Naomi Ackie — A New Era
May 3, 2023
Culture & Music
Taking on the role of playing an iconic public figure – and doing them justice – isn’t for the faint of heart. Couple that with said public figure being Whitney Houston, and you’re wading through a cacophony of opinion and mega-fandom. For 31-year-old British actress Naomi Ackie, the weight felt enormous. But in her new biopic, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Naomi’s confirmed for us that in imitating a superstar, she herself is a superstar. We talk to her about the hustle of building an acting career, and how, with a snowballing portfolio, she’s learning to decompress.
Naomi Ackie has spent the day cleaning her house. It’s her first slow day in nine months, so she lit a Le Labo candle, turned on Disney’s The Little Mermaid soundtrack, and got to work. “I was hoovering to Under The Sea. What’s usually a boring task actually felt quite joyful,” she laughs. After she’s finished burning the candle, she’ll wash it out and use it as a whisky glass, her drink of choice being a smoky Scottish number.
The reason for Naomi’s sudden hibernation – aside from it being a gloomy late February day in wintry London when we speak – is that her acting finesse has had her in hot, non-stop demand since 2017. It was that year that the film Lady Macbeth came out; Naomi starred alongside Florence Pugh, and the success put her in the spotlight. The light only brightened when she took on the role of psychopath Bonnie in dark comedy The End of the F***ing World, where her performance culminated in a BAFTA.
Now, the Walthamstow-raised Londoner has reached a new level of success, having taken on the enigmatic, iconic role of Whitney Houston in biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
While Naomi usually works from what she calls a place of
“curiosity and innocence”, where she can just “see what happens”, the late Whitney’s superstardom required deep research. Having studied actor and theatre practitioner Michael Chekhov at drama school, Naomi drew on that experience.
“Chekhov’s work is based on using the body as a way to inform emotion, but also using the body as a way to create a character,” she explains. “Part of that work is to look at animal studies, and when
I looked at Whitney, especially in interviews she would be quite bird-like. There was something birdlike about the way she held her neck. But then when she was performing, there was something quite feline about her.”
Thankfully for Naomi, while she had to master the mannerisms and personality of the late Whit-ney, there’s no faking “The Voice” (a nickname given to the singer, who tragically passed away in 2012). Naomi sang about one-and-a-half songs at the beginning of the film, before expertly lipsyncing the remainder.
The incredible lineup of actors in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody includes the likes of Stanely Tucci as record producer Clive Davis, Nafessa Williams as Whitney’s best friend, assistant and once flame, and Ashton Sanders as Whitney’s husband Bobby Brown. Naomi credits the cast for helping her step into the role of the singer. “The main stuff that you learn at drama school falls to the wayside when you’re met with another actor who just gives you what you need for the scene. I was truly blessed to have such an incredible cast supporting me in the whole Whitney story.”
The pressure of playing Whitney wasn’t without its personal cost. While Naomi doesn’t regret taking on the character, she does wish she had dealt with it differently. “Playing a role shouldn’t interfere with so many other parts of your life,” she says. “In terms of my approach to playing Whitney, I would never do it that way again if I was ever under that amount of pressure. Because I just didn’t make it as fun as it could have been.”
Finding balance is a work in progress for the actress. Putting her career first has paid off in terms of success, but she’s still working out how to nourish all areas of her life. “What I’m trying to speak on and readdress in my life is how much space a job, a vocation, a goal, can take up in your life.” She hasn’t taken a holiday in six years, determined not to hop off the wave of success she’s riding. But that has to change, she admits, and she promises she’ll book a holiday soon.
Acting, like any art form, is a career faced with challenges of uncertainty. It’s something that’s weighed on Naomi’s mind. “I’ve got a really good amount of work under my belt now, and I can look after myself and all of that kind of stuff, but who knows? That feeling of instability won’t ever really go away because you’re an actor, you’re a freelancer,” she says.
To get her career off the ground, Naomi spent a long time living at home with her dad, saving money on London rent to make the acting pursuit viable. “I felt really stunted,” she reflects. “It took me a really long time to feel like a young adult, because I was so much reliant on the kindness of my dad to survive. It was survival mode for a really long time and it’s really hard to feel creative in that space.”
The intense anxiety Naomi felt towards her career being viable continued into her mid-twenties. “Up until about 26, I was just extremely worried about whether I could do this job as a way to look after myself. It was the result of not enough work coming in, not getting auditions or passing auditions. There’s always going to be ‘no’s’ and there’s always going to be ups and downs.”
While instability isn’t quite something she’s made peace with, there’s been a steady flow of ‘yes’ in recent years. Now, she can firmly say that her creativity has been unleashed amongst varied roles. From psychopath, to warrior in the Star Wars franchise, to Whitney Houston, her portfolio screams adaptability. Her upcoming roles are similarly impressive: she’ll star in both Zoë Kravitz directorial debut Pussy Island, and Bong Joon-ho’s psychological thriller Mickey 17.
Loewe dress & shoes
The variety in roles gives Naomi space to explore different approaches to acting. In Pussy Island, the film had her travel to Mexico, where she worked closely with Zoë Kravitz and co-star Channing Tatum. “If Whitney was me working in a solitary space with myself, Pussy Island was the complete opposite,” she says.
“In Pussy Island, I was part of a really large cast and a really large team. Zoë is an incredible director and incredibly creative. She’s so sharp intellectually and aesthetically. Channing is also incredible in similar ways. He’s so smart and on it, and also extremely warm. It was such a warm environment. The cast still has
a group chat; I’m bad at group chats but I like reading what they say.”
I point out to Naomi that her silent observer vibe reminds me that she’s also not on social media. She assures me that not only does she not have a public account, but she doesn’t have a private version either. “If I did have fake social media I would say, but I don’t even have that!
I find everything out late, and the only thing I use is YouTube.”
She then admits she falls asleep to true crime podcasts, but it’s not a routine she recommends. “I’m trying to get out of the habit of doing it because it’s actually not cool to fall asleep and wake up to someone talking about murder,” she laughs, before adding: “I really don’t think I’m selling a good version of myself here!” I disagree, just being further convinced that Naomi’s honesty, humour and grounded manner add to her charm.
In our shoot though, she’s the picture of pizzazz. Decked out in Loewe, a glossy white anthurium emerging from her chest, playing dress-up is a joy for Naomi. “I think Loewe has a really great understanding of how to make avant-garde a wearable thing on a day-to-day basis,” she muses.
We go on to talk about her love for fashion, which started in childhood and was inspired by her mum. “I was really big on customising as a kid. I was always making something crazy and a lot of it was unwearable, but I insisted on wearing it out. I had so much fun with it and watching my mum make clothes as a kid was very therapeutic for me. Even the sound of a sewing machine now makes me feel like I could go to sleep.”
While Naomi’s mum has since passed away, the memories of the two of them visiting Victoria and Albert Museum exhibitions together are imprinted in Naomi’s mind. “My mum had such a huge respect for the craft of creating clothing, and I guess that was passed down to me,” she says.
“My mum would knit on the train, on the London tube. Just imagine – in rush hour, on her way to her office job in the NHS. She’d put her yarn in a bag and just be knitting a jumper.”
When Naomi eventually buys her own place – presumably in London where she’s always lived – she’s committed to creating a room dedicated to sewing. “I’ll get one of those mannequins made to my shape and then I can learn how to drape things because that’s what I started to study in college. It’s not my job so it’s very low stakes, and it’s just joyful to me.”
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