Born and raised in Philadelphia, Nafessa Williams didn’t grow up in the limelight. In fact, for most of her adolescence, it was a career in law she wished to pursue. But after landing her first major role in the 2011 drama Streets, the star said goodbye to her jurisdictional roots and leaped into the world of performance. Since then, Nafessa’s work has spanned across the realms of film and TV, being cast in major productions, including Black Lightening and A Holiday Chance.
Most notably, however, the actress can be seen in Sony’s recent biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody. The film chronicles Whitney Houston’s rise to fame and offers an intimate look into the highs and lows of her record-breaking career. Williams portrays Robyn Crawford, Houston’s lover, friend, and confidant, depicting the pair’s somewhat shielded relationship throughout the musical masterpiece.
Schön catches up with Nafessa to talk about her latest role, representation in the film industry, and what the future has in store.
Tell us a little bit about your upbringing. You were raised in Philadelphia, and you studied criminal justice at West Chester University, interning in the homicide unit of the District Attorney’s Office. It’s a far cry from the world of film; when did you realise performing was your calling?
I grew up in the intercity in Philly and as you could imagine I was subject to violence, police Brutality, and drugs this was a normal thing. Tv was my escape so that’s how I got into tv. I didn’t have anyone in my family who was in the industry so it felt like a far-fetch of a dream. The plan was to go to school and get a degree, go to law school, and become a lawyer. Once I graduated a semester early with all honours) I started working right away and realized I hated it and it wasn’t for me. So I tapped into the vision and the calling that I felt God gave me as a little girl which was wanting to be on tv. It was shows like The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Saved by the Bell that I would watch and they would be my escape out of Philly. Also, Phylicia Rashad is an actor who inspired me to be a lawyer as she was one on the show and she was my first memory of a woman being beautiful and brown and a black, sassy independent woman. That is what I thought I wanted to be. I wanted to be an actor just by watching her.
You’ve spoken before about the struggle you faced growing up to find black role models you could look up to in the media. Do you hope young girls see themselves in you when watching you on screen?
I feel like I did have role models like Phylicia Rashad as I mentioned; Tatyana Ali, and Lark Voorhies…these were the faces I would see in my early days of watching tv that made me feel like “wow they look like me, I can do it too.”
A lot of your work sheds light on the real-life experiences of black people. Is this something you’re conscious of when saying yes to work?
My goal is to always tell stories where black people are highlighted positively and truthfully where we can see ourselves on tv and it’s pushing the narrative forward for our culture. It’s something that I’m very very conscious of.
We’ve got to talk about the new film; how does acting in a biopic differ from the fictional projects you’ve worked on before?
The thing about a biopic is you want to be careful and cautious as this is a story you’re telling about real-life people and they have family members who are around and will watch this – in particular, Robyn, who is still alive and around and living her life and it was very important for me to represent her in the best way possible. I believe Whitney was her soulmate so this is a sensitive subject so you want to approach it with a lot of care which is the difference. When you’re playing a fictional role, you can kind of create this world and make the characters who you want them to be but when you’re playing a real-life person, you want to be true to who they were, what their essence was and represent them in the best way possible.
It must feel pretty special to be involved in a project like this. Have you always been a Whitney fan?
I have been a Whitney fan for as long as I could remember. Whitney is my mom’s favourite singer so I don’t remember being introduced to her, she was just always around. She was like my auntie in my head.
What was it like being on set? Is there anything you’ll take away from your time filming?
Being on set was a dream. As you can imagine, being a Whitney fan and being so close to her work and around her peers and the people that worked with her, her family, and Clive Davis, meant the world to me. I’ll take away my memories of knowing that I was able to be a part of such an iconic story and what I believe is the best Whitney Houston story that has been done so far and I just really appreciated how they celebrated her life. I’m excited for younger generations who might not be as familiar with her catalogue to come to see the film and know more about who she is because she was and she is “the voice.”
There’s not a lot out there about Robyn, the character you play. Was it hard to portray someone you didn’t know much about? How did you materialise the role?
Robyn wrote an autobiography and that was my saving grace. I was able to learn everything I needed to learn from that book. I was able to pull so much of her life and give it over to the character I played in the film. I materialized it by really studying and understanding the person that Robyn is and being truthful to who she was.
I read that you and Robyn ironically share the same star sign – Sagittarius. Did this help you connect to her in any way?
We do share the same star sign which is Sagittarius. This helped me so much because so many of the personality traits, I already had them in me. I’m really into zodiacs so that was a really fun fact for me and something that helped me tremendously in my building of this character.
Portraying a real person who’s still alive, you must have felt some responsibility to do the character justice. Can you tell us about that?
I felt the responsibility of bringing this character to justice because as I mentioned before, she is a real person that is still alive and it’s a sensitive subject so I really wanted to approach it with a lot of care and hopefully make Robyn proud for how I represented her.
Robyn and Whitney’s relationship mostly went on behind the scenes. Did you feel it was important to bring it to the world stage and share their story for them?
