LOS ANGELES – If anyone knows pop music icons, it’s Angela Bassett. Her portrayal of Tina Turner in 1993’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” gave her an Oscar nomination and nudged her onto the list of Hollywood’s most formidable actresses.
She’s used that experience to make her directorial debut with “Whitney,” a much anticipated Lifetime movie about Whitney Houston that premieres next Saturday.
“Angela really sees you from the inside and brings out the best in you,” said Arlen Escarpeta, who plays Bobby Brown, a surprisingly sympathetic character in the telepic.
It would have been easy to paint the R&B star as a bad boy who corrupted a churchgoing good girl.
But Bassett and screenwriter Shem Bitterman went another route. If anything, the movie is a love story, focusing on the relationship that began in 1989 when Houston (played by Yaya DaCosta) and Brown met at the Soul Train Music Awards.
For Escarpeta, the film’s most telling scene is when Houston is tempted to use cocaine and he tries talking her out of it, pleading that there’s no need for drugs when he’s around.
“I had a different impression of Bobby before I read the script,” Escarpeta said over breakfast Thursday. “He really loved her and was willing to make her a priority over his own career.”
Escarpeta said he regrets that he never got to meet with Brown, but Bassett had the opportunity when she and Houston co-starred in the 1995 movie “Waiting to Exhale.” She was impressed.
“He came by the set one day and was so polite and attentive,” Bassett said. “They were both flawed people, but at the heart they really cared about each other.”
Another significant player also had a personal connection to the story.
Broadway star Deborah Cox, who dubbed Houston’s vocals for the film, shared a microphone with her for the 2000 single “Same Script, Different Cast.” Portraying her idol was one of the biggest challenges of her career, she said, particularly when she recorded a raw rendition of “I’m Every Woman.”
“I could feel her spirit in the room,” Cox said. “I think she would have been very supportive.”
Not everyone agrees. Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother, has denounced the film. Bassett was quick to dismiss the criticism, saying she believes the family is holding out for a bigger theatrical production.
“I’ve read negative comments in print, but I’ve never heard it from their lips,” she said. “They want to do their own thing, and I understand that.”
The concerns are largely unwarranted. DaCosta’s portrayal of the music idol might not make her out to be an angel, but it does present a young woman with a solid, spiritual heart, overwhelmed by three straight years of touring and massive adulation.
“Just think about going out in front of thousands of cheering people and you can’t see any of their faces,” Bassett said. “Then you go back to your hotel room and you’re all alone. That’s what we tried to bring across.”
Bassett didn’t do it alone. One of the people she leaned on was Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, with whom she worked on 1995’s “Strange Days.”
“She was helpful in everything, from encouraging me to setting up storyboards,” Bassett said. “She was a great resource.”
So what if Bigelow, or some other hotshot director, wanted to do a biopic called “Angela”?
“Uh, uh,” said Bassett, rolling her eyes and shaking her head. “No way.”