Q&A: Jordin Sparks on Whitney Houston, R. Kelly and taking lead in ‘Sparkle’

DETROIT — There is a lot of pressure on Jordin Sparks, according to Jordin Sparks. Back when I visited the set of the “Sparkle” remake in early November last year, the singer spoke on the nail-biting audition process and gaining the film’s title role. It’s her first film, period, let alone her first lead character in a movie, and the “American Idol” star expressed some first-timer jitters.

But since then, the public slant on the film has changed. It’s longtime executive producer and one of its principal actresses, Whitney Houston, died in February, resetting it with tone of finality, a “could we have seen this coming?” and anticipation to see what becomes of it when it finally hits theaters in August. The pressure continues to rise.
In her interview with just a handful of us journalists this winter, Sparks only had the highest of praises for the singer-superstar, who was then still alive and shining off the final two weeks of shooting “Sparkle.” Houston plays Sparkle’s mom, Emma Williams, a former singer with her own past.
“[Houston] has millions upon millions of fans and I think they’re going to be very happy to see how she is in this movie. As well as the people who doubt that she’ll be able to do it — I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised as well,” she said during her Q&A.
Below is a complete interview from November with Sparks, who talked about the new and old songs of the 1976 redux, her own connection to the character of Sparkle Williams and acting on Broadway, her thoughts on R. Kelly’s contributions and on what Whitney Houston was like on set.

