Whether or not audiences applaud the vibrant sounds and Motown style dynamic girl group nostalgia of Sparkle when the remake of the 1976 original hits theaters this week, may be beside the point. Casting a bittersweet pall over the proceedings will be the stellar presence of one of the most revered female music legends in history, the late Whitney Houston. Sparkle opens just a week following what would have been Whitney’s 49th birthday. Whitney had raised expectations that the movie would be her big comeback, both personally and artistically. And those were exactly the very positive vibes she gave when we met during the filming of Sparkle for this conversation.
How does it feel to be back in front of the camera after so many years?
Now that I’m older and after my experiences in life and things like that, you become more seasoned. And more mature. And it coincides with my life as a mother. Because [in the movie] I have three daughters. But I have one daughter that adds up to three for me, as far as I’m concerned! But yeah, I’m comfortable with it. Because I am a hands on mother, and I am a disciplinary mother. And I don’t make idle threats. So basically it was good, it was a good position for me to be in. Because I feel very close to all three of them as my daughters. We’re having a great time.
What was it that got you interested in Sparkle?
Back in the ’70s as a young girl, I was into that black exploitation kind of movie thing. It was kind of a positive reinforcement for young African American women who were becoming young women, and ultimately full grown women. So anybody who wanted to pursue their dream or their desires, their goals and present their gifts, it just appealed to me. And I would go every Saturday for like four months straight, and I’d watch the matinee and the evening show. Every Saturday for like three to four months. And I just never, ever let go of it. It’s like what, 15 or 20 years later, Deb and I were talking. And I was like “Debra, have you ever looked at Sparkle?” And she looked and was like, “Wow. Great project”.
What about when Aaliyah was supposed to be in it, but then tragically passed?
We didn’t want to touch it. We were like, that’s it. You know, that was it for us. I mean, that’s how we felt about it. Because she was just so perfect for it. And she wanted it. Yeah, she did. But Sony picked it up. And they moved some folks out, and moved some folks in. And they said, this is the project. And it just all fit into place. And the rest of the cast came, and it just worked out perfectly.
What about working with R. Kelly on the soundtrack?
Oh my goodness. Okay, I call him Robert. Let’s get that straight. He wrote a song for me about 12 or 13 years ago, that he had been trying to get to me for years which was called, “I Look To You”. And I finally got the song. I heard it back then and we kind of passed. He still kept on it. And he’s the kind of musician whom you can stand there and say, “This is how I feel”. And he’ll write a song in five minutes. He’s that incredible, I have to give him props where props are due. And he has anointing on him that’s powerful. I witnessed it myself. I’ve watched him. We’ve had our share of words. And I would win! But he is like a brother to me. We talk about life, and things that happen in life and our triumphs and our survival of it. And that makes a good song for anybody to sing or anyone to write, you know? So, I’m extremely proud and I’m very, very grateful that he’s part of this project.
Is there something new about this material that really speaks to you?
It’s crossing the boundaries. And it’s breaking down walls. Whatever is left, it’s tearing them down. And it’s presenting African Americans in a beautiful light. Everybody on camera is just beautiful, you know. And we’re smart and we’re educated, and we’re dealing with our time of civil unrest. It was the year Dr. King was assassinated. And we have drama, all of that feeling was all up in there. And raising children at that time as a single parent must have truly had its tasks. However, that’s why we put church in it. Because it’s a foundation in my life. I think anybody who was raised in the church will understand what I’m talking about.
Will you be contributing to the soundtrack?
I’m contributing to the soundtrack. We’re compiling the material as we speak.
What about playing Effie?
Well let’s start off with, my name isn’t Effie in this movie. Not in this version. I’m not going to tell you what it is! It will be fun for you to wait. But it’s not Effie.
Were there any differences you had with the studio?
Oh yeah! We’ve had our battles, yeah. But we’re just trying to give an example of what love can be, and how strong it can be, you know?
Do you feel pressure making a comeback?
I don’t think of it as a comeback, and I don’t think of it as a pressure. I think of it as a gift that God gave me, to contribute to a cast of people who are working as hard, if not harder, than I. And you know, I’ve done it before. It’s just in my life. It was not that I said “Oh, I want to entertain. I want to be an entertainer”. It’s in my family bloodline. So I can’t help it. You know, it’s something that God just said, “This is what you do”. It’s in me. And so to me, it’s not like a comeback. It’s just innate. It’s natural.
How are you keeping grounded these days?
I have priorities. Maintaining my daughter is my first. She’s 18 now, and she’s going to be a woman in a minute. Lord have mercy! But I also have a son that I have now, my godson. And he’s 22, and a well-balanced young man. My family I took care of first. And now, I’m comfortable in keeping my focus on what I have to do here. And you never know what happens in between. You just be ready for whatever it brings.