When she was a kid, “Sparkle” star Jordin Sparks really, really wanted to play football.
“I think I wanted to tackle people, so I kinda wanted to be a lineman,” laughs Sparks, whose dad played for the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. “[My parents] were like, ‘You’re a girl, no! We don’t want people touching you in wrong ways and [you] getting hurt.’”
Needless to say, the 22-year-old past “American Idol” winner more frequently gets what she wants these days. That includes a starring role opposite one of her idols, the late Whitney Houston, in the remake of the 1976 cult favorite “Sparkle,” opening Friday. In the film, now set in 1968 Detroit, Sparks plays Sparkle, who defies the wishes of her mother (Houston) by pursuing a music career with Sparkle’s sisters Dee (Tika Sumpter), who wants to go to medical school, and Sister (Carmen Ejogo), who goes down a rockier path in her relationship with a comedian (Mike Epps).
From New York, Sparks talked about things she never got to discuss with Houston, remaking a beloved movie and the ridiculousness of one hypothetical name compared to one actual (cough, “Idol”-winning) name.
I understand how difficult it must be to talk about Whitney Houston now and appreciate your willingness to do so. What acting advice did she give you, if any?
I never got the chance to just sit down and ask her, “Help me!” I never got to say that. She actually led by example for me. Being able to watch her, it was almost like a movie in and of itself. She was so funny and goofy and so down to earth, where we were off-set just hanging out and waiting for the camera to turn around, and as soon as they yelled action, she just turned into Emma. She turned into the mother, and there were times when we’d be standing there and she’d be saying her lines and I’d be like, “Is she really frustrated with me right now? Is she taking her frustration out on me?”
It seems like she took on a mentor role on set. Did you ever ask her for any life lessons, or did she ever offer anything as far as how she related to you and how you could avoid the harder times she experienced in her life?
You know, we never had that conversation either. Carmen, Tika and I obviously had different characters in the film. And she would talk to us and help us according to our characters, but for Carmen—...she’s the one that plays this one that goes down this dark path—Carmen had mentioned that Whitney had been very open with her in talking to her and helping her get into that character. She went over to Tika and told her that she was proud of her, and that helped her in her character. For me, she was very encouraging. She was just like, “Believe in the gift that you have. Believe in your talent.” That was something that will always stick with me.
You’ve talked about the challenges of this being your first big acting role and that sometimes you didn’t know if you were doing it right. What was one of those times?
The first couple days I was doing scenes from the end of the movie, and I didn’t know that they were going to shoot out of order and that’s usually how it goes. So I was expecting to shoot the first scene as Sparkle in the beginning of the movie ‘cause she goes through such a huge arc and she grows so much. Then they were like, “OK, we’re doing this scene from the end,” and Sparkle is in this totally different headspace, so I was really nervous that I wasn’t going to depict the emotion that she was feeling right because I was expecting to do ... the beginning to the end, and be able to do the arc that way. And it was really nice because [director] Salim [Akil], he had a straightforward vision and he was able to talk to me and be able to be like, “OK, so this is where Sparkle is at in her life. Don’t forget that this is where she’s at.” It was really nice because he would give me that reminder if things were going a little bit more like Sparkle would be at the beginning of the film. He was like, “You gotta remember: You have to keep her strong. She’s strong now, and she really needs this because she knows what she wants.” So that was something that they really helped me with.