’s videos on YouTube countless times, and it became like a prison. Funnily enough, that’s not usually the way I roll. Like, I’m pretty relaxed when it comes to prep for work. But this took a toll on my mental health. I had to take a break from the script and Whitney for about a month.
Was there added pressure playing a non-fiction character?
Yes. I’ve been thinking about this recently…so, you know, there’s the normal stuff: learn the accent, how her lips move around a song, what she physically looks like, how she presents herself. But there was also managing my anxiety around what I want to create and what I think other people want to see. That was a real tussle for me, because there is this kind of struggle about being a people-pleaser when you’re a performer. And I constantly had to be reminding myself, Tell the truth of the story. It shouldn’t be perfect. This is an affectation, you are pretending. So allow yourself the freedom to do that. That was a lesson that I learned two weeks before we finished [laughs]. It’s hilarious to me. I’m like, God, I wish I knew that right at the top!
Do you worry about any backlash from American actors as a British person playing an American of color?
Yes and no. I think there are not enough parts for black people and people of color in general. So really the problem isn’t with me playing Whitney, the problem is with the higher-ups not investing in the right places. As a black woman, being in this industry, I am going to [irritate] some people. They might be white, they might be black, they might be both, they might be anyone else. I am going to do things that upset people, but I can only follow my instinct—and trust that when people hire me, they’re not hiring me because I’m British or whatever it is, they’re hiring me because I offer a service, I’m good at my job and I have integrity. Am I worried? Yeah, but I’m trying to do this thing where I don’t worry about what people think about me anymore.
Editor’s Note: This Q&A was conducted by Lucy Allen of the Interview People.