The late Whitney Houston and producer Debra Martin Chase worked for 12 years to remake the popular 1976 drama Sparkle, which finally opens on August 17th.
Set in the 1960’s in Detroit, Houston, in her last performance, portrays Emma, a strong, faith-based mother, who isn’t supportive of her daughters’ dreams, as they form a girl group as a way of capitalizing on the Motown sound sweeping the nation.
British actress Carmen Ejogo, portrays Sister, Emma’s oldest daughter, Tika Sumpter plays Dolores, and Jordan Sparks is Sparkle, the youngest sibling who dreams of being a songwriter and singer.
I spoke with the actresses about their memories of the original film and working with the incomparable Whitney Houston.
How many auditions did you do for the role of Sparkle?
Jordan: I did four auditions. The first one was just acting. I was shaking, my heart was pounding, I was so nervous.
You give me a microphone and tell me to sing and I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ve got this,’ but walking in trying to emote and become a different character [was hard].
Had you seen the original Sparkle and were you fans of it?
Carmen: I hadn’t seen the original, I still haven’t. I look forward to seeing it at some point, but I was very much aware of how iconic the role of Sister was, and how beloved she was as a character in the original.
I really didn’t want to in any way be influenced by Lonette McKee’s performance, and so I felt it would be best to stay away from it. And I think that’s a good thing, because I think we have a very different movie, but we pay homage to the essence of the original.
Tika: I didn’t see the original, I didn’t want to be affected by it. I just knew that my family loved the original film and it was iconic, especially in the world of African Americans, because at that time there weren’t a lot of movies that had us in it.
What is your most prominent memory of working with Whitney on this Sparkle movie?
Jordan: I loved the fact that she had this knowing behind her eyes, this wisdom and she wasn’t afraid to confront [anything].
We never had the conversation about anything that she had gone through, but it was almost like she had this, ‘Yeah, I went through that, and I’m here now, and it’s okay. I’m going to keep going.’ I thought it was great not to be ashamed of anything that happens.
Tika: For me I grew up listening to all her songs. The first day we met her, which was at the table read, she sat next to me and literally my leg was shaking under the table, because I was like, ‘That’s Whitney Houston.’ She was iconic.
She treated everybody kindly, she was just a fun, loving, joyful, caring, nurturing woman, who at the end of the day treated us like we were her children.
Carmen: She was intensely passionate about this project. She’d been the little girl who watched the original Sparkle every single Saturday for months on end when it first came out.
It was a project that she’d been obsessed about since she was thirteen.
I think that she brought a passionate commitment to retelling this story that was so palpable and made us want to do our best, because it was so personal to her.
She was also very conscious of the fact that this was her story in a lot of ways. I think both Sparkle and the Sister character in ways really were Whitney, and had she been sitting here right now, she would have said the same.
There was a vulnerability, an openness and a willingness to be honest about who she was in the world.
What was the most memorable thing Whitney said to you?
Jordan: She was very encouraging to me. I had no [acting] experience, and she was like, ‘You’ve got this. You’ve got to believe in your talent and know that you have it.’ And that is something that I’ve carried [with me since then].
When I had to sing her song (I Will Always Love You) at the Billboard Awards, it was the scariest thing that I’ve ever done. I had never performed that song before, and I remember being on stage getting ready to walk out, and hearing her go, ‘You’ve got this.’ It really helped.
I don’t know how I got through it, because I walked out there and then it was over. I don’t remember it. It was crazy.
Click here to listen to Jordan as she recalls hearing of Whitney Houston’s death.
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Click here to listen to Carmen talk about the last time she saw Whitney
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Click here to hear Tika and Carmen reminisce about how Whitney knew her life related to this story
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