'Whitney' Actress Says Houston's Death "Too Recent to Explore on Screen"

Yaya DeCosta also addresses the Houston family's disapproval of the Lifetime biopic.
Jack Zeman
Yaya DeCosta

Playing Whitney Houston is "daunting."

That was the word that Yaya DeCosta (Lee Daniels' The Butler) chose to describe her latest part, playing the seven-time Grammy winner in the eponymous Lifetime biopic, directed by Angela Bassett.

Rather than tackle the entirety of Houston’s life, which came to an abrupt end in early 2012, the telepic focuses on the high points of her career and her marriage with R&B star Bobby Brown (Arlen Escapeta). In fact, there’s no mention of Houston's death in either the movie or postscript.

Read more 'Whitney': TV Review

"One of the things that makes Whitney feel different is the strength and natural chemistry of its leads, DaCosta and Escapeta," The Hollywood Reporter wrote in its review. "She is beautiful, vivacious, giggling, and nearly sparkling in the movie's first half. Together, there is a palpable allure."

Bassett, a first-time director who rose to fame for her portrayal of another pop icon, Tina Turner, in the 1993 film What’s Love Got to Do With It, pulled on the experience she had with Houston working together on the 1995 film Waiting to Exhale, where she also met Brown.

But neither Bassett nor DeCosta had the Houston’s family to turn to for background research. They've been vocal about their disapproval of the project. In fact, the singer's mom, Cissy Houston, denounced the project last year: "Lifetime has chosen to go ahead with the movie about Whitney in spite of my family's objections," read a statement. "No one connected with this movie knew Whitney or anything about her relationship with Bobby."

Ahead of the Jan. 17 premiere, DeCosta opened up about how the lack of family support affected her role, the limitations of a television movie and whether she's open to playing Houston again.

Read more Whitney Houston's Mom Blasts Lifetime Biopic: 'Let Her Rest'

You describe the role as daunting. Did you have any initial hesitations?

I didn’t have any hesitations. It was daunting because it was Whitney Houston. It was a big deal. I couldn’t phone it in. Not that I phone in anything, but it is a role that is bigger than any role that I’ve ever done. It’s a woman whose stardom was larger than most stars in our lifetime. So, yes, it was daunting. 

What attracted you to the role?

Whitney herself, of course. I always admired her. I grew up listening to and knowing all the lyrics to her songs and singing them around the house. But when it came time to decide if this was the project for me, and when it came down to the script and whose hands it was in, I liked the time period that the film is set in. I liked how the characters came across on the page, and I, of course, jumped at the opportunity to be directed by another one of my inspirations, Angela Bassett.

Read more Angela Bassett Talks Whitney Houston Biopic on Emmys Red Carpet: "Controversy Can Be Good"

Did you speak with anyone who knew Houston during the preparation process?

With the time constraints and the lack of resources and the inability to access anybody — you have to understand that these are real people who lead private lives, and I actually wouldn’t know how to go about that in days — it was literally get on the plane, make the movie. If it were a big budget feature, I would shoot it over a number of months and we would have more resources. I’m sure had been in that scenario, I would have had the opportunity to try to contact someone. Understand that this is a Lifetime movie, and the benefit of that is that it reaches a lot of people who don’t necessarily go to the movie theater, who want to relive Whitney’s life in the comfort of their own home. But with TV movies comes constraints.

So, how exactly did you prepare for the role?

I did a lot of research in a short amount of time, and it included reading articles and interviews, watching hours and hours of YouTube footage of interviews and performances, a lot of different things. Again, when I say a short amount of time, I mean days. It was very, very intense. I didn’t sleep very much and I just immersed myself in her world as much as possible. We shot the whole thing in 20 days.

What do you make of the decision to not include Houston's death?

Her passing was pretty recent, I think too recent to explore on the screen. People want to remember the good times and feel good about who she really was. It was a very tactful choice and because of that choice, it’s a film that I’m proud to be of.

The Houston family has refused to give the movie their blessing. How does that affect the project?

That’s a question for Shem Bitterman, the writer, and possibly the director. I showed up for work as an actor for hire and said my lines and did my best to capture the essence of Whitney.

Since Bassett knew Houston personally, did she offer you any advice on how to portray her?

Absolutely, it was lovely. Sometimes on set in the middle of a scene she’d remember something, or maybe I’d do something that reminded her of something that Whitney actually did. There were little stories and anecdotes that helped bring her spirit to the set and helped inform my character.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned about Houston through the process?

When I watched her perform as a kid, I remembered how poised she was, and a lot of the performances that aired on television were at awards show or at venues where she was pretty much standing still and singing a ballad. In my research, I saw a lot of live performances of her on tour with a higher energy, fun being had, greater physicality, and lots more dancing. So that was something surprising that was nice to see, and we included some of that in the film.

Singer Deborah Cox re-recorded Houston's songs for the movie, so what was your experience of lip-syncing like?

This was my first time lip-syncing in film. It was a fun process. I got to watch Deborah Cox in the studio record some things, which was great because I could pay attention to her movements and breathing and incorporate that into my previous knowledge of the song and Whitney’s voice. Deborah did a wonderful job and I am so happy to have had her vocals to sing along to. She definitely sang the songs slightly differently than Whitney’s versions, which were the ones that I had memorized and knew from years ago that were ingrained in me, so I kind of had to relearn the songs a little bit. 

Would you be interested in participating in future onscreen depictions of Houston?

I would have to read the script... I’m lucky to have been the first to play her. I know a lot of other actresses out there who would love to play her. I did this project because of the sense of obligation I felt after noticing the signs and feeling propelled to do it by so many people and forces. If I felt that way again in the future and it made sense, then possibly.

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