Naomi Ackie on playing Whitney Houston: 'It felt like there were two Whitneys in the room at the same time'

With joyous Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody in cinemas, Rachael Davis chats to stars Naomi Ackie and Stanley Tucci and the singer's manager and mentor, Clive Davis


Naomi Ackie had to get into her 'nerd actor zone' as she studied every detail of Whitney Houston's life to prepare playing the singer


WHITNEY Houston's nickname 'The Voice' encapsulates the legacy that the legendary pop, R&B and soul singer has left on the music industry and popular culture.

She is one of the best selling music artists of all time, the only artist to have had seven consecutive number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100, has won two Emmys and six Grammys among other awards, and has been inducted into the Grammy, Rhythm and Blues Music and Rock and Roll halls of fame.

However, her death by accidental drowning in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 2012, with the coroner's report listing heart disease and cocaine use as contributing factors, has shrouded her memory in tragedy.

Seeking to change that narrative is the glittering, joyous biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, which chronicles the life and career of The Voice from her New Jersey upbringing to her legendary performance of 'The Impossible Medley' at the 1994 AMAs.

English actress Naomi Ackie (30), who's known for roles in The End of the F***ing World, Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker and Master of None, was given the honour – and challenge – of playing Houston.

She says she spent months researching the singer – her mannerisms, her vocal tone, her body language, her performances – figuring out how to approach playing her throughout several distinct decades of her life.

"It started very technically," Ackie explains.

"I actually still have it on my phone, the YouTube channels – I split, kind of surgically, her life into three, and tried to find the themes within interviews. From vocal tone, to movement, to attitude towards the press. That was how I started plotting her age, at least physically.

"And then experientially-wise, I was reading books, I was talking to people that knew her."

"I sound like such a nerd," she laughs, adding: "I spent eight months in my favourite nerd actor zone - it must have been awful to talk to me at that time."

When faced with the prospect of playing Houston, Ackie says she was "immediately intimidated by even attempting to try it".

"I don't even know how to describe it – Whitney has just always been there, always so present in my life," she says.

"Every wedding, every funeral, every christening, birthday, karaoke, when I'm on my own, when I'm with friends. I can't even remember the first time I listened to her music – that's not even part of the conversation. She's just always present."


Naomi Ackie says it was a relief she didn't have to sing in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody


Houston's omnipresence in Ackie's life also translates to her experience in filming I Wanna Dance With Somebody, as almost all of the vocal performances in the film are dubbed with the singer's own vocals.

Houston fans with a keen ear will notice something slightly different about the tracks featured in the film, as the original recordings have been remixed for a perfect sound in the cinema.

Originally, the recordings were mixed for a great sound in a car or on a home stereo – not for a movie theatre with surround sound speakers.

To really bring the songs to life, and to help them to blend seamlessly with Ackie's performance, the film-makers obtained not only the master mix but the original, raw multitrack recordings Houston made so that Ackie could hear the breathwork and inflections the singer put into her original performance.

"It felt like there was two Whitneys, like the real Whitney and me portraying Whitney were in the room at the same time," says the star, who reveals it was "a big relief" that she didn't have to sing for the feature.

"I think having her present in the room when those songs are being sung really helped me performance-wise. It felt like a safety blanket," she adds.

A key figure in the film is music executive Clive Davis, who not only built Houston's career but became her close friend.

Davis is played by The Devil Wears Prada's Stanley Tucci, while the man himself also worked as a producer on the film.


Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody stars Stanley Tucci as Clive Davis, the singer's manager, and Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston


All too often in music biopics, the relationship between manager and artist is strained and unhealthy, but that certainly isn't the case here.

"It was a nice part of the story that is a part, like you say, we haven't seen – we don't usually see that," says Tucci (62).

"They had a really great relationship. They had a great friendship, they had a great business relationship. And he became almost like a sort of family member, like an uncle, in a way, to her, and I loved being able to play that relationship with Naomi.

"It sort of starts out a little tentative, and you're not quite sure, and then you realise that they both had the same sense of humour, and they both had the same ear.

"And that, for a guy who couldn't sing, right, and this person who's like, one of the greatest singers of all time, (they) both hear the same thing, which I think is really interesting."

Above all, the team behind I Wanna Dance With Somebody wanted to ensure that they told Houston's story in full – showing the woman she was, her talent, and the incredible career she enjoyed, without shying away from the tragedy of her death and struggles with addiction.

"The purpose of this film is to show the full Whitney," says Clive Davis (90).

"It certainly was my mission to make sure that we show the life of a great music star and what made her special, unique.

"Our intent was not to whitewash the lethal impact of drugs – how they brought a unique person to a premature, tragic ending. But it is also to show the great talent, why she was beloved and an unparalleled talent that affected the world over."

"I think she changed all of our lives," adds Tucci.

"I think she became part of your life growing up in the... I was older, but you know, at that point. And then suddenly she just was there all the time, that music is there forever, too. And it's significant. Significantly changed pop music."

Ackie reflects: "That, and I think given how she left us, I think some of those lasting memories maybe haven't been cleansed yet.

"And I think that it's important to refocus the energy back on to the amazing parts of her life and the joy that was very present in her life. And I think this film tries to do that too."

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody is in cinemas now.