For W’s second annual TV Portfolio, we asked 26 of the most sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small-screen characters by stepping into their shoes.
On Netflix’s dark comedy series The End of the F***ing World, Naomi Ackie held her own against teen outlaws while seeking revenge for her partner’s death, and ultimately stole the show. She did so again in season 3 of Master of None as Alicia, the love interest to Lena Waithe’s Denise, wrapped up in a cottagecore entanglement. Up next, the British actress will begin production on I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Helmed by Stella Meghie, the anticipated biopic is based on the life and career of R&B superstar Whitney Houston, and her tragic passing at the age of 48. Until then, though, Ackie is just trying to remain calm about the massive scope of the project as she reflects on the show that got her through quarantine this past year. On a call from London earlier this summer, the 28-year-old lent her thoughts on I May Destroy You, letting her face do the talking when she’s on-screen, and her favorite Whitney Houston songs.
Why did you choose to portray Arabella from I May Destroy You for this portfolio?
A lot of people had watched it before I’d gotten around to it, and I knew—based on what the story was and people’s reactions to it—it was going to bring something up for me. I usually try to save shows like that until I can hold the right space for them. I didn’t anticipate that the show would be not just a really harrowing and truthful way of exploring sexual assault, but it was multifaceted and offered so many different layers to the ultimate question of consent. Through Arabella’s eyes, it was heartbreaking. I don’t know many women who haven’t been harassed or assaulted in some way, so I think it just spoke to that inner knowing, especially in the last episode, when she goes through the different ways that she could treat the situation if she ever met her rapist again. That was incredible. I can’t speak highly enough of not only the writing and the story itself, but of the performance in it. It blew my mind.
This show makes the viewer privy to a certain type of interiority. It’s very special to be Black and watch a story about Black 20-somethings telling inside jokes and code-switching in London, and, as part of the same diaspora, being able to just get what they’re saying.
If you get it, you get it. This is what I’m loving as well. For one, I was like, Whoa, BBC One is doing this? As Black Brits, we’re not necessarily used to seeing our creators have such a stage. That’s usually why we go to the States, to be honest. [Laughs] This inner knowing, and it not being written to a wide audience—there’s something about the specificity of it that makes it universal. We’re not only talking about consent centered around a woman; it brings in consent when it comes to men, too, and the arguments within that. I know for myself, my friends, my family—we talk about this stuff. What is consent, what is the gray area, the black and white of it all? We need more shows like this! Not just about consent, but about many things that we are still arguing over the subtleties of. The discussion outside of this show was very rich, and that’s what I really enjoy—watching TV shows that you can have a rich conversation afterward. That’s when the best stories are told.
Your Master of None character, Alicia, has a standout solo episode in which it is revealed that she—a Black, queer, single woman—is struggling to have a child through IVF. It felt very fresh, but also very much tapping into the everyday, because it is an experience that a lot of people have but don’t always get to see portrayed on-screen.
Yes! And it’s not discussed. It’s quite strange. In other interviews, I have talked about how I’ve never seen a story centered around two Black queer women. The only one I could think of was The Color Purple. [Laughs] Let alone a story about IVF. But this is a thing a lot of women go through. Most of the women I know, now it’s an option, [and we wonder], Would I go through with that? Can I go through that? Can I afford it? A lot of queer friends are discussing this stuff, because we’re at that age. When I read the script, it didn’t feel matter-of-fact; it was like her emotional journey through this process. The IVF injections and stuff aren’t the main focus—it’s her struggling through it. Even if you’re not going through IVF, everyone struggles through something.
Growing up, what was the first thing you saw on TV that left a lasting impact?
It probably would have been an animated film—The Prince of Egypt‚ you remember that? I loved it. It’s one of my favorite films. The bit at the end, when Moses comes with the staff, and God says, “You shall do my wonders.” I was emotional.
You are about to portray one of the biggest superstars of our time—Whitney Houston—in the biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody. How are you feeling about taking up that mantle?
I’m feeling like I’m holding the space for myself. Not to sound woo-woo about it, but I really acknowledge the size of the story and the size of the person. It’s so easy to be intimidated by something like this—and don’t get me wrong, I totally am. But I am also trying to just accept that and be like, What can I do with this? How can I tell her story from a place of truth? I’m trying to tell myself constantly, there are no rules to biopics. And when you put everything else to the side, Whitney Houston is an amazing, incredible performer, but she was also a beautiful human being. That’s what I want to show. A beautiful human who had the voice of an angel.
What’s your favorite Whitney Houston song?
It’s changing constantly at the moment, I’m not going to lie to you. My original one was always “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” or “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt—featuring Mariah Carey! [Laughs] Now it changes. I was really obsessed with how, in my research, I came across Whitney Houston singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and I genuinely have not heard that song sung the way Whitney Houston did it. Her gospel songs are incredible too.