Ashton Sanders: ‘Bobby Brown would be happy with what we did’

Spotlight: Ashdon Sanders | Soho House

The actor tells Soho House how he prepared for his role as one of the most controversial stars in the world in the new Whitney Houston biopic, ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’

Friday 23 December 2022 By Soho House

It’s been a decade since Whitney Houston’s death, yet her personal life continues to draw fascination and scrutiny, while her inspiring career, unbeatable voice and tempestuous personality are now the subject of a biopic named after one of her biggest hits: I Wanna Dance With Somebody. 

Of course, couched in this tale is the complex and widely derided love story between the singer and her husband Bobby Brown – a legendary, and unlikely, showbiz pairing. Arthouse wunderkind Ashton Sanders, 27, has been cast in the role, taking on the difficult task of bringing to life a character who is not only well known, but is still alive. ‘I believe he’ll be really happy with what we did, the film is in no way to break anybody down… or show them in a negative light, if you know what I’m saying,’ the actor tells me over the phone. ‘I wouldn’t have done the film if people weren’t protected. Also, it feels real.’ 

In our conversation, Sanders speaks in a low and measured tone, perhaps from exhaustion. He is trying to outrun the seasonal bug that is spreading at pace. ‘I’ve been trying not to be affected by the cold that’s going round. I’m just trying to take care of myself,’ he says. Rather than home remedies like ginger, lemon and honey or a preventative Lemsip, his solution is far more Hollywood – he’s been pumping vitamins and nutrients into his body via an immunity IV service that comes to his house. ‘I actually do these immunity IVs – have you heard of them? They’re like a drip that you would get in the hospital with natural nutrients.’ I tell him I haven’t heard of them, because I think crumbling Britain lacks the infrastructure for an at-home drip service right now. ‘Yeah, I haven’t heard friends from overseas talking about it,’ he adds.

For LA-born Sanders, show business has always seemed within reach. He attended Grand Arts High School, the same academic year as Doja Cat, before studying at The Theatre School at DePaul University. He cut his teeth in arthouse projects like All Day And A Night and Native Son, and has experienced a stratospheric rise for memorable roles in Oscar®-winning projects such as Moonlight and Judas And The Black Messiah. Although he’s undoubtedly embedded in the industry, he still seems keen to keep it at a healthy distance, enjoying fashion (he always nails the Met Gala theme), notoriety and express IV drips, but trying not to lose himself along the way in the ‘scene’, which he once described as ‘sus as f**k’. 

In general, despite his prevalence in recent cinematic triumphs and eclectic fashion editorials in the likes of GQ, Interview, Highsnobiety, and Dazed, he has managed to be both a pervasive and elusive presence in pop culture. ‘I am from, quote unquote, Hollywood so I have a lot of friends here who I grew up with. I think that’s what keeps me grounded,’ he says. Sanders reveals he still hasn’t even watched any of his projects with his friends and family, because he’s ‘funny about it’, and prefers to slip into theatres and watch his own work alone. ‘I’m a very particular person,’ he explains.

However, he’s not overwhelmingly assertive as to who Ashton Sanders is as a finalised concept. ‘I think that people are ever evolving. As actors we have to hop in and out of all these different characters. I’m trying to figure out all of that one day at a time. I think I’ve realised we’re always trying to just figure ourselves out.’ 

It is perhaps this healthy scrutiny of the industry he’s quickly becoming embedded in, and the lack of finality in his own sense of self, that informs a portrayal of one of showbiz’s most talked about couples that doesn’t lean heavily into the stereotype. Brown, a new jack swing era musician, was initially made famous as part of the group New Edition, but throughout his relationship with Houston, who had a clean-cut gospel image, their obvious substance abuse issues were sometimes blamed on his influence. But Sanders was keen to eschew the ‘narrative and stigma’ around Brown who he calls ‘an icon in his own right’. ‘We’re all human,’ he adds.

Brown was not involved in the making of the film though, so Sanders had to draw on research in order to bring him to life as a ‘visual entity’. Unlike Austin Butler who recently revealed he didn’t see his family for years while he was preparing for Elvis, and spoke in the late artist’s voice, Sanders says he prefers not to ‘fully disassociate’ to step into character. Instead, he stresses that he was aiming for a ‘nuance’ and immersed himself in Brown by watching the Being Bobby Brown reality show (which served as a window into the couple’s interior world) and other footage from the past. 

Sanders explains: ‘Everything you can think of, I pulled from. I watched countless interviews, some that are of Whitney where Bobby is just in the background or on the side. A lot of moments between them where I’m thinking about their relationship, about him being protective. I wanted to be nuanced and get his voice inflections and his facial expressions.’ He also studied how his mannerisms changed from his twenties to the current day. 

Sanders picks characters based on their complexity. He says he treats all of them as multidimensional studies that you can ‘dissect’, and sees them as an amalgamation of circumstances. ‘I like characters that have depth to them,’ he explains. 

This is probably because Sanders comes across as someone who is a deep thinker. Someone who is consciously trying to retain his own layers, inquisitiveness and humanity in an industry that could so easily lead you to become a shallow caricature of yourself. He talks about his work with such certainty, and about himself with open philosophical musings. Having had such a fast-paced career that has thrust him into worldwide view, it seems he’s allowing his own tale to unfold without burdening himself with the pressure of how he’s coming across.


I Wanna Dance With Somebody' is now screening around the Houses.

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