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How is it shooting in Detroit and what was your familiarity with the original “Sparkle?”
I can really see what the city was, and I can feel why Motown started here and how amazing it was. Everybody’s been so nice and considerate here. It’s been great so far…
I wasn’t alive in the ‘70s, so… I didn’t see it when [the original “Sparkle”] came out but I had heard about the remake at the beginning of [2011] before I even knew that I would be considered, or audition, whatever it was. I went on Netflix and I really really liked it. I love anything that has to do with music so I really liked it.
Do you feel any pressure playing the lead? And what can you tell us about songs you’re singing on the soundtrack?
This is my first movie ever, and so it being my first movie and being one of the principals, it’s a lot of pressure. I’m just flying by the seat of my pants. It’s great to have such an amazing cast with me because they can help when I’m like, “Is that OK? Am I responding in the right way? Is my emotion where it’s supposed to be at?”
Salim, the director, he’s so great because we shoot things out of order. The hard thing for me is trying to figure out where I am emotionally in my growth stage, and Salim is so great because he’ll come over and tell me, “This is where you’re at in life, this is what just happened to you.”
It is a lot of pressure, but it’s so much fun, too. It’s a completely new experience for me. I did Broadway last fall, so it’s just fun to be able to do acting and music but now it’s going to be in a movie format. It looks really good from what I’ve seen so far.
And what about the soundtrack?
We have recorded… we’re “Hooked on Your Love,” “Givin’ Him Something He Can Feel,” “Jump”… there’s also another one from the original and we’re trying to figure out how to put it into the story of Sparkle. But, yes, I did sing some new stuff that I absolutely fell in love with and I’m so excited to do.
Speaking of new stuff, a lot of the songs from the original were legendary songs. Do you have a feeling that the new stuff’s going to be as legendary?
I think that it definitely has the possibility to be. I heard all the demos. R. Kelly is doing a lot of the new stuff and he is a beast in and of himself. To hear him singing the demos, I’m sitting here going, “How am I supposed to replicate that?”
I’ve been very excited and honored to sing songs that he’s written and been producing, and they’re amazing. I know they’re good because I’ve been listening to them on my iPod. And they are awesome.
Why did you want to pursue acting? And how did you prepare yourself for this role?
Ever since I was little, I knew that singing is what I wanted to do. And then I got into drama club and community theater in school. When we lived in New Jersey, we went to Broadway a lot so I saw a lot of Broadway plays. I just love being able to see people play a different character and be able to be themselves at the end of the night. So, I’ve always wanted to do it, I just didn’t know when it was going to happen. And then this kind of just fell into my lap. For being my first movie and this cast, I’m like, “This is my life?”
As for preparing, I don’t really know. I was like, “I’m playing Sparkle?,” and they’re like, “Yup,” and I was like, “Okay…” (Claps hands together in front of her) I just prayed and prayed and prayed, I was like “Please…”
Because you never know how other people are gonna be when you first meet them. And I never did a movie before, so I didn’t know how to prepare. I read the script over and over and over and over again, I really loved it so it wasn’t hard to just read it. I had the script for a while before we started shooting, so I just wanted to make sure I knew my lines. And then just trying to figure out about the emotion, how I would respond and then taking a step backwards and trying to figure out how she would… Because [Sparkle and I] are similar, but we’re very different at the same time.
How important do you feel it is to tell this story, and why is it important — particularly from an entertainer’s perspective?
Sparkle, in the movie, she goes through a lot of adversity. She deals with insecurities with herself and being around with her family and see them go through things as well. Everybody is changing and everybody goes through stuff like that. I think a lot of people are going to relate to it.
I think a lot of young girls or young men who are trying to break into the industry –even though this is based ins the ‘60s – just seeing it takes a lot of hard work and takes a lot of dedication and a lot of sacrifice, and I think they’re gonna be able to relate to the girls. And mothers are going to be able to relate to Whitney – she’s great you guys, she’s so awesome, it’s gonna be so good.
But they’re gonna be able to relate to Sparkle because she has that slight insecurity about herself, and you see her grow and you see her blossom and then Im hoping that when people walk away, they say, “OK, if she can overcome stuff and find it in herself after all that just happened, I can do it too, and I can be OK too.”
Are you ready for the extra attention? Your life is going to change…
I was just saying in the makeup chair: “I don’t know if I’m ready for this yet. I don’t know if I’m ready for my life to change again.” It’s a whole ‘nother level… I must be ready because I was put here and I’m supposed to be doing it and I’m doing the part for a reason, so… I’ll let you know when it happens (laughter).
Did they go after you or did you go after it? And what was the audition process like?
Like I said… I’d heard about the project, it’s been in the works for a while. I was like, Sparkle… that would be so funny if I got to play that role because my last name is Sparks. So it was a little bit of both. I read the script and I had that for a while, and all of a sudden it became “Are you interested? Do you want to go audition?” And I was like (trepidation) OK… I can do this…
If somebody just tells me to sing, it’s no problem. But you tell me to stand in front of somebody and go act like something else, and memorize these lines and kiss this guy that you just met… I was shaking. It was crazy. I did do the audition process, they pulled me in a couple of times, I never asked who else was auditioning… I had a meeting with the casting director and then the next one Salim came in, and then the next one a few other people came. Then they taped me, and then the producers and everybody got together, watched the tape, they see how it goes.
And then I was sitting in a meeting outside on top of a hotel roof pool and I got the call that I made it, and I just screamed so loud. I was so excited.
It was a lot and it was a learning curve for me as well just to figure out how the audition process is.
What was your reaction when you found out that Whitney was going to be involved?
As a singer, Whitney is just through the atmosphere; she is somebody you aspire to want to sing like. I remember with Whitney and Mariah and everybody just trying to mimic and sing like them… I knew she was executive producing, so I already knew that she was going to be involved and that I’d see her around and maybe be able to say hi. And then I heard that she was going to be playing my mom and I was just like, “Could this get any better?”
It’s been so exciting, she’s such a riot. It’s just been so fun to be around her because for the past two weeks we’ve done a lot of scenes together. She is so funny. She’s definitely going to make a lot of people happy. She has millions upon millions of fans and I think they’re going to be very happy to see how she is in this movie. As well as the people who doubt that she’ll be able to do it — I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised as well.
I was on the red carpet when I found out she was gonna be playing my mom. They’re asking me questions and I’m like “Whitney’s playing my mom… Whitney’s playing my mom…” in my head. I couldn’t even pay attention. She’s great.