Celebrated actress Angela Bassett was dining with her pal and Betty & Coretta producer Larry Sanitsky when the prolific filmmaker mentioned his struggle to find the right director for his newest project — a biographical film about the late pop superstar Whitney Houston. Bassett, who bonded with Houston when they filmed 1995’s Waiting to Exhale and hoped to spread her wings in the entertainment industry, wondered if fate had come calling.
“To be at the helm of this, you go in knowing that she’s so beloved and she’s so magnificent that there are going to be some who are not going to be happy at all,” says Bassett, who lost her mother in the first week of filming and clearly understood Houston’s family’s and fans’ trepidation. “Well, I’m not going to be a part of any more tearing her down, so I needed to read the script to see the story that they’re trying to tell about this magnificent, gifted, world-renowned entertainer, who was unparalleled in her ability and her beauty and her generosity.”
What she found was a nuanced and loving examination of Houston’s bond with former New Edition heartthrob Bobby Brown — a union many believed led to the singer’s very public (and ultimately fatal) descent into drug use and troubling behavior. “What I see is a love story between a boy and a girl — they were 19 and 24 at the time — that takes us on a journey. We, the public, think we know where it goes, but we don’t.”
To find her Whitney, Bassett and her team considered a number of fresh faces, including Beyoncé’s baby sister Solange Knowles, before another pal suggested model/actress Yaya DaCosta. Problem was, the beauty had already committed to a series pilot.
“I just looked heavenward and said, ‘Lord? You know Whitney. You know me. I know you and I know how you work things,’” Bassett laughs. “And about a week later, I come into the production office, get my coffee and my little snacks, and Larry comes in and says, ‘We got Yaya!’ I literally fell to the ground. There was a lot of falling to the ground for me on this one!”
Bassett says she was equally careful in choosing the man to play her Bobby Brown, whom she found in now-grown American Dreams star Arlen Escarpeta.
“It’s interesting because Bobby is the one whom so many have vilified and put in the position of being like some puppet master,” she explains. “But he was nineteen years old! Nineteen and successful and gorgeous and grounded and charismatic. Arlen had such a sincerity and an openness and a vulnerability, and he didn’t put any judgment on Bobby. Because when I just looked at photographs of them together, I just saw someone who it wasn’t beneath him to snuggle into the crook of her neck. There was such awe and love and respect and admiration — all these positive things he felt about her and he wasn’t too manly to show it. And yet he was completely virile and male and honest, and I think that’s what attracted her.”
Finally, Bassett and Sanitsky secured four Houston megahits they felt best served their story, tapping R&B star Deborah Cox to sing them. “We’re going to do ‘The Greatest Love of All,’” Bassett explains. “We’re going to do ‘I Will Always Love You.’” And for the concert scene? “‘I’m Every Woman’ — because for me she was. She was a mother. She was a wife. She was a fan favorite. She was a superstar. She was every woman — and it was too much.”
Given that, Bassett says her goal for Whitney is not to gloss over the couple’s very real turmoil, but to show her audience that, despite their life in the relentless glare of the media spotlight, Brown and Houston were like every other couple doing their best to make it all work.
“I just hope that viewers get a sense of this love story, of their journey as individuals and as a couple,” Bassett says. “Of their deep and abiding love for one another. And that sometimes love is just not enough. There are things, people, choices that conspire against love.”
And, she adds, she’s even experienced a divine thumbs-up or two from the very woman at the heart of her film.
“This one particular day — and I don’t think we even had Yaya yet — but Whitney’s song came on just as I hit my exit to get to the office and this huge bus passed by,” Bassett recalls. “On the back of the bus were the huge initials WH — and her song is on at the same time — and I’m like ‘Oh my God! Oh God! I hear you, girl! I hear you! OK! I’m going to do it! I’m going to give it all. I just felt the presence of Whitney. And the presence of God!”
Whitney premieres Saturday, Jan. 17 at 8/7CT on Lifetime.
Photos: ©2014 Jack Zeman/Florian Schneider/Lifetime