"Bittersweet" is how Jordin Sparks describes the promotional duties for her film debut Sparkle without her idol Whitney Houston by her side. The musical (in theaters across the country today), a remake of the 1976 movie about the rise of Supremes-esque girl group in the turbulent 1960s, was a longtime passion project for Houston, who died in February not long after wrapping her final big screen role as the mother of the trio (which also includes actresses Carmen Ejogo and Tika Sumpter). Sparks is effervescent, nonetheless, as she should be. Since winning season 6 of American Idol, the 22-year-old has become a top-selling recording artist and even starred on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning musical In the Heights. Sparks sits down with The Advocate to discuss her film debut, remember her first visit to a gay bar, and share the lessons she learned from "the cautionary tale" of Houston.
The Advocate: Tell me about auditioning to play Sparkle. Were you nervous?
Jordin Sparks: I was so nervous. I had to tell myself that there was a chance that I wouldn't get it. I told myself that I'd never know unless I tried. They called me back three times. The last time was for a chemistry read, which was different and new. [Laughs] It was the scene where Stix kisses me. I was like three strangers are going to kiss me? It was crazy. But Derek [Luke] and I really hit it off, though. He asked, "Can we pray together really quick?" That eased all my anxiety.
Were you aware that Whitney was producing and costarring in the film?
I knew that she was one of the executive producers, but she hadn't signed on to play the mother until after I got the part. The pressure of doing a lead role in a movie without having any experience was already there, but when Whitney signed on I thought, OK, now I can't be horrible. I've got to step my game up. But it was so much fun and the whole cast was so helpful.
Was it intimidating to have to sing and act with her?What kind of relationship did you two develop?
It was at first because she was this supernova superstar who I'd grown up listening to. You hear stories of people meeting their idols and it not going so well. I got so lucky because it was everything I ever dreamed of and more.
I was the youngest person on the set and she was the mama bear and we immediately gravitated toward each other. We definitely bonded. Whitney loved all three of us girls. I think the chemistry we shared comes through onscreen. While working with her I had moments during the days where one side of my brain would think it's time to do my job but the other would be a fan girl and freak out at being next to Whitney. Working with her was ...she was so sweet and so excited to be doing the film because she'd been trying to get it made for so long. Every day she'd come on the set and say, "How are my babies? How are my babies? God is good." She really set the tone for the day. She was such a light. In 20 years when I'm talking about my first film I can say it was a lead role in a film with the legendary Whitney Houston.
Whitney has some dialogue in the film which must have hit really close to home for her. Her character has a line about her life serving as a cautionary tale for her daughters. Was there any discussion about this on the set?
I never had the chance to ask her for advice and I wasn't about to ask her about her personal life. But I remember sitting there when she said that line and thinking, Wow, that's really poignant. I knew that she related to what she was saying. I'm sure she had those types of talks with her own daughter. But now watching it without her here it carries an even bigger weight and more meaning. A lot of the things she says, like "Is my life not a cautionary tale for you?" And at the end before I do my big number she says, "Don't ever lose that sparkle because some of us are still trying to find it." I was like, "Wow!" My and Sparkle's stories are very similar, but the parallels between Whitney's own story and the sisters in the film is insane. She wasSparkle and Dolores and the mother. It's almost like you watch this film and it provides all the answers to questions people have about her.
There's a YouTube video of your first visit to a gay bar.
[Laughs] Yes! Oh, my God!
When did you first become aware that you have a lot of gay fans?
I think I was always knew that I did, but I never had the opportunity to spend time with them and see them. I had so much fun that night. I'd never seen a drag show and their makeup was so fierce! [Laughs] I was having the best time. I was in drama club in high school and that was the first time I was around people who were gay and Ilovedthem. The leader of the club was named Eric and on weekends he was Sapphire St. Regis and it was the best thing ever. He was so sweet.
Are there still a lot of gay people in your life?
Members of my band are gay and members of my family are gay, as well. So I've always enjoyed being friends with them and hanging around them because they're just like everyone else. I had no idea they love my music so much until I performed at the Factory [a gay club in Los Angeles] and it was wall-to-wall packed. It was amazing to see. Now with this movie, I had no idea it was such a cult classic. I know that Whitney is just huge and everybody loves her. For me to be a part of this it gives me an opportunity to show this movie to my amazing gay fans. I'm so excited for them to see it with both of us in it. But back to that gay bar, it was so much fun. They gave us shots in those little tubes. [Laughs] I went with my hairdresser who has been in a relationship with his partner for eleven years and we just had a blast.
This film has potential to reach two very different demographics. The religious community will enjoy the gospel music in it, and it will also draw your and Whitney's LGBT fans.
It's amazing to see a story that can reach so many different people. You have the faith-based group and Whitney and I both grew up in the church. You have the music and the fans who want to see the musical side of it. And there will also be people who want to see the film just because Whitney passed. There's the younger generation who will get to experience Whitney for the first time and people who are longtime fans who will want to see her. I'll probably gain new fans too. There will be people of all religions, all races, and all orientations. I make music for everyone and now I make movies for everyone. [Laughs] That's so awesome to say.
Do you plan to continue acting and balance film and music careers?
I'm going to try. My goal is to be really good at singing and really good at acting. I'm actually filming another movie called The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. Jennifer Hudson and Geoffrey Wright are in it and Alicia Keyes is one of the producers. There's no music in it. I just play an Afro-Latina from the Bronx I'm also recording new music. Sparkle has given me the opportunity to show my fans a new side. I've always wanted to do light R&B. I'm going for early Mariah, early Whitney. This movie has opened the door for me to try new things.