I think it was very, very much important. Again, I feel like they were soulmates and I feel like Robyn was the best person to have around Whitney – she cared for her, she was her protector, she was her confidant – obviously, she was her creative assistant and they had their own relationship but she really had Whitney’s best interest at heart and I just really wanted to show the loyalty, the admiration, and the love that Robyn had for Whitney. Their love was something beautiful and it was the truth. I believe that the truth should be told and I’m so happy that I was able to be a small part in bringing that to life.
Let’s talk about Naomi Ackie, who stars as Whitney. What was it like to play alongside her and watch her embody the role?
Naomi was amazing! She was so professional. I watched her embody Whitney from the moment she walked into the hair and makeup trailer and she would get into costume. I would watch her transform and it was really beautiful to see. Her professionalism and her work ethic are what I admired about her so much. I know this isn’t an easy role to take on but she really worked hard for it. I think she did an amazing job. There were times when I was on set with her, she would be embodying Whitney so much that I would just be in awe and I would start crying because it felt so real. So, kudos to Naomi. I think she truly embodied the essence of who she was from her hands to her arm movements and everything! She really physicalized who Whitney was and I, as a fan, appreciate it. Also as an actor, I admired the professionalism and the work ethic.
How did it feel to finally sit down and watch the screenplay after having lived it for so many months?
It was so amazing to finally sit down and watch the movie! I had a lot of BTS that I had to keep a secret and hold to myself. I lived with this for more than a year before the film actually came out so it was really cool. I actually waited to see the final cut, I didn’t see any cuts or edits, I waited until the actual premiere to watch it because I’m a fan and I felt like for the holidays, it was a really sweet treat to just sit and watch the final product with everybody else. I like to watch my films in a room with other people to kind of see and hear their reactions so that was really cool and it was just a really great way to end my year.
What do you hope people will take away from the film? In particular, Whitney and Robyn’s relationship?
For people who are fans of Whitney, I just want them to remember her legacy and her amazing catalogue of music. I want them to come and feel like it’s a celebration of her life. For Whitney and Robyn’s relationship, just think it speaks to friendship and it speaks to loyalty. They are the definition of that for me and I just want people to be able to take away the love and adoration and they loyalty that they had for each other and know that no matter what was happening in their lives, they were there for each other and that is what friendship is about.
We touched on representation briefly before, but I’ve noticed many of your roles highlight marginalised communities – your character Thunder in Black Lightening was the first ever black lesbian superhero. How important is it for you to depict these underrepresented societal groups?
It’s very very important for me. I know what it’s like to be a black woman in America and to feel underrepresented so to add a black lesbian woman to that, you know, we want to see ourselves. So for every young, teenage, black, lesbian, I want them to tune in to “Black Lightening” and see themselves and feel like who they are is normal and it’s okay. And for families who watch the show to get inspired by how Thunders’ parents just truly supported who she was. And even with Robyn, to live in the late 80s when she and Whitney couldn’t live and love themselves and love each other out loud was really sad so again, when you go see Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, and you look at Whitney and Robyn’s relationship, I want lesbian women or bisexual women – or even if you don’t have a label, I don’t like to attach labels to any of it – but I want people to be able to see themselves. That’s so important to me in picking my characters. I believe as an artist, my goal is to inspire and empower and to be a representation when people see me on tv or in theatres.
You’ve worked on some really impressive pieces throughout your career. What’s been your biggest ‘pinch me’ moment to date?
My biggest pinch-me moment to date was for sure the Whitney movie. I could feel her energy through Clive Davis and her family approved of me playing Robyn. That is all I needed. Also just being on set and watching Naomi reimagine these performances and watching her embody Whitney was just, again, I would be on set crying so this is for sure by far the biggest ‘pinch me’ moment so far.
Before I let you go, I’ve got to ask, what’s your all-time favourite Whitney song?
This is really hard because I love so many of her songs but if I had to choose, I’d have to say “I’m Every Woman”. That was my first time creating my own memory with Whitney, watching the music video with Chaka Khan, it was a bunch of brown little girls who looked like me in the video so that stood out to me and it’s such an empowering song.
Lastly, what does the future look like for you, Nafessa? Where do you hope to take your career next?
I’m also a businesswoman, I have my own clothing line called Y-Fear – your fears and egos aren’t real. I’m also into producing and directing. I produced my first Christmas movie called “Holiday Chance” now streaming on Amazon Prime Video so that was really cool. I was able to hire a lot of my friends and I also developed the story. I love Christmas movies so I decided to make one. Directing is something I would like to do and also a comedy! Comedy is definitely on my radar. I love, love comedy. I think a dream job would be to host SNL! So look out for me on the comedy side as that’s something I definitely want to do next!
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is out now.
photography. Ben Duggan
fashion. Oretta Corbelli
talent. Nafessa Williams
make up. Jasmine Madison
location. The Ivory Space Studios
photography assistant. Nick Rasmussen
words. Ella Citron-Thompkins