Angela Bassett knows a thing or two about bringing a world-famous diva to life on screen. Her own acting career kicked into high gear after her portrayal of Tina Tuner in 1993's What's Love Got to Do with It (which won her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination). And after two decades of memorable work in front of the camera (such as How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Malcolm X, The Rosa Parks Story, and her deliciously creepy characters on American Horror Story), the 56-year-old Bassett is making her directorial debut with another famed diva's story, Whitney on Lifetime this Saturday at 8 p.m. ET.
Bassett, who co-starred with Whitney Houston in Waiting to Exhale in 1995, clearly understands the responsibility that comes telling the story of a cherished icon. Concentrating on Whitney's relationship with the love of her life, Bobby Brown, the film follows the two from their first meeting as young super stars in the early '80s to a few years after the birth of their daughter Bobbi Kristina. Yaya DaCosta stars as Whitney Houston, Arlen Escarpeta is Bobby Brown, with Deborah Cox performing vocals in four amazing recreations of some of the singer's biggest hits. InStyle chatted with Bassett as anticipation for the bio-pic was growing. Excited, yet confident, Bassett explains how she made this larger-than-life woman someone we can all relate to.
What made you want to take on this project—telling Whitney Houston's life story—as your directorial debut? There was a little fear about directing it because there were many others who had experience, and I had none directing. What I had is a great passion and love for Whitney, great compassion for Bobby and their relationship. And there were many that did not. Being a person in the spotlight myself, I have an awareness of how that scrutiny you have of being in that fishbowl and how that pressure can turn an open spirit into a closed one. I think I had enough self-awareness that I could be the woman for this great opportunity. Not to mention, the regret I would have had if I said no would have been enormous [laughs].
What are some words of wisdom you gave Yaya DeCosta as she prepared to play Whitney Houston? I’ve had directors who have been rough and hard and I’ve had other directors who treat you as if you are the most glorious creature doing the most amazing thing. I wanted my actors to trust me because I trusted them, and I knew that he and she were the man and woman for this moment. I just kept saying, “Just go in, just go in! Open your eyes, uncross your hands. Give your entire heart to him, to this moment, for Whitney, for Bobby, for love, everything. You are everything.”
Why did you chose to focus on such a short period of Whitney's life? Before I came on board, a cradle-to-grave narrative was written. It was too much for many reasons. It was too much technically for 84 minutes [laughs]. So it was decided even before I signed on that the focus would be on those years—from the moment she met the love of her life, had her daughter, had the greatest success of her life, her glory of her days—all those great things before what takes over ultimately. And that’s the tribute because she’s gone too soon. It’s sad that we have to do this story, that it has to be done, but in the telling of it, maybe it’s cautionary for us who are here and don’t have to live under such pressure. With that gift comes great responsibility, and some are unable to bear it. She was not able to. Bobby was. He’s still here. He’s still in the fight. That’s a beautiful thing, and that’s a question for each of us. Before life and death, choose life.
The concert scenes in Whitney are amazing! Especially the "I'm Every Woman" performance, where you see her in different costumes in different cities. How did you create that? It was fun and it was hard fun [laughs]. Early on, I knew had four songs of Whitney. “I’m Every Woman” is such a favorite of mine, and makes you feel fierce, and like “I can conquer it all and do it all!” We were trying to find a song that best serves the story, of course one I loved particularly, that’s when I thought of her and thought of all the pressure and the struggles of what she had to go through. When I saw the concert schedule for The Bodyguard, and how brutal it was, from city to city all throughout Europe and Japan, I knew we had to capture it. Of course, we couldn't be in a huge stadium, so we did the best we could. I thought, if we could tell the story in four different outfits—instead of one and it keeps changing. I hope it suggests we’re in different places.
And the songs were amazing, too. Deborah Cox—I could not believe her voice! Were you in the recording studio with her? Yes. I picked her up and took her to the recording studio, and she threw down. She loved Whitney. She studied at the feet of Whitney as a singer in Toronto. That was the mountaintop for her and how to do it. When we recorded “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” [Deborah] came in, and she hit it out the park in 30 minutes. I was like, “That was 30 minutes. You sure you got everything?" The technicians were like, “We are [usually] in the studio all night long—and she has thrown us back on our heels.” It was just so perfect, and we just went on from there. I’m so blessed. We are so grateful for Yaya, Deborah, Arlen.
Has anybody who is portrayed in the film seen it yet? Bobby Brown? Clive Davis? Any of Whitney’s family? That’s my desire for them, for them to see it. I actually showed the film to Ms. Dionne [Warwick] yesterday, and Whitney’s cousin on Sunday because it’s important to me that they have an opportunity to see it if they want to. As you said, I’ve portrayed other strong, iconic women, and they’ve all had their struggles, their resilience, their weaknesses, their strengths—they’ve all had it, and I’ve always approached it with dignity and humanity because this is our life. This is going to be our entertainment, this is for our viewing pleasure, but this is their life. In directing this story, I respect that first and foremost. This is their life, this is their daughter, this is their wife, this is their mother, this is their cousin, this is their best friend. She is every woman.