Whitney Houston biopic director Angela Bassett talks casting, Bobby Brown
Ever since Angela Bassett announced she would direct a Lifetime film on beloved singer Whitney Houston, diehard fans—and most of the Internet—have speculated on nearly every aspect of the film. Who would play Houston, with her prodigious voice and winning smile? Would her daughter Bobbi Kristina appear in the movie? Would her family be involved? How would her ex-husband, singer-songwriter Bobby Brown, be depicted? And what of Houston’s death in 2012—would that make it to the small screen?
The upcoming biopic—titled Whitney Houston—will focus on the pop singer’s relationship with Brown; it’s the first film about Houston since her untimely death two years ago at age 48. Starring Yaya Dacosta in the title role and scheduled to air on Lifetime in 2015, it’s a personal project for Bassett, who first met Houston on the set of their 1995 film Waiting to Exhale and one in which she’ll make her directorial debut. Bassett—a Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee—spoke to EW about the film; she shared details about the Houston family’s involvement, addressed casting rumors, and opened up about her biggest hesitation in signing onto a film about one of America’s most adored icons.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you choose Whitney Houston as your first directorial project?
ANGELA BASSETT: I obviously had worked with Whitney and, you know, just fell in love with her as the rest of the world did. And when this opportunity was brought my way, it really was something I couldn’t say no to. I felt that if I said no and let it pass, I could imagine having a great deal of regret, you know? I wanted to tell a story about a beautiful sista, which is of course an opportunity for me to grow as a woman and as an artist in many expected and unexpected ways.
I had been looking for, hoping for, if I were to direct, a story that I felt deeply passionate about. One that I could stay up all night just thinking about, caring for and nurturing. I’ve had opportunities in the past, but nothing that just grabbed me like this did. I could only hope that the script would support my desire, and it did. It had to be grateful, respectful, honest, and all those things, because we know in her lifetime there was a great deal of pressure and scrutiny. I didn’t want this story to add to that.
The film specifically focuses on Bobby and Whitney’s relationship, which might be the most controversial aspect of her life. Does that make it easier or harder for you?
Well, it was easy. I can’t say it was difficult. You know, I reflect it back on the moment I first saw them together. It was when I was doing Exhale. We were all on set in the living room together and [Bobby] came to visit. I, like everyone else, had some preconceived idea … people just looked at a photograph or picture of them together and thought “They’re incongruous.” “They don’t go together.” “Why is she with him?” I think that was usually the question, not “Why is he with her?” They could imagine her with someone else who does something else, who carries himself [differently], who looks somehow different.
We didn’t see any commonality between them and we, having nothing to do with their lives, [shared] our opinions and perception. We didn’t do it with anyone else, very few people. So that’s enormous. But that moment I had, where he visited the set, he made a very strong impression on me.
A positive or negative impression?
Just positive. He wasn’t loud. He wasn’t over the top. He wasn’t a showboat. He was grounded. His energy felt grounded and serious and supportive and loving. Without trying.
Is that the Bobby we’ll see in the movie?
Yes, I hope so. Yes, that’s my desire.
Is Bobby involved in the film? Has he given it his okay?
No. Bobby is not involved in the film. Of course, we’re very sensitive to whatever the relationships might be or what we have heard or what we perceive his relationship between her family and him. So we’re trying to be respectful.
Speaking of relationships—do you consider yourself having been close to Whitney after Exhale?
No, I don’t. I can’t. I can’t say that, but I think that I had an opportunity, of course, to appreciate and love her from afar and then to spend time with her in a working situation. She shined in a room but didn’t suck up the energy. Some people suck up all the air and it’s all about them. They mistake their presence for the event. But she didn’t do that. She was there to work, to work hard, she was joyful, she laughed a lot, she played, she was easy to be around. You know, she was a delight.
Part of that delight you talked about was derived in some part from her music. Have you secured rights to the music? And will you include that music in the film?
Absolutely. Absolutely. We have rights. With the time constraints of doing a movie for television, we have about 84 minutes or so. We’ve secured five songs.
Were there any challenges in getting legal permission to use songs?
No. The challenge was in trying to pick which ones! [Laughs]
As a director, what type of research are you doing to prepare for this type of movie? Are you going through her personal items, or speaking to her family for research?
No, not through her items. A lot of our research is from interviews, from interviews that she has given and we’ve crafted it within the framework of her meeting Bobby and taking that relationship about four or five years forward. And of course, I did read her mother’s book.
Have you been able to collaborate or work with the family at all with regards to the film?
No, they’re not participating. We reached out to them in the early days; of course we’re not going to do the movie and not say anything to them. You can if you’re using public domain, but that’s not our desire. We paid our respects and let the conversation be had, just to get their okay. They certainly could have been not involved and against it.
Does it hinder you that they’re not involved more?
