To play Whitney Houston, British actor focuses on what was going on inside

Naomi Ackie, far from a lookalike of the late pop singer, says ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is a study ‘on the essence of Whitney.’

SHARE To play Whitney Houston, British actor focuses on what was going on inside

In “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” Naomi Ackie re-creates the pop singer’s national anthem performance in 1991.

Sony Pictures

Naomi Ackie, who stars in the new biopic “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” is the first to admit that she is not a doppelganger for the singer. In fact, she’ll go so far as to say she doesn’t look like her at all.

“I was like, are you guys sure? Are you absolutely sure?” Ackie said in an interview.

But the people who really knew Houston, her family and record producer Clive Davis among them, were all convinced that the rising British actor was right for the film, meant to be a music-filled celebration and a kind of corrective to other projects that took a more salacious treatment.

“It’s a study on the essence of Whitney and not the image of Whitney,” Ackie said. “I thought, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to speak on Whitney’s internal world, and everything else is completely out of my control.”

The film, directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou,” “Harriet”) and written by “Bohemian Rhapsody” scribe Anthony McCarten, shows Houston’s ascent from New Jersey choir girl to global superstar, with a focus on the woman behind the icon, troubles, triumphs and all, up until her death in 2012 at age 48. It opens in theaters nationwide on Thursday.

Q. The question of identity is important here as everyone has different ideas of what Whitney is and what she should be. How did you internalize that conflict?

A. I think it’s very easy to identify with that, especially if you’re a woman and especially if you’re a woman of color. That part felt quite simple to me, when you are told what you should be and for a time, you can adhere to that. And then at some point something in you shifts and you can’t anymore.


Whitney Houston poses with her American Music Awards trophies in 1994.

VINCE BUCCI/AFP via Getty Image

Q. Her performance of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the Super Bowl in 1991 is a big moment in the film. Tell me about re-creating that, and why that was so important to her.

A. How many performances of that song have been made? And for her to make it so individual, so memorable? Obviously (I’m) not American, and it even made me patriotic! ... I think one of my favorite things is that it was a moment where she was being herself. She didn’t want to wear a gown. She chose the outfit that she wore. And she said no, it’s going to be in my rhythm. I want it slow. And then to take it to these great heights? We tried to just bring the excitement of everybody observing it, even if you saw it on television, even if you weren’t there.

Q. This film doesn’t shy away from her drug use either, but it does so sensitively.

A. We have to remind ourselves constantly that this is an illness. These people suffering are not villains of their own story or other people. They are the victims of this illness and kind of allowing space and holding space for Whitney to be treated with a bit of compassion when it comes to that. How awful it must be to suffer through all your struggles and your addictions and then have a big portion of the media ripping into you and making fun of you during that period. I can’t even imagine. So it’s important to show it but also make sure that we hold on to her dignity.

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