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EXCLUSIVE: Tika Sumpter on 'Sparkle' & Working with Whitney Houston

The actress opens up on what it was like working with the late Whitney Houston and more.

Tika Sumpter plays sassy know-it-all Dolores in the movie remake of Sparkle. Lucky for her, Sumpter and Dolores, nicknamed Dee, have lots in common. They both have a carefree “I’m doing me” attitude and, much like Dee, Sumpter can sang. It’s a little-known fact about the Gossip Girl alum, who says she’s working on putting out music soon. She spoke with ESSENCE.com about playing Whitney Houston’s daughter (surreal!), rocking an afro on the big screen and debuting her own music.

ESSENCE.com: I loved you in Sparkle! I actually wanted to see more of you. Can I just make a complaint?
TIKA SUMPTER: You did? I’m so happy! That makes me happy. You can totally complain about that.

ESSENCE.com: So tell me about working on this project. It must have been such a monumental time in your life, working with Whitney Houston.
SUMPTER: It is! I mean anytime you get to work with an icon that’s playing your mom you’re like, “Really, I get to do that?” It was surreal on set and it’s surreal that she’s gone. I got to work with somebody who touched the world — not just the United States, the world. And she was generous, and giving, and loving and nurturing. And I’m just glad also that I got to work with a great director, great producer, and great writers. You know, I’m just really happy all around. 

ESSENCE.com: How do you feel watching Whitney Houston on screen?
SUMPTER: It’s joy and then it’s sad, because I actually interacted with her, I got to know her, I kicked it with her. That’s the sad part. The joyful part is I feel she left a presence for everyone, a little present saying goodbye. And she was happy and she looked good. It’s bittersweet.

ESSENCE.com: Where did you get your character Dee from? Was it just the script or did you take inspiration from other places as well?
SUMPTER: Well, Mara Brock Akil wrote a great script. Half of the battle was done because she wrote such a great character. And then I have a lot of strong women in my life. I feel like Dee gets her strength from her mom, Whitney. Her sense of having to protect her family is from her mom as well. Dee has this kind of know-it-all approach. She thinks she knows everything and her way is the right way because it’s logical and she’s a very logical person for the most part.

ESSENCE.com: I loved when she got an afro, but the other characters weren’t so encouraging. What was that process like for you?
SUMPTER: I feel like Dee really doesn’t give a crap. She lives and stands in it. The afro is a turning point when she grows in her character. She loves who she is and I feel she was part of a movement whether it was Black power or just loving yourself more. Of course she asks but she’s like, “I’m going to do me” and I love that about the character.

ESSENCE.com: Is any part of Tika in there?
SUMPTER: Of course! For the most part I just try to do what I like and that’s it. It doesn’t really matter if a blog says something about me; I’m still going to wear whatever I wear the way I want to. I think people just have to do, within reason, what makes them happy.

ESSENCE.com: Who knew you and Carmen Ejogo could sang like that?
SUMPTER: Yeah. I think people are really surprised when they see that actors and actresses sing. We find it normal because we are just being creative. I was actually singing before I was acting. And working with Jordin [Sparks] and Carmen was excellent. I didn’t know Carmen could sing like that. I was in the studio with her one day and she was signing and I was like, “Huh?” You know Jordin can sing — we all know that — but acting-wise she was very good. I thought she did great, and she would ask for advice. She was great.

ESSENCE.com: You spent six weeks filming in Detroit. What are the funniest things that happened on set?
SUMPTER: There are a lot of funny moments. Like the scene when we are at the dinner table. I hope they have outtakes on the DVD. Mike Epps is crazy. Whitney couldn’t stop laughing. It was still a hard day because it was a serious scene for Whitney and Carmen, but we just couldn’t stop laughing. We’d be dancing and singing and doing the dougie. Whitney could dance. She was just a bundle of joy.

ESSENCE.com: Being a singer yourself and being on set with Whitney must have been very interesting.
SUMPTER: You grow up singing all her songs in the mirror. It was surreal that she was even there. Sometimes I would be doing a scene with her and I’d be like, “This is Whitney Houston I am talking to.” And we’re talking like, “Girl please, uh-huh.”

ESSENCE.com: You’re a busy lady. What’s next for you?
SUMPTER: Well, [new BET series] Being Mary Jane just got picked up with Gabrielle Union, so I co-star and did some work on that. I filmed this movie with John Stamos called My Man Is a Loser, which should be out next year. And then I have some things cooking. Music-wise I’m about to do a performance of my music next month.

Sparkle opens in theaters this Friday.