Naomi Ackie is having a moment ... you could even call it “One Moment In Time.” The British actor, who was first noticed alongside Florence Pugh in 2016’s Lady Macbeth and has since appeared in the TV comedies Master Of None and The End Of The F***ing World, and a little movie called Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, is leading a film for the first time in her career. And she’s playing a true icon to boot: Whitney Houston.
To portray the legendary diva, Ackie tells The A.V. Club, she immersed herself fully into the process, watching Houston’s videos and interviews. “When you surround yourself with a subject for a really long time, it starts to subconsciously go into your body,” she says. Written by Anthony McCarten (The Theory Of Everything, Darkest Hour) and directed by Kasi Lemmons (Harriet, Eve’s Bayou), I Wanna Dance With Somebody follows the singer from her discovery by Arista Records executive Clive Davis (played by Stanley Tucci) in the early 1980s to her untimely death at age 48 in 2012.
For Ackie, it was one particular gesture that unlocked Houston’s physicality. “There’s one interview—it’s quite a long one, maybe in three parts on YouTube. She does this thing with her hand”—Ackie gestures with her right hand—“a lot. And that was the first thing I used to practice.” But it took many hours of watching and practicing for Ackie to overcome the natural trepidation about playing such a memorable public figure, one who’s still adored by so many. “Those little things were what I would hold on to and practice, really practice during the day by myself like a weird actor in her own flat, just a lot. All of it together created a space where I felt like I could capture some of the essence of Whitney.”
Hollywood has a long tradition of biopics about popular musicians that succeed at both the box office and on awards voters’ lists. Sissy Spacek won an Oscar for playing Loretta Lynn in 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter and Angela Bassett was nominated for her performance as Tina Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With It. Diana Ross and Andra Day have both been Oscar-nominated for playing Billie Holiday, in 1972’s Lady Sings The Blues and 2021’s The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, respectively. McCarten himself previously wrote 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which won Rami Malek an Oscar for his performance as Freddie Mercury. But Ackie didn’t watch any of those performances to prepare. “Actually there’s something about watching other people sometimes that can make me feel like, Oh, man, I’m never going to be as good. So I just tried to avoid everything and concentrate on the job at hand.”
Instead, Ackie approached I Wanna Dance With Somebody by becoming invested in Houston’s belief in her own talent. “The thing that I love about Whitney the most is how she always knew her voice was there. For the majority of her career, she didn’t push it too much. She didn’t over-practice or over-rehearse. She was very relaxed because she had all the faith in her ability.”
That belief became a crucial inspiration for Ackie. “To have a long career, you don’t need to necessarily always be trying to prove yourself or trying to do everything all the time. Actually, the practice of self-confidence was a big lesson. And I’ve left the experience knowing that I want to take some more risks. I want to do something else that’s scary. Because this was a scary one, and I did it.”
In the film (which lands in theaters everywhere on December 23), the audience hears Houston’s voice coming through as Ackie recreates many of the pop star’s popular music videos and iconic live performances. However, the actor’s choice of favorite Whitney song is surprising—not one of the biggest hits like “I Will Always Love You” or “How Will I Know.” “‘I’m Your Baby Tonight’ is my favorite, because I like the music video and it’s my favorite music video,” Ackie tells The A.V. Club, using the last moments of her interview to start joyously humming the song.