A decade after her death, Whitney Houston’s life and legacy has made it to the big screen thanks to the Kasi Lemmons-directed biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, starring Naomi Ackie as the iconic performer.
While attending the premiere at AMC Lincoln Square in New York City on Tuesday, the film’s cast and production team opened up to The Hollywood Reporter about portraying the highs in Houston’s career, as well as some of the low moments in both her professional and personal lives.
“It was a big challenge,” Ackie revealed of how the film balanced both sides of the late singer’s life. “It was really hard to do, but I think it does it the best way it can. To tell the truth but to protect somebody’s dignity and integrity is really important.”
Ashton Sanders, who plays Houston’s husband Bobby Brown, added, “I think this film does a great job at covering the full life of Whitney Houston. We see it from the beginning to the unfortunate end, and I feel like the highs are the highs and the lows are the lows, but it’s all still very beautiful.”
“The point of this film is to show Whitney’s triumphs and the failures, the trials and tribulations, the joy and the sorrow,” added Tamara Tunie, who plays Houston’s mother Cissy Houston. “It’s a multidimensional life lived by a multidimensional human being.”
The film’s producers include Houston’s former collaborator Clive Davis and her sister-in-law Pat Houston, who also worked as the singer’s manager. When asked why she wanted to participate in the biopic, Houston said that Davis’ involvement sold her on the project.
“Clive Davis is one of those people in Whitney’s life that she totally respected. There is nothing that he would do to embarrass her or to bring negativity,” she shared. “He loved Whitney and loved her craft and knew how special she was.”
Meanwhile, Davis promised the film will show viewers a side of Houston that they’ve never seen before. “It will tell you about her sexuality. It will tell you about her addiction to drugs. It will tell you how she and I worked together,” he told THR, adding that it “celebrates the music” they created together.
Throughout the film, viewers watch Davis — who is portrayed by Stanley Tucci — work alongside Houston from the very beginning of her career. While Davis said he didn’t watch Tucci’s portrayal throughout the filming process, he praised the actor for doing his “homework” to prepare for the role. “I’m proud of his performance. He’s a gifted actor,” Davis said. “I can’t even think of anyone else but Stanley for the part. He’s fabulous.”
When it came to preparing for the role, Tucci revealed that he and Davis communicated via Zoom and met in person just days before filming began. “He was invaluable,” Tucci said, noting that he also relied on the Netflix documentary Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives and his 2013 book The Soundtrack of My Life.
Davis also praised Ackie for her portrayal of Houston, saying that he’s “proud to testify” about the believability she brings to the role.
The legendary music producer wasn’t the only person to compliment Ackie’s performance at the premiere. While Tunie called the actress “miraculous,” Lemmons said she “really nailed it” and that the portrayal was so realistic that “it was almost like getting a visitation from Whitney.”
Tucci called Ackie’s performance “staggering,” adding, “I’ve worked with a lot of actors. She’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
The cast and crew also spoke to how Houston’s family’s involvement in the project helped bring her story to life. Lemmons said that having “people that knew her so well and had so many memories that they were willing to share” made the filming process “an amazing experience.” Ackie added that Houston’s family supported her and gave her notes that played an “integral” part in her performance.
“They were one of the important groups of people I interviewed to find the real story, the untold story,” writer and producer Anthony McCarten explained of the family’s role. “As the writer, I’m bringing something new to the table and they were very important about the early years and gave me insight into that period.”
The film was originally called I Wanna Dance with Somebody before Houston’s name was added to the front of the title. “We want to make sure the fans know that this is the Whitney Houston biopic,” producer Jeff Kalligheri explained of the name change. “This is the number one Whitney Houston movie. We don’t want any confusion. Everyone knows Whitney’s name. We want them to see her story, so that’s the best way we can make sure that people show up.”
McCarten added that the name change gave the film a “stronger identification” to Houston. “This movie is nothing if not our celebration of Whitney, so it’s a good idea to get a name out front center,” he said.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody hits theaters on Dec. 23.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter