The camera likes Jordin Sparks. That was clear on "American Idol" (she was the 2007 champ), on magazine covers (Shape, Redbook) and on the movie screen, where she makes her debut this weekend.
There's an undeniable twinkle in her eyes. So it's fitting that she makes her film debut in "Sparkle," co-starring the late Whitney Houston and opening Friday. A remake of a 1976 movie, it's the story of three sisters in Detroit in 1968 who want to become the next Supremes, except their strict, church-going mother (Houston) has higher aspirations for them. Like college.
In a pivotal scene Sparks, playing the goody-goody youngest daughter, tells her mom she's moving out to pursue a music career. There are raised voices and tears that could rival anything on Houston's old reality series with ex-hubby Bobby Brown.
What was it like for Sparks to face her idol in that scene?
"So one side of me is freaking out. I'm like: 'This is Whitney Houston. She's yelling at me. This is the coolest thing ever.' And the other side of me was captivated. Because when [the director] yelled 'action,' she just turned it on."
Sparks was speaking last week in a conference room at the Mall of America, where she appeared to promote the movie. Houston, who played an ex-R&B singer turned single mom, "was always just so fun-loving and had a great sense of humor," Sparks said, "so for her to go into that mean mother role, it was crazy to see the instant transformation."
During filming last year, neophyte Sparks, 22, never asked Houston, who was 48, for specific advice about acting or singing. But she picked up pointers anyway.
"One thing that I took from her is that we get reminded to always remain humble. She set the greatest example of that. She'd come on the set and sit down and talk with us. She wanted to get to know us. She wanted to see us all shine. She never forgot where she came from and she wasn't ashamed of who she was or where she had been or what she had gone through. I thought that was incredible of her to be so open and honest."
Even though Sparks was out of her comfort zone as an actress, perhaps her toughest "Sparkle" moment was completing her musical duet with Houston, "Celebrate," which is heard during the movie's closing credits. They cut it after the filming was completed but did not record together.
"She actually recorded her part of the song a few days before she passed," Sparks recalled. "Then I had to go in and do a couple of tweaks three days after she passed. It was crazy standing in the studio because that's the last place she ever recorded, the last place her voice was heard. I just felt her in the studio. And she [her recording] was in the headphones. You could just hear the smile in her voice, that she was so excited for everything that was coming up. It was pretty difficult but it was fun at the same time, too.
"There was a point where I teared up in the booth. Because I was hearing her come through the headphones but she's not here? It was like it just wasn't computing. It still hits me in waves. For all this promo, we're talking about her memory and how fun she was and what we took from her, it's almost like we talk it up so much that I expect her to walk through the door and crack some joke."
The hard sell
Sparks is on a whirlwind tour to promote "Sparkle," with premieres in Detroit (where she met Aretha Franklin), New York and Los Angeles. She is poised, polished and articulate -- like someone prepared for a beauty pageant. She is strikingly tall -- 5-feet-9 plus 4-inch heels -- with red tips on her long curly black hair, and pink fingernails decorated with black polka dots. For the interview, she wore jeans and a leather jacket, then changed into a dress for a three-song performance and autograph session with several hundred fans.
"She's so personable and friendly," said Will Malloy, 20, of Eagan, clutching his signed "Sparkle" poster. "I voted for her all the time on 'Idol,' and I'm going to see her movie on opening weekend for sure."
Sparks is counting on that enthusiasm. But she finds selling a movie to be harder than hyping a new album.
"I may take a vow of silence after this," she said with a giggle. "When I'm singing and doing music promo for my albums, the interviews are little bit shorter so I can save my voice. This is just talking, talking, talking. All day long. I'm trying to adjust."
In "Sparkle," she has three solo numbers. At the mall, she performed "Love Will" from the film, plus her two biggest hits, "No Air" and "Battlefield." Her payoff song in "Sparkle" is "One Wing," a gospel-tinged big ballad written by R. Kelly.
The movie also features Curtis Mayfield-penned songs from the 1976 movie, including "Something He Can Feel," which was a hit for Aretha. Houston sings the spiritual "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," and Cee Lo Green, playing a nightclub singer, offers the new song "I'm a Man."
Album, movie with J-Hud
Sparks, who hasn't released an album since 2009, hopes that "Sparkle" will pave the way for her next album. She's already worked up seven songs with such producers as Da Internz and Harmony Samuels.
"Think early Mariah and early Whitney. That's what I grew up on," Sparks said.
The daughter of former pro football player Phillippi Sparks and Jodi Weidmann-Sparks, she was raised an evangelical Christian in New Jersey and Arizona. At age 17, she became the youngest American Idol. She has released two solid-selling albums, sung "The Star Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl and toured with the likes of the Jonas Brothers and Alicia Keys.
Her younger brother, P.J., is a redshirt freshman running back at University of North Dakota, where his grandfather Jim Weidmann played. They have relatives all over Minnesota.
Sparks has already started filming her next movie, "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Peter," with former "Idol" finalist Jennifer Hudson, who won an Oscar for her screen debut in "Dreamgirls."
"The crazy thing is that Jennifer and I don't have any scenes together," Sparks said. "There's no music in this one. It's an indie drama, and I play a Afro-Latina from the Bronx. So I get to be in character. I'm excited about that."
What did she think of her performance in "Sparkle"?
"I'm better than I thought I was going to be. At the time, I was so unsure," she said. "I didn't suck. I have to commend the entire cast and Salim [Akil], the director. He was so encouraging and reassuring."
While she was in her element for the musical performances, she knows she has much to learn about acting. She's planning to take classes.
"My biggest strength is I have always been a drama queen. So I think that helps."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 Twitter: @jonbream