Angela Bassett is no stranger when it comes to the portrayal of iconic females on screen. She was nominated for an Academy Award and won a Golden Globe for her performance as Tina Turner in 1993's What's Love Got to Do With It? She was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for playing Rosa Parks in 2002's The Rosa Parks Story. And last but not least she was nominated for both a BET and Image Award for her turn as Coretta Scott King in Betty and Coretta in 2013.
So when the producers of Lifetime's upcoming Whitney movie, premiering Jan. 17th, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, asked Bassett for a recommendation for a director for their biopic, Bassett, who had not previously helmed a movie, asked, "Why not me?"
"There's a caring to telling a story, to nurture a story," says the American Horror Story star, who worked with Whitney Houston on 1995's Waiting to Exhale and, as a result, felt a responsibility to make the best movie possible. "There's a compassion, I think, that women possess. There's an awareness that a woman has. There are different stories. Some need heft, while some need a gentle touch, and everything is not for everyone to do."
Bassett definitely felt Whitney was for her to do, so she turned to Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director, for advice. Bigelow not only discussed the pros and cons on shooting a few scenes, but also instilled confidence in the first-time director by telling her, "You'll be great. I'll bring coffee to you on the set."
Whitney, starring Yaya DaCosta in the title role and Arlen Escarpeta as Bobby Brown, begins in 1989 — the night that the iconic singer met the bad boy of R&B. The story follows the couple through their courtship and marriage, and as Houston's career soared while Brown's faltered, it also shows the rocky road that career demands caused in their relationship, as well as the difficulties that ensued from drug use.
"I knew [drug scenes] had to be done with grace, with dignity, but it's there," Bassett says. "There are moments where you're not going to have it. There's a scene with her mama, where you're not going to have it. There's a party and her father's in the room, so we're not going to have it. So some scenes it's impossible, but what we did was layer it in."
Whitney also shows a side to Brown that viewers, who only know what they read in celebrity magazines or saw in entertainment TV reports, will find surprising, but it jibes with Bassett's impression of Brown.
"The day that he visited us on the Exhale set, I really got to observe something different than the perception that I had made in my mind, or that I had read about previously," she says. "He was caring. He was nurturing. He was attentive. He was quiet. He was respectful. He was your brother. He was charismatic. He was all those things."
Music plays an important role in Whitney and to ensure that the songs help tell the story and move the action forward, Bassett says it was necessary to re-record Houston's music. She turned to Deborah Cox, who had previously sung with the late entertainer.
"A singer never sings a song exactly the same way all the time," Bassett points out. "But, we're always growing, so Whitney would embellish it, and she would put her experiences on it to enliven it. A lot of times, it would be a gospel run. That was her testimony. That was her strength. That's how she shared with the audience who she was. She loved the Lord, so she'd add that flavor to her songs. I thought it was important for this movie."
There has been a lot written about the fact that Houston's family didn't cooperate with the making of Whitney, and Bassett says they did approach the family out of respect. As to what happened, Bassett's spin is that the family objected to the idea of a TV movie, because they wanted to see Houston's life story told as a major motion picture.
"'I see a big feature, so why would I come every day and be on your set and do this? You do your dream. We're over here doing our dream. We're not going to diminish your dream in public,' she says by way of explaining the family's feelings. "That, to me, I took as support."
That said, what does Bassett think Houston would think of the biopic? "I think she would be pleased," she says. "That's all I want to do, you know, make her proud. Make her proud because I felt her spirit during the making of this movie."
Whitney premieres Saturday, January 17th at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.