Pictured: Yaya DaCosta & Yolonda Ross | Photo credit: Jack Zeman
It’s apparently going to be a very good year for Yolonda Ross. The Omaha-born actress, known for films like Stranger Inside (on TV) and Antwone Fisher and for her work with the Labyrinth Theater Company, has several fascinating projects in the can. She appears in the upcoming Lila & Eve, in which Jennifer Lopez and Viola Davis play mothers who team up to avenge the deaths of their sons in a drive-by shooting. And Yolonda has a key part in Whitney, the Lifetime movie (airing January 17) which is directed by Angela Bassett and stars Yaya DaCosta as the gifted but troubled singer Whitney Houston (amazingly voiced by Deborah Cox). Yolonda plays Robyn Crawford, the friend, assistant, and reported girlfriend who was closerthanthis with Whitney Houston for many years. She and I talked about just how close the movie shows Whitney and Robyn to have been when Yolonda called me for a chat from a movie set.
Musto: Hello, Yolonda.
Yolonda Ross: Hello. First, I want to thank you for the article you wrote about Sade Pendavis [the powerful drag singer who died in 2012]. We were close. And his brother Leon thanks you.
My pleasure. Sade was the queen of gay soul, and I miss her. What are you shooting now?
An indie called How To Disappear Completely. It’s a children’s sort of a movie. I play Cassandra. She’s the sort of person who knows everything, the voice of reason.
You’re in so many diverse projects. What do you play in Lila & Eve?
I’m one of the mothers in the grieving group. With my character, it’s not said what happened to her son, but the loss of him has affected me mentally.
And how was it to work with J. Lo and Viola?
They’re both great. Jennifer is lovely. I worked with Viola more. She’s the best. That job is because of her, and my part in Whitney was because of Angela Bassett. I’m very lucky to have these two “big sisters”. Viola knew me, but she knew my work more. We’ve only hung out a couple of times. You know someone of that caliber and they offer this to you--you don’t believe it till you’re doing it!
And how did Angela cast you in Whitney?
Angela knew me through the Independent Spirit awards. She did a speech and I was in the speech, and at the same time, I was honored by Alfre Woodard. [Last February, Alfre hosted an event called “Alfre Woodard and Remy Martin Annual Oscar Sistahs Soiree.” Yolonda was one of the honorees.] Angela said I touched her heart that night. I’m glad I did whatever it was that touched her heart.
So you didn’t have to audition?
I did audition for Lifetime. I put myself on tape for them.
Can you describe the part of Whitney’s life that the movie focuses on?
It starts when Bobby and Whitney meet. It’s really about the subject of their relationship, and Robyn and Whitney ending in a way.
What was Robyn’s role in Whitney’s life?
She was Whitney’s assistant and friend. They were friends since they were teenagers. Robyn was the steady with Whitney throughout everything. She handled all her business and was the person with her everywhere. You can’t go any further than that without confirmation, but they were together in everything. You had to go through Robyn to get to Whitney.
Tell me your take on the movie’s handling of the relationship between Whitney and Robyn.
It’s handled with care, definitely, because it is a touchy subject and everyone’s around, like the family. It was nothing that was ever confirmed, so it does end up being kind of like a love triangle between me and Bobby going for the affection of Whitney. When you’re so close with somebody, it changes when somebody else is interesting to them.
But the romantic element is not completely spelled out.
It’s more in performance.
In other words, subtext?
You know how it is.
But it’s clear that they had a tight bond.
[SPOILER ALERT: After talking to Yolonda, I was sent a screener of the Whitney biopic. Without giving too much away, let me say that Yolonda’s Robyn wears a mannish suit at one point and is rather touchy-huggy with Whitney, especially when the singer gives Robyn an expensive, heartfelt gift. It’s clear that they’re tightly connected. When Whitney starts falling for Bobby—with whom she has a sex scene—Robyn looks hurt, but advises her to “Follow your heart.” Much later, when things get messy, Robyn warns, “You need to leave Bobby,” then decides, “I’ll take care of him,” and runs after him, angling for a showdown.]
What should people get from Whitney's story? Is there something to learn from the paths she took?
In our business, the focus is always work and being on top. Many times we forget about ourselves. Maybe if Whitney would have put herself first, she'd still be with us today.
Was Whitney’s relationship with Bobby one with real love?
There is real love, but I felt she was with the wrong person, sort of. That’s the way relationships are.
They didn’t belong together?
It didn’t seem that way.
As for another surprise matchup: You worked with Woody Allen on the 2009 film Whatever Works. He’s not known for using a lot of African Americans.
Nope. Does not. It shows in the crew and on the set. Finding a brown [makeup] base to cover me was impossible!
What did you play?
I was the mother of this child, and we were watching Larry Sanders be crazy across the street. It was a one-line part, but it was in the commercials.
So you were the African-American face of Woody Allen?
[Laughs] Exactly. I represent.
What do you aspire to, professionally?
I want to give people characters that they don’t actually look at in real life. People they wouldn’t normally pay attention to.
Well, you’re on your way. Nice to talk to you, Yolonda.
WRESTLING WITH THE ENEMY
Foxcatcher is another work that implies sexual goings on without being bold enough to spell them out. I actually thought it didn’t go far enough in showing the way obsessive rich guy John du Pont’s closeted gayness may have contributed to his mania, but as you’ve heard, wrestler Mark Schultz (who Channing Tatum plays in the movie) just came out with a stream of furious tweets saying the movie sucks, he hates director Bennett Miller, and any attempt to suggest gay activity between him and du Pont is “a sickening and insulting lie.” I doubt Schultz will be getting a GLAAD award any time soon.
In fact, some sensitivity training might be in order in between warmups at the gym. But I have to admit that my dark side was a tiny bit heartened by his rantings because I found the film to be a ponderous, slow drive through what could have been far more vivid material, and maybe this controversy will hurt its chances for a Best Picture Oscar nomination. I guess I’m the twisted gay, lol.