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Actor Naomi Ackie recounts portraying Whitney Houston posed many challenges


The British actor Naomi Ackie plays singer Whitney Houston in the new biopic "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." It's really hard not to sing the name of this movie. Now, it wasn't a role that came naturally to her.

NAOMI ACKIE: I was aiming really high. I was just really aware of some of my limitations, you know, from the beginning - that I don't look like Whitney, I don't sound like Whitney, I'm not a singer. So there's a lot of things that I kind of had to fill the gaps for.

MARTÍNEZ: In an early scene, Ackie is listening to a sample song with Stanley Tucci, who plays legendary record executive Clive Davis.


ACKIE: (As Whitney Houston, singing) How will I know if he really loves me? I say a prayer with every heartbeat.

I could do something with the chorus, go up a key there, get more out of it.

STANLEY TUCCI: (As Clive Davis) Yeah, but that's not a reason to do a song. It's got to have a hook.

ACKIE: (As Whitney Houston) A hook?

TUCCI: (As Clive Davis) Yeah.

ACKIE: (As Whitney Houston) I'll give it a hook.

MARTÍNEZ: The film includes some of Whitney Houston's biggest hits, and it's her voice that's used for the singing parts. Ackie was born in 1991 when Houston was at the height of her fame, so Ackie really had to do her homework.

ACKIE: I definitely went through a stage of quite a long period where I was trying to preplan everything. I think it was out of panic, you know, trying to, like, correlate, like, maybe if I, you know, can find all the interviews that she's ever done, and I can somehow supplant every expression to every word, I can - but, you know, acting is not a scientific formula, and so much of it is about feeling your way through. I had to let go of that to find my version of Whitney.

MARTÍNEZ: The parts where you play a very young Whitney, presuperstar - I always feel that, for you, that gives you a lot of leeway to kind of figure out how you wanted to kind of portray that.

ACKIE: One hundred percent. My friends, at least in New York, have seen it now, and they kind of said, as the film progresses, the Whitney-like things that we know get more familiar, whereas with the younger stuff, it was about, you know, what is - the idea of youth and hopefulness was the thing that I really wanted to focus on. The idea of that, like, youthful confidence that you have when life hasn't really dealt you its - the hardest blows yet was interesting to me, and because of the research I had done before and, you know, the amount of, like, accent work I had been doing and research and movement and stuff, I still had that as a foundation to play with the idea of kind of reducing the age of some of the aspects of Whitney that I had seen later on in life.

MARTÍNEZ: The perception was that she was America's princess and she was a girly girl and wore dresses and high heels. But she liked to wear pants. She liked to wear, you know, tracksuits and stuff. I mean, that was Whitney Houston.

ACKIE: Yeah. Yeah. To be a Black woman, regardless of how talented you are, like, how you are perceived is so sensitive, especially with the ideas of femininity. When Whitney was coming up, the idea of somebody being a tomboy or maybe slightly more down to earth and maybe less kind of feminine in the traditional sense wouldn't sell. That's not a thing that people might have been interested in, especially from a Black woman, because as we know, like, I think is - you know, the ideas of femininity and Black women is a very sensitive subject. And Black women have been subjected to a lot of being masculinized in a really dangerous way. So it's that pressure to upkeep this image of a perfect girl who, you know, makes no wrong footings and is well behaved, I guess. And if you do that for too long, your true nature will always come out. And her true nature was somebody who was extremely down to earth, was for her family. She was for her friends, and she was really about connecting with people.

MARTÍNEZ: There's a scene where Whitney is in a radio studio being interviewed by a disc jockey.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) A common criticism of you and your music - that you're a sellout, that you're not a real Black artist.

ACKIE: (As Whitney Houston) If I'm not a Black artist, what am I?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You tell me.

ACKIE: (As Whitney Houston) Look, I don't know how to sing Black, and I don't know how to sing white either. I know how to sing. Music is not a color to me. It has no boundaries.

MARTÍNEZ: When you consider that she has put herself in a position where she's trying to be everything to everybody, but she can't seem to win, I mean, I can't imagine how the pressure didn't get to her sooner.

ACKIE: I know. I think that that idea is something I've grappled with in the past. You know, what - when your culture or your heritage is so, like, signposted and you're told - and it's all a fallacy, it's a lie, but you're told that you're meant to behave a certain way, good or bad, you're meant to look a certain way, and maybe your interests are in other areas, you can sometimes be subjugated to a little bit of criticism for that. I think it causes a lot of stress. I can't imagine. Like, especially when you know - when I put myself in Whitney's shoes, you know that you are capable of singing anything, like, absolutely anything, and why would you limit yourself? To have people say you should to make us feel safe is an insane thing. But then again, it's like, you know, you're in a business, too. I guess it's maybe a feeling of ownership potentially sometimes that people feel Whitney may have felt was controlling her, you know?

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. It's the brand versus the person - right? - because...

ACKIE: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Yeah, I think performers strive to create a brand that people can latch onto and be fans of, but then it seems like Whitney was having this private internal battle between the Whitney Houston brand and Whitney Houston, the person.

ACKIE: Yeah. And then how quickly did the media turn when suddenly Whitney, the person, bled into Whitney's public-facing life, and all of the accolades and stuff turned into cruelty? And I do think it is real cruelty. You know, I've read some of the tabloids. I've seen sketches where she's being made fun of, and that - those were at the worst, you know, points in her life. And the lack of empathy that was towards Whitney from certain places, especially when she was really ill, is quite disheartening because it doesn't matter if you have sold as many records as she has sold and had earned as much money as she has. She's still a human being and deserves compassion.

MARTÍNEZ: That's actor Naomi Ackie speaking about playing Whitney Houston in the new biopic "I Wanna Dance With Somebody."


WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) I'm every woman. It's all in me. Anything you want done, baby... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.