No, it doesn’t. I really just want to tell a story about a boy and a girl who fell in love. And these are the words and this is the place, and these are are the people on the outside, you know? And I want to be as honest as I can about about doing that. If a boy tells a girl ‘I love you,’ well, what else can someone say? ‘He never said that,’ or ‘she said no.’ [Laughs] Whatever. I’m not sure what other people’s input could be. ‘Oh, he said it on the couch,’ or ‘Oh, he said it on the bed.’
But drugs were a part of their story, and that’s controversial in and of itself. How do you deal with something like that?
Right. Well, we know that drugs were a part of their story and that’s certainly an element of their story. We can’t tell their story without that. It’s involved, and I hope we can unpack it gently.
What are some of the specific challenges that have already arisen with this movie?
[Laughs] The challenges that I think happen with all movies. As a first-time director, I don’t want to rush or consider time constraints. Those are the challenges, but you’re excited. The night before [shooting], I literally slept 3 hours. I was completely running on adrenaline all day. And that happened last night. (Laughs) I’ve been getting no rest since. That’s what happens when I’m on the other side of the camera. You know, the night before you start something like this, you’re so excited, your head is spinning with all the buildup and then it’s like, the ship is moving, let’s turn it back onto that horizon.
I have to ask, though: There has been a little controversy around the casting and the involvement of the family. Do you read about that online, or through social media? Does it affect you?
It would if I read it. I’m sure if it would if I read it, because I’m a feeling person. But I don’t read it, because I want to stay in this place where I’m working with folk who have come to the table and care about this person. And it’s just not by and large another job. We care about the humanity of this woman and man, telling their story. I know it was going to be told, so I’m so humbled that it was put in my hands to tell it. So I’m going to protect it to the best of my abilities. I’m not going to read those negative comments because everyone has something to say.
As they say, ‘Opinion is cheap.’
Yeah. That’s right, it’s cheap. I wouldn’t expect to do this story and no one cares. No one has a thing to say about it. [Laughs] No.
Do you want your movie to be the definitive Whitney Houston biopic? Would it bother you if her family members produced their own movie?
Not one bit. This is going to be the trailer to the movie they’re going to make. How can this be definitive? Her life, her stardom, was so massive. Nothing that’s never been seen or done before, her talent was so anointed and so galvanizing, like nothing ever heard before. She was like no one ever known before. She deserves to have this movie, and another movie, and everything and anything else.
You’re making this movie for Lifetime. Do you think this movie will be received better on television than through theatrical release?
Well, it comes to you. It’ll come to your home, I think. The access. If you’re interested, it’s right there.
Will you address her death in the film?
No. That’s one of the things I do appreciate about the story at least, with this first story about her. We’re not interested in dragging her life again through, you know, the muck. She had to play out her choices, and the consequences of them, in a very hot, glaring spotlight, but we’re not interested in dragging that through again.
Was that your decision, or had that decision been made before you came on board?
That was in the script. That’s one reason why I’m on board. Otherwise, you walk away. You walk away from it. It’s not worth it to me. Not as a black woman to do that to the life of another black woman, who was amazing and lovely.
In uplifting her memory to the highest standard possible, did you ever think about casting her daughter Bobbi Kristina as Whitney herself?
No, I did not think about that. I did not think about casting her. And probably for a number of reasons, you know. One being that she’s not an actress. I know she’s acted here and there. I know she’s been on their family’s reality show, but she’s not an actress and acting is a craft. It’s an attempt to illuminate the complexities of human behavior and life. And this is a very fast-paced schedule; we have just 21 days to tell this story. It’s more than just saying lines and turning the light on. You have to drive the story—there’s a technical aspect.
Right. You cast Yaya DaCosta as Whitney—and you went with a cast of newcomers for this film as opposed to more established actors. Why is that?
Because I want you to fall into the world of Whitney and Bobby. And I don’t want to stop you at the gate with maybe the image of something familiar, someone you’ve seen from something else. You’ve already got your perception of them as an actor and person, and now you’ve got to put that to the side and squint your eyes and imagine this is Whitney and Bobby, you know what I mean? (Laughs)
And listen. Let me tell you something. We sat in the casting process and it is no easy feat for an actor to come into a room, bare their soul, to open themselves up to these words, this process, and these people. It’s not like, Oh my gosh, I have six good choices for Bobby. No, you don’t, you have two. Searching for weeks and only two rise to the top. They had different qualities that are like Bobby. You’ve gotta be like, which way do you want to go? And the same with Whitney. There are maybe one and then another. But Yaya was far and above the only choice, you know.
It’s been rumored you might have a role in the film as well. Will you?
No, I won’t. I think there was some hope from someone in one of the conference rooms at Lifetime, but no. I know how I get when I’m acting a role. You spend 24 hours thinking about that one thing, that one character, that character’s motivations, obstacles, and this, that, and the other thing. I know some folks do it [act and direct], but this is my first time—so I don’t want to do this and that. And I don’t want to take a role from a working actor.
This interview has been edited and condensed.