Since she first landed on folks’ radar with her BAFTA award-winning performance in 2016’s Lady Macbeth (not to mention her stellar 2019 performance in Star Wars: Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker), actress Naomi Ackie’s talent has been impossible to ignore. Now the performer is preparing for the role of a lifetime, as Ackie is set to play legendary (and beloved) songstress Whitney Houston in the highly anticipated biopic, I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
The London-born Ackie, 28, attended the esteemed Walthamstow School for Girls. She knew early on that she wanted to act, landing her first role as the angel Gabriel in a school play when she was 11 years old. She went on to study at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, where she graduated in 2012.
Though Ackie has been quite private about her personal life as her star continues to rise, and has not made any grand declarations of identity one way or another, she certainly has not shied away from queer roles in her blossoming career. She starred in the British TV series The Bisexual in 2018 and this year gives a powerful performance as Lena Waithe’s love interest in the upcoming third season of the Netflix series, Master of None, co-created by Aziz Ansari and writer Alan Yang.
Without giving too much away, some of the scenes between Ackie and Waithe (who is also a writer and producer on the show) are so gripping and real that you can easily see why Ackie was chosen to play someone as iconic as Houston. In Master of None, we witness an intimate portrait of two women falling in love in the beautifully quiet countryside of upstate New York. The actress reflects on the cultural impact of the setting, especially in terms of two queer Black women existing there.
“Really, I think Aziz and Lena were always really aware of that and wanted to not only bring up this story about these two amazing characters, these two women, but also place them — these two Black city women — in the countryside setting and not have that be the butt of the joke,” says Ackie. “They actually fit into this space and they make it their own and their home, which, oh my gosh, [the characters’] designing of the home is my favorite thing! They’ve been able to incorporate this feeling of their Blackness, their queerness. It’s a quaint setting that we usually only see white people in.”
Working on Master of None with the enormously talented and diverse cast and crew was also an eye-opening experience. “Getting to work with [Lena], I felt like I had to, in the best way, up my game,” admits Ackie. “I was like, Wow, I’m really dealing with some clever, witty, funny, super talented people. And there was such a great creative energy in the space…it was a great collaboration between the three of us — me, Aziz and Lena. So there was a real teamwork effort to tell the story from an authentic place.”
With filming wrapped on Master of None, Ackie says she is now devoting all of her focus and energy to preparing to play Houston in the biopic. With filming yet to commence and a release date set for Thanksgiving 2022, Ackie can’t say much about the project — including whether or not the biopic will address the singer’s sexuality or her romantic relationship with friend and former assistant Robyn Crawford. (Crawford broke her long-held silence on the subject in her 2019 book, A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston, where she confirms their relationship.) However, Ackie speaks on her feelings about playing the larger-than-life icon and the challenges it will involve.
“Right now I’m making sure that I am looking after myself, because I think it’s going to be a really big journey,” says Ackie. “To tell the story in the way that I really want to tell it, I think it’s going to take a lot of energy. So I’m doing that and I’m preparing and I’m trying to learn as many songs as possible, and learn as much about Whitney as I can.”
In her of portrayal Houston, Ackie hopes people will see “this legendary woman…as a human being. My main focus is about telling her story, not imitating Whitney Houston — really reaching the crux of her humanity because I think that’s the way she deserves to be seen and shared with the world.”
This story is part of Out's 2021 Pride Issue. The issue is out on newsstands on June 1, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.