Everything to Know About Naomi Ackie, the Star of Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody
Naomi Ackie is stepping onto the movie scene in a big way.
Following roles in British projects such as Doctor Who and The End of the F***ing World, the actress is taking on the iconic role of Whitney Houston in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
The English actress was cast in the project in December 2020 and has already received the seal of approval from those closest to Houston.
"All Whitney fans have an appetite for perfection when it comes to Whitney and her legacy," Houston's sister-in-law and former manager Pat Houston said in a statement following Ackie's casting.
"To transform someone into a matchless icon is virtually impossible. But with careful consideration, Naomi Ackie was selected based on her quality performances and her deep commitment to emerging into the woman that we all loved. We look forward to taking this journey with her," she added.
Houston's longtime mentor and producer Clive Davis, who also produces the film, added in his own statement: "Naomi Ackie's screen test was so powerful, it sent shivers up my spine. Although Whitney's incomparable vocals are used for all the songs, Naomi's extraordinary acting range enables her to masterfully capture Whitney's unique charm, star power, and, of course, her personal struggles. Naomi is the real deal and I can't imagine a better choice for this iconic role."
From where you've seen her before to how she prepared for the role of Houston, here's everything to know about the rising star.
She knew she wanted to be an actor when she was very young
Speaking with PEOPLE, Ackie said that she first knew she wanted to be an actor at 11 years old when she played the angel Gabriel in a school nativity play.
"I don't know how it's lasted this long," she admitted. "It's just a thing that spoke to a part of me. The things I've learned about myself in the process of trying to be an actor have really helped shape who I am. I'm grateful to say I like who I am and that's partly because of this."
Ackie went on to study at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama — whose alumni include actors such as Judi Dench, Andrew Garfield and Joe Alwyn — before graduating in 2014.
She's already been in some big titles
Though Ackie is bound to make headlines for I Wanna Dance With Somebody, this certainly isn't her first big role. She made her television acting debut on Doctor Who in 2015, before landing her breakout role on Netflix's The End of the F***ing World.
Additionally, she played Jannah in 2019's Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and played Alicia on Master of None season 3. Following her role in I Wanna Dance With Somebody, she is set to star in Zoë Kravitz's Pussy Island alongside Channing Tatum.
She's an award-winning actress
In 2020, Ackie received the British Academy Television Award for best supporting actress for her role in Netflix's The End of the F***ing World. She also took home the British Independent Film Award for most promising newcomer in 2017 for her role in Lady Macbeth.
She's also a singer
In addition to playing one of the greatest singers of all time, Ackie has an impressive voice herself. Though most of the musical moments in I Wanna Dance With Somebody use Houston's actual voice, director Kasi Lemmons told PEOPLE everyone was blown away by Ackie's voice during her audition.
"I was compelled by the idea of doing the movie because I had known [Houston] and because of how I felt about her, but Naomi made it an easy 'Yes,' because her screen test was brilliant," Lemmons explained. "She was just so good. She sang in the screen test and she sang the same range as Whitney, and I thought, 'Oh, this allows for some interesting film possibilities.' "
She did a lot of research to play Whitney Houston
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Ackie told PEOPLE that she put in "a lot of rehearsal" time to play Houston, including listening to her music on repeat and watching old videos to nail down her accent and how she sings.
"The most daunting was the accent for me, probably because I've only ever played British characters," she explained. "So that was scary because I knew for one, Whitney's dialect and her accent is very specific to a place, but it's also very specific to her. Her intonations have been talked about and are even a part of how she sings."
She also worked hard to accurately portray Houston in her public and private moments in the film, referring to the childhood nickname Houston's closest family and friends used.
"The interesting thing about looking at someone like Whitney is that there was a part of Whitney who was so public facing [but] Nippy is for her family and her friends," she added. "So we know Whitney Houston, but there's only a select amount of people who know Nippy. In the interviews, you sometimes get a slip of Nippy, and it was looking out for those moments too and then asking, 'Why in that moment? What made her comfortable or irritated enough to show a different side of herself?' And trying to infer a lot of that information."
Playing Whitney Houston helped her use her voice
Not only did Ackie learn a lot about Houston for the role, but playing Houston also influenced her a great deal. The actress told PEOPLE that playing the iconic singer taught her that she's "more capable than [she gives herself] credit for."
"[Playing Houston taught me] that I have a voice," she continued. "I really learned how to use my voice in this job and to speak on what I needed to make sure that I was as healthy as I could be, felt as supported as I could be, and I could do the best job that I was capable of."
PEOPLE's special edition all about the life an unrivaled career of Whitney Houston is available now.