Yaya DaCosta has crafted quite a career for herself as an actress since her America’s Next Top Model days. She’s enjoyed hits on both the big screen (Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Big Words, The Kids Are All Right) and the small screen (Ugly Betty, House M.D.). Now, DaCosta returns to television to portray pop music icon Whitney Houston in the TV movie, Whitney, which premieres on Lifetime Jan. 17 (check your local listings).
DaCosta shared how she dealt with the Houston family's criticisms of the movie, working with first-time director Angela Bassett and how she transformed into Houston when she spoke to BET.com.
Why did you want to play Whitney Houston?
Like a lot of young actresses, playing Whitney had been a dream of mine for a long while, even when she was here with us in the flesh. I would always say, “I would love to play Whitney Houston one day.” I never realized that it would become a reality and it would happen so soon.
When I first heard you were cast, I couldn’t immediately see you in the role until I saw you in full hair and makeup as Whitney. What was it like becoming her onscreen?
Transforming into Whitney Houston was definitely a big undertaking but I had the help of a great hair and makeup team. I also did my research and did my best to capture her essence. Whitney smiled a lot, so I smiled a lot. I showed a lot more teeth than I usually do, you know, stuff like that. Just trying to capture a little bit of her light.
The Houston family was very vocal about not being supportive of this film. How did that affect you?
I was in a tunnel, I was completely in a bubble. I was so busy doing the work that I was actually unaware of these things until afterwards. I barely used social media before that point, but I stopped using it all together while I was working on the film. I cut off all distractions that weren’t beneficial to the work. I had to do that to feel good about doing something this big and putting my all into it. I couldn’t afford to have any energy wasted or any piece of my emotional body compromised because someone said something about the project or me. I’m an actor for hire. I’m going to do the job, I loved Whitney and I did my job. I needed all of me to give to Whitney. Once we wrapped the movie, the bubble popped and I became aware of everything. I was overcome with a sense of compassion and understanding [for the Houston family]. Because I know what it is like to lose a family member and to be defensive and protective. I respect them and I hope they like the film.
Usually actors prepare for roles like this by speaking to friends and family members of the person they are portraying. What was your process like without those resources?
This wasn’t a usual project. I don’t think it was done in the way a lot of biopics are done. Because of the way Lifetime does movies, our limited time constraints and resources — everything was done very fast and concentrated. Not only did I not have access to the family, but also all my research was done in the middle of the night to prepare. I was reading and watching interviews on YouTube. I had to use every other possible outlet that I could.
The movie Whitney is not just a breakout-starring role for you, it also marks Angela Bassett’s directorial debut. What was it like working with her?
It was a huge moment for Angela. I don’t think anyone on set observing her work would have thought it was her first time directing. Angela was such a pro and she was so passionate. She brought the passion that she brings to her performances as an actress to this project and then some. Angela had to have her fingers in every department and she really gave the actors a lot of her attention. I felt lucky that she understood us. And she would always say the right thing at the right time.
Whitney Houston really was "every woman;" she was a lot of different complex personas all wrapped into one. That said, what would you like audiences to know or learn about her from your performance?
I’m glad that you mentioned that song because my answer is in that. She was every woman and that’s one of the songs that I get an opportunity to perform in the film. It was the most fun scene. It’s kind of a visual collage. There are different outfits and we shot it over and over again to get the right look. I was exhausted. There was barely enough time to eat or sleep because we were going, going going. I just had to remember, “Yeah, you’re doing this, but remember she had to do this all the time.” Imagine actually being Whitney and doing show after show, night after night on tour. Whitney was such a hard worker. She gave her all to her fans — all the time. No matter what she was going through in her life, her fans always felt the love from the audience. Hopefully, I was able to tap into that and communicate her essence.
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(Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images)