When Arlen Escarpeta arrived for his first audition to play R&B star Bobby Brown in Lifetime’s Whitney Houston biopic Whitney, he was surprised to discover his scene partner was none other than the film’s director, celebrated actress Angela Bassett.
“My first audition was a blessing,” smiles Escarpeta, 33, during a chat at a press breakfast for the film during the Television Critics Association press tour. “I’m reading opposite Angela Bassett — she’s in the room! That in itself was an accomplishment for me.”
He made an impression.
The Oscar-nominated Bassett, who makes her directorial debut with Whitney and knew exactly what she wanted from the actors who would embody her leads in what she views as a love story between two combustible — and combustibly attracted — young superstars whose union was doomed by the forces of their fame.
“Bobby is the one whom so many have vilified and put in the position of being like some puppet master,” Bassett told Channel Guide in an earlier interview. “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. … 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.”
“Looking at the words and the scenes that were there, all I could see was this love and this compassion and this man who wanted to have this woman,” says Escarpeta of how he approached playing the man who became Houston’s husband in 1992 at age 23 when he was already the father of three, including a son born after he was involved with the singer.
Unconditional love is something Escapeta says he understands well, thanks to a quintet of women who are the superstars of his world.
“I have all sisters,” he grins. “I have four sisters and I’m predominantly raised by my mother, so I’ve got a big heart and I have a lot, a lot, a lot of love to give. And, like Angela said, I didn’t want to play Bobby as a caricature, or as what we think he is via a magazine or a newspaper.
“Their love was there on the page. That’s al I could see. And that’s all I gave.”
Escarpeta says he and DaCosta embraced — and understood — the missteps Brown and Houston made during their time together.
“Love is a beautiful struggle,” he offers. “It’s not easy — it’s not supposed to be easy — and when you’re that young with that much success in this industry, you’re bound to hit a couple of walls and have some bumps in the road. And I don’t think they made ‘mistakes.’ They made choices. And they made choices that for them felt right at the time. It felt honest. It felt pure. And going through the motions with Yaya and myself in these scenes, we made choices that felt honest to us as actors — because they were to Bobby and Whitney to try to keep this thing together.”
Escarpeta says his connection with DaCosta was evident from their earliest readings — and lovingly cultivated by Bassett.
“There was so much trust there,” he explains. “That’s all you can ask for as an actor is someone to trust you and play ball with you and receive and give and receive and give. There were no walls up. Before we would start these scenes, sometimes we as a group — myself, Angela and Yaya — would just sit down and talk. About the moments and the feelings and where we were going. Yaya’s a force to be reckoned with and I’m so grateful to share the screen with her.”
As for Bassett’s directorial skills, Escarpeta said that her talent is inherent.
“Angela! She led us,” he exclaims. “She allowed us to grow. She allowed us to work. I don’t know where it comes from, but she opens you up and she disarms you ever so slightly and just lets herself in and does her work. It’s a gift. I knew she was a phenomenal actress. Now the world is going to know that she is a phenomenal director.”
Asked what he took away from doing the project, Escarpeta is thoughtful.
“How deeply rooted Bobby and Whitney’s love truly was,” he says finally. “I don’t think anyone really knew. We knew they got married. We knew they had a baby. But you didn’t know how hard these two people fought to love and stay with one another.
“And I didn’t know how much Bobby sacrificed,” Escarpeta continues. “I didn’t know how much of himself he gave to this love, to this relationship. For me, it really opened my eyes to being a man. To growing up. And making choices that aren’t selfish, choices that aren’t always about you.”
Whitney premieres Saturday, Jan. 17 at 8/7CT on Lifetime.
Immediately following at 10pm ET/PT, Lifetime will air Bobby Brown: Remembering Whitney. an exclusive, no-holds-barred interview between Houston’s ex-husband Bobby Brown and Access Hollywood anchor Shaun Robinson. Brown will offer a first-hand account of their marriage, from their greatest accomplishments and happiest moments to what really brought the couple together … and drove them apart.
Photos: ©2014 Jack Zeman/Florian Schneider/Lifetime