Naomi Ackie

Naomi Ackie Found Her Voice Playing Whitney Houston

Preparing to embody the voice of a generation, Ackie initially thought the project was "too big and too insurmountable."

There’s a scene near the 90-minute mark in I Wanna Dance with Somebody when actress Naomi Ackie’s generous sprinkling of Black Girl Magic will cause a rapturous call-and-response with audiences from London to Los Angeles. The moment builds up after a clip montage of Houston (Ackie) becoming decidedly done with the drama of Bobby Brown’s (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders) extramarital antics. Enter Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), who presents her with a demo cassette tape of “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” — the pièce de resistance song of a woman fed up. 

What happens next is the slickest of transitions, instantly taking fans back to 1999, when the original music video hit living rooms around the world. Ackie’s reinvented Whitney transforms from a frazzled bystander in her own life to a seductress who has put herself back on top. When asked if Ackie agrees that certain audiences, namely women of color, will clap the loudest as she enters the frame in sleek black leather just like Houston, she nods effusively, grinning ear-to-ear. 

“What I'll do when I go home is watch it with my family and go to a South London [theater] and just sit in the back and see how people react,” confesses Ackie, days before IWDWS premiered in New York City (the film arrives in theaters on Dec. 23).

The British actress’s connection to Houston started long before being cast as the lead in the Kasi Lemmons-directed biopic.

“You know what's so funny? ‘It's Not Right But It's Okay’ is the first song I remember coming out as a hit single when I was younger,” she says, reminiscing of her days back in Walthamstow, London. “It was the leather dress, the deep fringe, the bob. And she was like, ‘I've had enough. You're going to stop your wickedness, and I'm going to be OK.’ I remember singing that as a child, which is so funny, because can you imagine me at 8 years old talking about credit cards and stuff?”

The image of a precocious Ackie in pigtails singing “pack your bags up / get up and leave” might be, in the King’s English, cheeky. However, the 30-year-old recalls it was no laughing matter when she was offered the role of Whitney Houston, regarded as one of “the greatest singers of her generation.”

“There were many things,” Ackie shares candidly via Zoom. “I don't look like Whitney. I was really quite scared of playing an American person, because I've never played an American before. I was scared of playing a lead actress in something, because I've never done that before. There were many things there that I was like, ‘This feels too big and too insurmountable.’”

Ackie’s circle of trust tightened around her, quieting her fears wth affirmations. “I was just very, very lucky that my team, my family, and my friends were like, ‘Nae, if you don't try this you'll never know.’” 

Being pushed out of her comfort zone is something she found in kinship with Houston; their respective mothers encouraged not only commitment to their crafts but excellence. “My mom is so similar to Cissy Houston,” says Ackie, whose mother passed away in 2016. “There's the scene at the beginning, where Cissy is telling Whitney, ‘You said you wanted to do this, but you're going to do it and you're going to do it right,’ is exactly how my mom used to be to me when I said I wanted to be an actress.”

She continues: “At 11, I wanted to be an actress. And I'd been working on it, not professionally, but [attending] drama schools and Saturday schools. But when I applied for drama school, I sent in an essay once that was really not good. My mom started blasting me. She was like, ‘What do you think this is? You want to be an actress and you're sending in this?’ Then, she told me to redo it. And I did and it was so much better. I actually got into drama school then.”

That perseverance is why Ackie has, in a relatively short time, earned a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer as Anna in 2016’s Lady Macbeth. (An award she won one year after her screen debut in the short film, I Used to be Famous, and landed a one-episode role in the long-running British series Doctor Who.) Her hot streak continued across the pond just as Ackie was getting acquainted with American audiences. In 2019, she joined fellow Brit John Boyega in defeating the Dark Side in 2019’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and last year, she co-starred as Lena Waithe’s wife in Master of None’s third season, which was a moody homage to Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 classic Scenes from a Marriage.

Back in London, when the news broke of Ackie’s casting, she felt supported from the start because of the collective love for Houston. “I've got friends, who were like, ‘Oh my god, babe. You're playing Auntie Whitney.’ They were like, ‘We just call her Auntie Whitney in our house.’ In the U.K., there's a very parasocial relationship with Whitney, because she was one of the icons.” 

But depicting the celebrated highs and widely reported lows of “auntie’s” life came with a rollercoaster of emotions. “At first, I was like, ‘I'm going to be like Daniel Day Lewis on this.’ I’m going to completely transform and no one's going to recognize who I am. That was going to be my goal,” she says, laughing. “But as I started to learn about Whitney and realize we have a lot of parallel things in common, we're both Leos, down to our upbringing and our attitudes.” 

Then, there were the challenges of Houston maintaining her artistry and brand that echoed loudly with Ackie’s own hopes for a lasting career on stage and screen. “I realized that, for me, when you're young and you have a gift and you [believe] it's always going to be there, [but] you really do need someone to be like, ‘There's a business behind this. There are techniques that you need to do. There is a long road ahead, especially if you're a woman of color,’” she says. “Those things I was naive to in the same way that Whitney seems to be naive to when she was younger.”

Revisiting Houston’s life brought Ackie a greater sense of purpose on how she should authentically show up for herself. “I learned a lot about myself during the making of the film, which has instilled in me a sense of confidence moving forward,” she says. 

During the reenactments of Houston making The Bodyguard, there’s a scene when Clive Davis confides that he doesn’t feel Houston’s talents are being uplifted. When asked if that part left an impact, Ackie responds with a resounding yes. “For sure,” she says. “That's a brilliant question. There have been projects where I've felt like ... not even projects ... going back to even in the institutions I've been a part of, in learning the craft, and feeling like I'm not being taken seriously or that I'm maybe being a bit neglected. But doing this job and the things around it that I'm doing, I'm being instilled that I want freedom in my creative choices. And that's what really matters to me. Doing this allowed me to find a bigger voice and be able to say what I need really clearly.”

Above all, the call of the stage and screen truly united Ackie and Houston in spirit. “That's, again, a connection I had with Whitney, which was the love of the craft itself. And everything else around it is good and bad and everything in between, but the love of the thing that is special. It's just so special.”

Lead photo: Jon Gorrigan

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