Ashton Sanders is no stranger to playing music royalty, but this time, instead of taking on the mantle of Wu-Tang, he’s immersed himself in the life of Bobby Brown for the Whitney Houston biopic, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
Shadow and Act’s Managing Editor, Trey Mangum, spoke with Sanders recently about the film and his role. Sanders said that as far as his career is concerned, he never expected to have the opportunity to play so many musical icons.
“Absolutely not. It’s actually crazy,” he said regarding if he thought he would ever play both Brown and Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. “I think I have this conversation often but things just kind of flow in a way that they flow and I just am connected to the stories that these people are attached to and so in that way, it just kind of comes together like that.”
Sanders said that playing Brown meant getting to play the real person behind the controversial, larger-than-life persona.
“When I initially got the role, my intentions were to just stay as true to him as possible without having to play into the stereotype of what the media portrayed Bobby Brown to be,” he said. “What I liked about this script is that it was like a look behind the curtain, so we get to see the real him in a way that I think a lot of people don’t know.”
He added that discussions with Naomi Ackie, who portrays Houston, and director Kasi Lemmons cemented that “love was the driving force” for Houston and Brown. He also described them as “soulmates.”
“I never would have taken on this role if it was to break him down,” he continued. “I’m never trying to break down a Black man. It’s a nice look behind the curtain and I think people are going to be stoked to experience that.”
Fans of both Houston and Brown have watched and read several unofficial retellings of Houston’s life, especially where her marriage to Brown was concerned. But, as Sanders said, I Wanna Dance with Somebody has the support of the Houston family behind it, making it immediately stand apart.
“I think what separates this film in general is that this film isn’t the Whitney and Bobby story. It’s the Whitney Houston story,” he said. “I think a lot of people obviously put them together when we think about them, but we’re going to see a lot of Whitney’s life before Bobby comes in so we get to see who she truly was before he came into her life. I don’t know about the other films, but I know that this one had the blessing of the family. Pat Houston and other family members are producers on this along with Clive Davis and there’s also the musical rights that are there as well. Collectively it has everything it needs to be the full Whitney experience.”
Houston’s life is channeled through Ackie, whom Sanders said he loved working with, calling her a “brilliant actress.”
“I think she’s really transcendent in this part and I think a lot of people are going to be impressed,” he said. “She was really comfortable to work off of and I think with that dynamic being there and involving Kasi of course, it made it really special. I loved working with her and I have a lot of respect for her.”
Sanders also had nothing but kind words to say about Lemmons, saying it was “really special” working with her.
“It was actually my first time working with a woman director. It’s a different lens,” he said. “I think it was important that this film had a woman director attached to it…If it was going to be a director, Kasi was the perfect choice.
“..I think the film is gorgeous and I think she created something really beautiful,” he continued.” …Definitely grateful to have worked with her…she’s a legend.”
As far as what’s next, Sanders alluded to that being a forever open question.
“I think that’s ever-evolving for me. I’ll always be attracted to what I’ve been attracted to, but I think as I grow older and experience different things, I want to experience different characters…different genres,” he said. “I know that’s kind of vague but I don’t want to put myself in a box and hold myself to one thing.”
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is currently playing in theaters.