Ever since Yaya DaCosta landed the once-in-a-lifetime role of playing late iconic singer Whitney Houston, fans and critics alike have been wondering if the Harlem, N.Y. native has what it takes to pull off such a feat.
While the America’s Next Top Model runner-up’s credits include All My Children and Ugly Betty, the 32-year-old actress and mother doesn’t have a marquee name just yet. But that is likely to change after Lifetime’s made-for-TV movie, Whitney, debuts this weekend and viewers see DaCosta’s compelling and convincing portrayal of Houston as an introverted, cocaine-addicted superstar who wanted to fall in love and have a family.
DaCosta talked to Essence.com about what it was like to walk in Houston’s shoes after being a fan since childhood, the singer’s controversial relationship with her childhood friend Robyn Crawford and Bobby Brown’s humanity.
What made you want to play Whitney Houston?
I’ve wanted to play Whitney Houston for a long time and it’s something I thought about and spoke about a little bit to relatives and maybe one interviewer years ago when she was still with us. And a lot of times dreams are visions becoming reality. I didn’t realize it would happen so soon. I didn’t realize she would leave us so soon or that the movie would come about. It all happened very quickly. I just kind realized it was time to do this and just try to honor her memory in a film that was going to be fun and beautiful.
You really captured her mannerisms and her walk and her wigs. It’s scary how good you are. Can you talk about the process of learning her mannerisms?
That moves me so much. Thank you so much. We had a limited amount of time to prepare. So, it was really intense. It happened very quickly and basically once I decided that I had to do this, I knew that there were certain sacrifices that I had to make and one of those included sleep. I was barely sleeping and finding time to get enough food so that I wouldn’t disappear. Just grueling hours. It was really, really hard work but at every opportunity, I was reading articles about her, about her mom, about her cousins – researching not just her interviews but her upbringing. I’m also an East Coast girl from Harlem. She’s from Newark—they’re not that far apart. So really, looking at her upbringing, her church and listening to the way that she spoke but also how the people around her spoke and how they informed who she became because she was pretty widely known at the beginning of her career. Her mother kind of molded her. I spent a lot of time just trying to capture her essence and even when I wasn’t on set, which was almost never, I was just not letting her go. So, when I was driving on the weekends, out trying to get something to eat, the way that I picked up the food, I tried to make my fingers her fingers. The refreshing thing was that the more I learned about her, the more similarities I found and the more I could just trust that I had her in me, I just had to find her and really exploit those things that were similar. You know, I like to smile. But she smiled big.
When you were on America’s Next Top Model and you didn’t smile like that.
In defense of our humanity and our right to grow and change, remember that was a decade ago. So, I’m a different person now. That said, I did try to get Whitney’s smile down.
When she smiled, she smiled big with her whole face and all of her teeth.
You could see all her teeth.
In an early scene, at the Soul Train Awards, you even had the high-voltage smile down.
Yeah, that’s definitely one of the things that I wanted to try so thank you.
Did you go back and watch the 1989 Soul Train performance or any of her other performances?
Oh, I watched every performance YouTube has to offer. Granted, I stuck to the time period that we focused on in the film. But there’s a lot that I learned about her performance style that I didn’t know because I didn’t get to go to concerts. I saw her perform on television as a young girl and in music videos. There were times when she was on tour that she was a lot more animated and even freer than she was when I saw her do ballads in a very poised way. So, I got to use some of that which we knew but also respected the fact that she was a multifaceted person and she wasn’t one note. She had times when she was very poised and controlled and there were times when she was very free and kind of had fun on stage and did a lot more dance moves than I knew. That’s why when I did the I’m Every Woman montage, that night was so fun. People might look at it and say, “Did she dance that much?” Well, sometimes she did. That’s one of things in my research that really surprised me and that I loved.
Would you call yourself a fan of hers? And what is your favorite Whitney Houston song?
When I was growing up, I was a fan of hers. I was a little sister of hers; a daughter of hers. I just saw myself in her so much, especially as an adolescent trying to come into my own and trying to feel beautiful in a community where the very slender girl isn’t always seen that way. It’s definitely a specific subculture. Now, it’s becoming mainstream possibly but at that time it was, ‘Oh, you’re so skinny.’ Whitney was, and she was beautiful and she was a sex symbol and it was inspiring an empowering. One of my favorite songs is “Saving All My Love For You.”
The movie explores Whitney as a shy person who wasn’t always ready to be on. But that was her job and she had to do that. It also explores her relationship with Bobby (played by Arlen Escarpeta) and shows him in a way more sympathetic light than people may be used to in popular culture. Can you talk about that?
One thing I’ve heard Angela say in interviews and even in rehearsal, and that most people didn’t know is that Whitney was older than Bobby. They were both superstars at that the time. But she was a not a naïve little girl. It’s unfair to blindly accept the cliché that he was this big bad boy that corrupted an angel. We are all complex individuals and I appreciated the writer of the movie (Shem Bitterman) for not accepting the status quo and trying to examine the complexities of what their relationship might’ve been like and who they really were as people and just honoring Bobby’s humanity. No matter what choices we all have, we all deserve to be seen as human beings that make choices – not good or bad people. He deserves compassion and I’m grateful for this portrayal.
The relationship with Robyn Crawford is never fully explained. She said that was her only friend. How do you think people are going to receive it? People assumed if they were that close, it was probably romantic. That’s not where you go in the movie per se. Was that discussed?
Yeah. [laughs] Look, I’m a woman who has loved women. I have amazing family members and amazing friends. No matter what audiences might project onto that relationship, either in life or in the film, what is true is that they were true friends. They loved each other and they were loyal. Not many of us experience that kind of loyalty especially people who reach that level of stardom and it is very alienating. Hopefully, audiences can relax and get over the desire to put labels on people and just be glad that she had a true friend and someone who had her back and loved her, who she called family.
Deborah Cox sings the vocals for you. Is that hard to do, too? It looked like you were singing.
I was singing on set so that I could look like I was singing. But what you’re hearing is Deborah Cox. Thank goodness for Deborah Cox because she did such an amazing job. She really captured Whitney’s essence through song. I was lucky to have her vocals to sing along to. That was a whole other thing to study. Not just Whitney but Deborah. Because I had to kind of merge the two and pay attention to where Deborah inhales or exhales. Where her mouth might’ve quivered and all of the things that were slightly different from the originals. Because I memorized the originals growing up. I know exactly the way Whitney sang them and this was slightly different. So, I definitely had to relearn the songs a little bit. But, thank goodness for Deborah.
If there’s any one lesson you hope people walk away with after seeing Whitney, what would that be?
I just hope people enjoy the film and that they can be reminded of Whitney’s humanity and remember one of the best times in her life and be grateful that she was so generous. She shared herself so much with her fans. I hope people walk away with a little bit more compassion and understanding about Whitney and Bobby’s story specifically but also thinking about how they interact with and treat artists, performers and celebrities in general because now there’s so much more direct contact. Whitney didn’t even have a Twitter page. There was an amount of distance. But now, it’s very easy to reach out and say, “I love you.” But it’s just as easy to reach out and say, “I hate you.” They read that and they’re human beings just like you.
Whitney premieres Saturday Jan. 17 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.