When Naomi Ackie was approached to send in an audition tape to play music icon Whitney Houston in the film “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” her initial thought was, “Are you guys absolutely insane?” The BAFTA-winning actress admits she asked herself, “How would I even go about trying to emulate someone so amazing and so big? Whitney Houston is one of those people that feels like you’re playing a superhuman.” Watch our video interview above.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is a joyous, emotional, heartbreaking celebration of the life and music of Houston, one of the greatest female vocalists of all time. The film directed by Kasi Lemmons tracks the singer’s journey from obscurity to musical superstardom.
SEE ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ screenwriter Anthony McCarten is Naomi Ackie’s secret Oscar weapon
The actress reveals that once she got the role, the physical changes were her first priority. “I was working with a personal trainer, dropping about 30 pounds,” she explains. “It was looking at her movements. I worked with movement coach Polly Bennett on how to tell a story through your body. It really started to inform what we can infer from the way Whitney moves about her as a person. That was, for me, the most change I felt. The other part was, I spent about six months with a dialect coach really getting specific about the history of the accent and where it came from and why. That clues into who Whitney is. Trying to work on vocal quality as well, to sound like you’re a singer, to sound like you’re getting older.”
Ackie says she found a similarity between herself and Houston in “code shifting.” “I’m from Northeast London. When I’m around my family I talk very, very different. That was interesting too because you can figure out who she’s comfortable with. It teaches you about different dynamics in her relationships. That was all really fascinating. So much of this is all about imagination too because I can’t actually know everything that was going on in her mind.”
SEE Whitney Houston songs ranked: Her 35 best hits we will always love
“Because she’s called a diva, and my traditional view of a diva is the dresses and sparkles and money and fur and all of that, I didn’t realize how much of a normal, everyday, grounded girl she was,” Ackie admits. “I never saw that part of her. Learning things about her family, where she grew up, how different she was. She was beautifully different when she was by herself. That part surprised me. My initial idea of her was that she would walk around in floor-length dresses and gowns with fur on them, with some very furry, small dogs. That’s not the case at all.”
When people watch the film, Ackie says, “I hope the audience leaves with joy about Whitney as a person, with a new energy to look at her music and look at her life. And maybe an invitation to look at Whitney through a different lens and bring her off of the pedestal. No one should be put on a pedestal. We’re all humans and we can do amazing things, but being a human is enough. Taking her down and then really seeing how amazing she was would be my hope.”
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