Sitting in a room at Birmingham's Townsend Hotel, Jordin Sparks is still bubbling with enthusiasm about the previous night's red-carpet screening of "Sparkle" in Royal Oak and her encounter with Aretha Franklin.
"I realized she sang the original soundtrack. Now she has to listen to our versions of us trying to make (the songs) as good as hers? It was just so crazy. I was like, I don't know if I can handle this right now," says Sparks, referring to Curtis Mayfield's songs for the original 1976 movie. "But I heard that she said it was amazing. So as long as she liked it, what else is there to do?"
Sparks still has the sweet enthusiasm of the 17-year-old girl from Arizona who won "American Idol" in 2007. Now, at 22, she's dealing gracefully with interviews about starring in her first movie and working with her costar, the late Whitney Houston, who was supposed to be a part of the movie's promotional efforts -- and, in a way, still is.
"Every interview, she's sitting right here. Every premiere, everything that we do, I feel her," says Sparks of Houston, who plays Sparkle's strict mother, Emma, in the film.
Recently, Sparks shared what she's learned from her "Sparkle" experience, including some meaningful words from Houston.
What she learned about acting: Once Sparks got the title role in the remake that Houston and her producing partner, Debra Martin Chase, spent more than a decade trying to bring to the screen, her first step was to immerse herself in the screenplay.
"I memorized the script backwards and forwards. I knew my part, I knew everybody else's parts, I knew everybody else's lines. I knew entrances and exits. I had that script down pat. That was something that helped me because I've always been a words person," she recalls.
Sparks was worried about being surrounded by actors who were familiar with making movies, but even that fear helped. "I'm walking in going, 'I can't be horrible. I have to do an amazing job here or at least be good enough to where they can at least make me look better if I am bad.' It was just that mindset."
Instead of being greeted with impatience, she received support from the cast and director Salim Akil. "When I was just like, 'I don't know what I'm doing,' they were like, 'OK, why don't you try thinking about something this way or maybe just not emoting so much in your body language, but just make it come through your eyes' -- different things like that."
For some of the deepest dramatic moments, her onscreen sisters, Carmen Ejogo and Tika Sumpter, gave her advice on finding the right emotional tone. "You have to go to a place where you don't really want to be, lots of thoughts that you don't really want to think," she says. "There were points where we'd be shooting something and Salim would yell 'cut' and I'd still be crying."
Sparks is now tackling a role in "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete," a movie with fellow "Idol" alum Jennifer Hudson and Anthony Mackie. "I play an Afro-Latina. There's no music so I'm relying solely on the acting part," she says.
What she learned musically: Besides the acting, Sparks faced the challenge of working on a soundtrack that includes classic songs by Curtis Mayfield and new ones by R. Kelly.
The task came at just the right time in her career. "I was at a point where things were transitioning with my label -- things are good now, but last year, things were transitioning. I had parted ways with my management. I wanted to put out my music, but I couldn't because things were just so crazy and I was in this weird limbo stage," she explains.
With "Sparkle," Sparks got to stretch her pop boundaries with R&B/gospel-influenced music, including "One Wing," the song by R. Kelly that she sings during a big concert scene. When she first heard a tape of Kelly singing the demo, she was captivated.
"His voice was tuned up, so he sounded like a chipmunk, but it was the best chipmunk you've ever heard. His emotion was there. It was so incredible. I was like, 'I get to sing the song and you want me to do it like that?' "
Although she was nervous about recording the song, she was pleased with the final result. "When I heard it back for the first time, I was just like, yes, I did it. We made it work."
What she learned from Houston: Houston's accidental drowning in a hotel bathtub on the eve of the Grammy Awards (a death that authorities said was complicated by cocaine use and heart disease) has made the movie's debut a bittersweet event.
Sparks wore a T-shirt with a picture of her costar on it to the Royal Oak screening. She describes the film as Houston's gift to mothers and young women and anyone who wants to pursue a dream.
She says the music icon was an example on the set of how to be a star without behaving like one. "She wanted to get to know us and she wanted to sit down with us and have conversations. She really loved getting to know people. She said hello to every single extra, all the time."
Sparks also was impressed that Houston was unafraid of the movie's themes that echoed the joy and pain of her own life.
"She didn't forget where she came from and she wasn't ashamed of who she was or the life that she had lived. She'd be the first person to tell you that. Usually when you get to that level (of fame), most people get really guarded and private, and she was so open. She was very truthful and open about the fact that the parallels of this story were things that she had lived."
The lead female characters all are reflections of the icon who sang "I'm Every Woman," according to Sparks. "She was the mother figure. She was Dee. She was Sparkle. She was Sister. All of those characters were Whitney. I think she was just really excited to tell a story she had lived."
What she learned about herself: Sparks says "Sparkle" has helped her prove something to herself.
"One thing Whitney did say to me once was 'Believe in the talent you have. Believe in your gift.' I think about that now," she says.
Sparks sounds as if it's a lesson that will stay with her. "I know that if I work hard enough, if it's something I really want to do, I can make it happen," she says.
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