Ashton Sanders isn’t feeling too good.
On paper, though, he should be pretty jolly right now. After all, ’tis the season… not just for good tidings and mince pies, but also for the release of his new film, Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody. But when he Zooms in from his Los Angeles home, just days before the film’s hits screens, Sanders sounds decidedly croaky.
“I’m actually struggling with a cold right now,” the actor says, camera understandably turned off. It turns out that the cough that’s struck down half of the UK over the past few weeks has crossed the pond. Now, Sanders is trying everything to get back to full health before I Wanna Dance’s release and, naturally, Christmas.
“I’ve been doing those vitamin IVs every day, just trying to get together. I’m trying to rest up and give myself space and time to prepare to be with my family for the holidays. And also, of course, the premiere for the movie is Thursday so…” He exhales. ”There’s just a lot going on at the moment.”
Cold aside, the hustle and bustle of pre-premiere life is kind of business as usual for Sanders. If you’re a film buff, you’ll recognise him from his critically-acclaimed performance as a teenage Chiron in Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016), or as the fictional (but mostly based on fact) Black Panther Jimmy Palmer in 2021’s Judas and the Black Messiah.
More into fashion? You’ll remember how the 27-year-old kicked off 2022 by walking in a Prada show, before bringing an icy stare to the Met Gala red carpet a few months later, decked out in head-to-toe Casablanca.
Either way, rest assured that this man is booked and busy. I Wanna Dance with Somebody, however, presented a new challenge.
“I think when you’re doing a biopic it’s more particular, more nuanced,” says Sanders. “Although you have freedom as an actor, this is a real person’s life. And although there is a script, there’s also a life that they actually lived that you want to honour.”
Playing Bobby Brown, Houston’s husband of 14 years, Sanders worked particularly hard to make sure his performance wasn’t influenced by the public and media’s perception of the couple, which is largely marred by stories of drug abuse and domestic violence.
“I think that we collectively all tried to stay away from any narrative that was put on them, from the paparazzi or any stigma that was put on Bobby,” says Sanders. And he can rest easy with the knowledge that the biopic has been approved by those who were closest to Houston. “Knowing that the family’s blessing was over this and that [record producer] Clive Davis was involved solidified it as something that I wanted to be a part of.”
Now, though, it’s time for Sanders to get some much-needed R&R so that he can tick the film premiere off his to-do list and clock out for the year. But not before we quiz him on a few industry secrets. We’ll send Lemsip in the post as a thanks, promise.
The thing that made me want to get into acting is…
I went to see The Lion King at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles as a kid. I remember seeing Nala and Simba on stage and being like: “Man, I want to do that.” That was a lot of my driving force behind wanting to act and doing theatre – that was my “aha!” moment. Along the way, there’s been performances by people like Don Cheadle and Danny Glover, and films like The Last King of Scotland and The Color Purple. I’ve always been attracted to deeper films. That’s what I’m drawn to.
The person that taught me the most about acting is…
Denzel Washington [when I worked with him] on The Equalizer 2. We all know this: Denzel drops gems. A lot of things I was able to take away were particular to acting. But also, I took away some things that I was able to apply to the person I am. One thing was to not take myself so seriously and to just be true to my artistry.
One item that travels everywhere with me is…
My journal. I don’t journal every day but sometimes I just need to write something down. A journal can be like a therapist sometimes, so it’s important that I have that with me.
The person who left me the most starstruck was…
Both Naomis – Naomie Harris [on Moonlight] and Naomi Ackie [on I Wanna Dance]. My jaw-dropped. They’re both just really good, and I’m honoured to be in the same scenes as them. Those are the only two women, really, in my career that I’ve had major scenes with, and they’ve both made imprints on my path, for sure.
A director I’d love to work with is…
Guillermo del Toro or Quentin Tarantino. I would love to do something cool and different.
My secret to looking good on the red carpet is…
Stay true to who you are – like that advice Denzel gave me. The red carpet can be so weird, so the way to make it comfortable is to wear something that [makes you] feel yourself. How would I describe my own personal style? It’s ever-evolving. I’ve always kind of been fly, even before fame. Again, it’s about staying true to yourself. The way I dress is an extension of my soul.
When I’m not acting, I’m…
My favourite pastime is to be somewhere with warm weather, that’s why I love LA. But not right now, actually – it’s quite cold. But, yeah, being by water on the beach and just relaxing. I spend so much of my year working, so my favourite pastime is just chill and get back to life for a sec.
My dream role is…
I don’t know! I’m not good at these “what ifs”. I want to do something that’s sci-fi and futuristic – maybe playing an AI or something like that. It’s something that’s so far left, but doable. I think that would be fun.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody is in cinemas from today