Angela Bassett, the director of Whitney, talks about the film and Whitney Houston in an exclusive phone interview with Star2 from Los Angeles.
Bassett recalled a special moment while working with the late Whitney Houston for the first time on the set of Waiting To Exhale in 1995.
Whitney – who had made her acting debut in the wildly successful The Bodyguard three years earlier – was filming a scene with another actor.
“He doesn’t know the lines, he’s frustrated he doesn’t know them and he’s making his frustrations known. It was a lot,” shared Bassett, 56, who co-starred as Whitney’s best friend in the romantic drama.
“But the expression on her face was as if he had said them brilliantly. She wasn’t thrown by his lack of preparation, She was prepared. We couldn’t believe it. The actor was making it hard for her. But she held her own and she held her peace.”
The 56-year-old actress – the director of Whitney, a made-for-TV biopic on the powerhouse vocalist – spared no compliments when speaking about her during an exclusive phone interview with Star2 from Los Angeles.
She went on to gush about her work in The Bodyguard and her music, even telling the singer before: “It’s (her voice) a real gift from God, as if He touched your vocal chords and this beautiful, angelic, divine sound emerges.”
Whitney, written by Shem Bitterman, is set over a five-year period focusing on the singer’s (Yaya DaCosta) rise to fame and her high-profile romance with R&B singer Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta).
Bassett, who is in the director’s chair for the first time, shared another time period she would have loved to capture on-screen: “Perhaps the beginnings of her life, on what she was like as a child; this special little girl getting up for her first solo in church. I wouldn’t be interested in going later than we did. We know where it’s headed. We don’t need to live that heartache again.”
The TV-movie has been hit with controversy since the project was announced. Last year, Whitney’s mother Cissy expressed her family’s objections over the biopic to Entertainment Tonight while her sister-in-law Pat issued a statement on the singer’s website ahead of its US premiere last month, reinforcing the family’s disapproval.
Rosie Perez, a co-host on US talk show The View, even went so far as to blame the film for the recent unfortunate events surrounding Whitney’s daughter Bobbi Kristina, who is currently in a coma.
“No one connected with this movie knew Whitney or anything about her relationship with Bobby,” Cissy had pointed out.
Bassett explained she could still identify with Whitney and her journey, stating: “Being in the spotlight like her, myself as an actress; understanding the demands of something like that; the invasion of privacy at times; the adulation of fans; being on top and then not; the love of a good man; growing up in church; having a God-given gift, working hard at it, and having it rewarded; I think I have an understanding from my vantage point as an actress, I understand a lot of what she went through.”
Asked if not being related to Whitney or knowing her as deeply helped her tell the story from a more objective standpoint, Bassett agreed it did.
In Whitney, viewers will see a different, kinder depiction of Brown, who has often been blamed for setting the late singer down a drug-ridden path. “I think he got a raw deal from people who never met him. It’s really unfair. People are complicated. Nobody is all good and an angel and nobody is all evil and the devil, but it’s easy to paint those two,” she said, adding that Brown was a “gentleman” when she met him on the set of Waiting To Exhale.
On why she chose a project that was bound to receive so much criticism as her directorial debut, Bassett responded: “I didn’t think it was going to receive a lot of scrutiny. I didn’t know what it would receive. She was much too beautiful, way too talented, not just in America, but in the entire world. I thought it would receive a lot of love because she had so many fans and everyone appreciated her.”
The first-time director also talked about taking creative licence in the biopic, for instance, in a scene where Bobby’s friend was killed outside a club (Bobby was unharmed) in a hail of bullets.
“We didn’t have the time to do all of that, but what I tried to do was stay true to the emotional resonance of losing a friend, the unexpected nature of what happened and the response to something like that,” she shared.
Citing an example from another scene, she said: “When Bobby proposed to Whitney, I didn’t know where they were. But the truth of it is it’s a moment between two of them, whether they were at the airport, their living room, or in the car.”
Bassett confessed that one of the biggest challenges she encountered as a director was “making 150 extras look like there are thousands of people! You know, when you’re doing concerts and award show scenes.”
She also revealed a magical moment she had during the film’s production: “I was driving alone to the production office. While I was exiting the freeway, this huge bus passes by, and at the back of it were her initials, W.H,, three feet tall and ... painted in her favourite colour, purple. I know it’s not Whitney Houston’s tour bus. You can’t really tell what it is. That was magical for me.”
Whitney premieres tonight at 9pm on Lifetime (Astro Ch 709).