Yaya DaCosta on Playing Whitney Houston and Having Temporary “Amnesia” from ‘America’s Next Top Model’

On Saturday, Yaya DaCosta will take on the role of one of the greatest voices in modern music, Whitney Houston. The Lifetime biopic, Whitney, directed by Oscar-nominee Angela Bassett follows Houston’s rise to superstar status, as well as her struggles with addiction and a turbulent marriage to Bobby Brown.

VH1 recently caught up with DaCosta about playing a real life person, working with Bassett in the director’s chair, and shedding her America’s Next Top Model past. (This interview contains some spoilers.)

On paying an American music icon:
“I think playing any person who is alive is very different than playing a character that was created by a writer. There’s a lot less creativity involved and much more pressure to honor truth that others are going to hold you accountable for. I was definitely up to the challenge. I know a lot of people say, ‘I’m Whitney Houston’s biggest fan’ but I just loved her; I thought about playing her casually years ago. It’s amazing this opportunity came about. I basically didn’t sleep [in preparation], I just did my research. I spent hours and hours on YouTube watching old performances and interviews. I also watched videos of her family members, the people that raised her, her preacher in church, things that would inform who we saw, and also who we didn’t see.”

On the Houston family not supporting the making of Whitney:
“It happened very quickly. The project was disconnected from the press — I was disconnected. I wasn’t really aware of that until filming had finished. Once I finally came up for air, filming had already been done. This was a job I felt I needed to do and it needed to happen. When I heard the family wasn’t behind it, I wasn’t surprised. I figured they probably wanted to make their own film, their own truth, which makes complete sense. A star that big is a member of a family and also a member of society and everyone feels a sense of ownership. I look forward to the movie that they do because I know I’ll learn a lot.”

On the portrayal Of Whitney’s pre-Bobby Brown drug use:
“I think it will surprise people. When I read that in the script I was surprised that it was presented that way but not by the information. I had seen interviews after Whitney’s passing where her brother actually said he was the one who introduced her to drugs. As I started doing my research I realized there was a lot of pressure for Whitney to maintain this image that Clive Davis and her whole team was presenting to the world. They needed to explain behaviors that didn’t align with her image, and it was easy to point fingers to a scapegoat. [Bobby Brown] was in a band and doing a different kind of music, but I realize that they were partners in crime and fun and love and joy.”

On Whitney’s Long Rumored Lesbian Relationship With Best Friend/Assistant Robyn Crawford:
“What the film does is show [is] probably the only relationship in Whitney’s life that was consistently and unconditionally loving. I think it is done tastefully and left up to the audience to decide what kind of relationship they had. Whitney never did anything but deny that so I don’t think it’s my place or anybody else’s place to assume that we know that relationship.”

On The Best Direction Angela Bassett Gave Her On Set:
“Angela is a powerful and passionate woman, who brought as much, if not more, to her directing as she does to her acting. It was such an honor to be under her guidance. There’s a scene with Cissy (Suzzanne Douglas) on the couch after the miscarriage and we turned it out. Everyone on set was very silent and moved and feeling it. We felt like what we were doing was right. Angela came up to Suzanne and I and said, ’Baby dead’ pointing to me and, ‘Baby dying” pointing to Suzanne and walked away. We looked at one another and were like what is this scene really about? Whitney had just lost someone and Cissy was losing someone — it added a whole other layer.”

On Her Favorite Whitney Live Performance (From All That YouTube Research):
“[Laughs.] I don’t know if I have a favorite. There was some stuff that was so sexy in Brazil and there was some stuff that was really regal in South Africa, where she was connecting to her roots. If you didn’t go to her concerts, a lot of her fans would watch her on TV singing these ballads and being very still. But when she was on tour she got down. I [watched video] from a show in Japan where she was dancing her butt off and I was like, ‘Oh okay’ because I didn’t know if I could dance in this but I was like clearly I can.”

On Creating An Acting Legacy That Doesn’t Rely On Her Top Model Past:
“For the last 10 years or longer, I have been living in a world with opportunities that were only made available to me because I voluntarily assumed a state of amnesia — not consciously, obviously. The experiences on America’s Next Top Model were fun for viewers to watch but personally it was a bit traumatic and part of my healing process was to cut myself off. I grew up in the theatre in New York City. I knew from very early on that I was an actor and it was a long process to accept that title with confidence. I am grateful for the fans and for the exposure but for the work? I had to retract.”

Whitney premieres on Lifetime on Saturday, January 17th at 8 PM ET/PT.