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.
I’ve been following your other recent interviews, and I haven’t seen anyone ask: Why remake “Sparkle”?
You’re right, nobody has asked that. I wasn’t sure in the beginning because I had just become familiar with the first one. So I was like, “Cool, we’ll remake this.” … For [Whitney], this was a project she had been working on for over 10 years. I saw how important it was to her, and to be a part of that was so incredible. As a singer to be a part of it with her was incredible, and on the other side it was something new for me and I was so excited to be a part of it. It was a story she had been wanting to tell for so long, and I feel that because it took as long as it did it was even better than it probably would have been 10 years ago. She was in a different place, and she was all the characters. She was Dee. There was a little of her in Sparkle. There was a little of her in Sister [played by Ejogo]. And her story is definitely parallel to a lot of them. And she was the mother. So for me being a part of it now was important because it was important to her. Also I feel like the movie back when it came out in 1976, I don’t think there was a really an appreciation for the film at that time. I feel like now people love it; it’s definitely become a cult classic, but at the time when it came out I don’t think it got the shine that it deserved. No pun intended, sorry. And I’m excited to be able to retell the story, and I think the original sisters are going to be at the premiere, so I cannot wait to meet them. I’m so excited.
The new version adjusts several things from the original. What’s something you were glad was changed in the remake?
I actually really liked that they empowered the girls more. I like that they gave Dee more of a voice. You got to know Dee a bit more. I liked that Sparkle was the songwriter instead of Stix [played by Derek Luke]. And the major change too with Sister—I don’t want to give it away just in case this comes out before the movie comes out—I liked the change with that as well. I didn’t get to watch the original very much, so I didn’t get super used to the story like maybe some other people have who have loved the film for years and years and years. So I know some people are going to be very very surprised, and there’s going to be some people who have never even seen the original, so there’s going to be all sorts of people in the audience, and that also makes me very happy.
Which is a goofier-sounding name: Sparkle Sparks or [recent “American Idol” winner] Philip Phillips?
[Laughs.] Sparkle Sparks! Oh my gosh, that is a mess. I don’t know if that’ll work. I don’t know if Sparkle Sparks works. But I was saying the other day that I should probably start signing my name “Jordin Sparkles” because of how much I’ve been signing, but I’ll have to start practicing because I’m still so used to spelling Sparks.
You’d be like the sister of Robin Sparkles from “How I Met Your Mother.”
Exactly. I love Robin Sparkles. I love it!
On Chicago: “Chicago actually holds one of my dearest friends, Gina Glocksen, who was on the show with me. She lives there; she’s from there. She’s from Naperville, but any time I’m in Chicago I usually see her. And when I was there the other day it was really sad because she was actually in Florida. So I didn’t get a chance to see her. But [when people mention Chicago] I think of deep-dish pizza, I think of the House of Blues. I’ve performed there multiple times. I have some great fans in Chicago, and I also think of the super-cold weather when Gina got married and we had on short bridesmaids dresses taking pictures outside in the snow. They turned out good, but we were freezing.”
Her reaction when Houston told her, “You are everything we could have wanted and more. You are perfect.”: “I just bawled. I lost it. We were so tired; it was the end of filming. I was so excited to have gotten that scene done, and she was there watching to be supportive, and for her to come over and say that, my heart literally exploded. I could not believe it. As someone who listened to her and loved her and grew up emulating her in every run and every note, for her to say something like that, it meant the world to me.”
If she could choose anyone to be her bodyguard, except her boyfriend Jason Derulo: “[Laughs.] Oh, let’s see. Anyone, like celebrity-wise? Like if they want to be a bodyguard, turn into a bodyguard? Well, it’s hard ‘cause I already have one, and he’s really, really awesome and I wouldn’t trade him for anything. His name is Brian and he was in the army and he is the best thing ever. He is so great, so I would still pick the one I have.”
Sparks’ guilty pleasure movies: “I love ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ with Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles. I love the movie ‘Nacho Libre’ with Jack Black. That movie makes me cry because I laugh so hard. I love the movie ‘Zoolander’ with Ben Stiller, and I think they’re making a second one so I cannot wait to watch that. Anything with Jim Carrey in it. ‘Clueless,’ oh my gosh, one of the best movies ever. I love the movie ‘Avatar,’ but that’s not really a guilty pleasure, it’s just an amazing movie.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U