BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – When singers make the leap from recording artist to movie star, it’s usually a well-calculated career maneuver that requires show-business acumen from an army of agents, acting coaches, managers and publicists. However, for bubbly sixth season American Idol champion Jordin Sparks, the jump from studio to screen just, well, happened.
The way Sparks tells it, she became the title character in a remake of the 1976 musical Sparkle because her music career was unexpectedly in flux last year: She was parting ways with her management, and her label was undergoing a shake-up. Unable to record a new album and uncertain of her future, Sparks looked to another passion – acting.
I was in this weird limbo and Sparkle’ just fell into my lap, Sparks says. My agent sent it to me and said, What do you think? Do you want to audition?’ I read the script and fell in love with it. I related a lot to Sparkle. She’s a girl with a dream, and she’s gonna do whatever it takes to get to the top. I know something about a girl who did that as well.
Sparks won the Idol crown at the age of 17 and is now 22. She has grown up in that time, losing her chubby teen frame for a svelte sexy figure, and has a regular boyfriend in fellow singer Jason Derulo. Sparkle represents her growth as an actress as well.
Sparks refers to herself as a theater geek: The Phoenix-born singer says she saw the musical revue Smokey Joe’s Cafe on Broadway like seven or eight times while growing up in New Jersey during football season (Sparks’ father, Phillippi Sparks, played for the New York Giants). Besides a couple of guest starring stints on TV shows and drama club and community theater credits, she also had a 12-week run in the Broadway musical In the Heights in 2010.
Music always took precedence, though, Sparks says, casually hugging her leg while parked on a chair inside a Beverly Hills hotel suite recently.
Sparkle, which opened Friday, tells the story of a Detroit singing sibling group attempting to break into the music industry in 1968. Sparks first auditioned for the part last July, scored the role in August and started rehearsing in September. She didn’t have a chance to work with an acting coach, but she nervously memorized the entire script, including the parts of Sparkle’s older sisters, played by Carmen Ejogo (Love’s Labour’s Lost) and Tika Sumpter (One Life to Live).
As if starring in her first feature film wasn’t nerve-racking enough, she learned that Whitney Houston, who had been working for 12 years with producer Debra Martin Chase to remake Sparkle, would be playing her strict churchgoing mother, Emma, who turned her life around after battling her own demons.
It was nice to see Jordin, who was new to this; Whitney, who was a veteran and an icon; and in between Carmen and Tika, who were willing to listen and learn from one of the best, says director Salim Akil. It was something to watch and something I didn’t want to mess with because it created an emotional bond that plays over into their performances.
Houston died Feb. 11 after accidentally drowning in a hotel room bathtub on the eve of the Grammy Awards; authorities said her death was complicated by cocaine use and heart disease. With Houston gone, Sparkle has become more than a potential breakout moment for Sparks. It’s serving as a tribute to the superstar.
One of the toughest scenes for Sparks to film involved Houston’s character confronting her daughters after discovering that they have formed a group against her wishes. Sparks remembers that it was filmed late at night, and she was surprised that Houston was so effortlessly able to switch between yelling in character and joking around on set.
That was the scene where she says, Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?’ I remember standing there and her saying that and going, Whoa. That’s crazy.’ Watching the movie now with her not here, it holds even more weight, Sparks says, pausing to rub some goose bumps that have emerged on her arm. I just got chills thinking about it.
Sparks learned Houston died just before they were due to walk the red carpet at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammys party.
It was going to be our first round of interviews to talk about Sparkle,’ Sparks says. Now, all of the things that she was going to do have fallen on my shoulders and the rest of the cast. I can feel it. My shoulders are a little tense, but at the same time, I feel like it’s just a blessing. I’m really lucky. I get to talk about Whitney Houston.
Sparks is already working on her next movie, an independent film called The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete directed by George Tillman Jr. She’s also playing an Afro-Latina from the Bronx alongside Anthony Mackie and Oscar-winning Idol alum Jennifer Hudson. But Sparks, a Grammy nominee whose hits include No Air, is not finished with her music career.
I am growing and learning, Sparks says.