Naomi Ackie was little known in the United States when she was tapped to play the role of Jannah in JJ Abrams’ 2019 saga capper Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
But the intense pressure and fanfare that comes with joining the star wars the universe could only partially prepare the 30-year-old London native for her latest high-profile role: playing beloved pop star Whitney Houston in the new biopic I want to dance with someone.
“In some ways [it did], knowing that you are stepping into something that a lot of people have a sense of belonging and a huge love for. Absolutely,” Ackie told Yahoo Entertainment in a recent interview. “But it was also very different… It was quite a lonely journey at times, although I had a lot of help from everyone.”
Ackie, who also appeared in Doctor Who and The end of F—King of the worldwas undoubtedly put off by the role, which required her to sing live on set, though her voice was eventually replaced by the Houston recordings.
“It’s a trip,” she says. “And I think when I got the part and I knew that I was starting part of my life and dedicating part of my life to Whitney, I just had to believe that if I worked hard and I nibbled at the things that I know I needed to do to tell this story, that the end result would be something that people would appreciate and be touched.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Bayou d’Eve, Harriet) and written by Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody), the film follows Houston from her discovery by Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) at her mother’s living room in Newark, NJ to her rise to global stardom to her tumultuous relationship with her husband Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders) to her battles with the drugs and ultimately his tragic death in 2012 at the age of just 48.
But one aspect of its history – and the essential in I want to dance with someone – which will certainly attract renewed attention with the release of the film is Houston’s relationship with her best friend, longtime assistant and, at one point, lover, Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams).
Whitney and Robyn meet in a park in the opening minutes of the film, move in together and have a romantic relationship until the newly signed singer’s career begins to take off and her manager-dad (Clarke Peters) insists on the fact that she only sees men.
While in real life Houston never publicly discussed the same-sex relationship during her lifetime, Crawford revealed intimate details surrounding it in her 2019 memoir. A Song For You: My Life With Whitney Houston. Brown has also confirmed this in recent years. But gossip about the nature of Houston and Crawford’s relationship, particularly early in their lives, has circulated for decades.
“That’s something I have to say as a young actor in New York and sort of in the black showbiz circuit, we all knew that,” says Lemmons, who has appeared in films like School amazement (1988) and candy man (1992) before embarking on the cinema. “We didn’t know because we weren’t inside the room, but we all speculated about Robyn. In her life, she was obviously someone very close to her.
“But talking to people who knew her [for the film], it was obvious that this was actually a very important relationship. It’s a friendship that has lasted for decades. And we had to find a way to honor him and be honest with him. Honestly, I think it’s important because there was a lot of pressure [on Houston] from the outside world to conform to expectations. I think that put pressure on their relationship and you have to wonder how it would have been if they hadn’t had that pressure? What would have happened to them?
Some people who knew the ‘How Will I Know’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’ hitmaker, like one of his longtime songwriters, Diane Warren, said they thought Houston would still be alive today. today if she had continued her relationship with Crawford.
“I was very young, so I remember hearing whispers, but not even really old enough to really understand what people were whispering,” Williams says (Black Lightning), who plays Crawford in the film but has yet to meet her. “So I think now I know the truth and it’s now being exposed or uncovered or shared in this movie, I was just really excited for Robyn to be able to live in her truth and to be able to do it out loud.
“They meant a lot to each other, and it was a delicate and sensitive area. She lost a friend, and I believe they were soul mates and still are. So I wanted just approach it very carefully and portray Robyn in the best possible light.
For Ackie, it was important to her that Houston’s estate be involved in the project.
“When I read the script, I was so happy to see that Robyn was included, because it’s such a big part of her life,” Ackie says. “You can’t tell the story of Whitney Houston without Robyn Crawford. They were friends and more, and what I find so beautiful about their relationship is that they go from one thing to the next, and they never put a label on it. And so, in a sense, we can’t really put a label on it. But what they had was a deep love for each other. And showing that love, that she was loved that way by Robyn is a beautiful thing to show.
I want to dance with someone opens Friday.
Watch the trailer: