Editor’s note: This week, the Lifetime TV movie Whitney — directed very ably by Angela Bassett — makes its debut. For a TV biopic, it’s pretty good, though many fans will be disappointed that it doesn’t delve into her life much before or after she met Bobby Brown (it’s really a love story). But Deborah Cox, who dubs the singing of Whitney, does great with the numbers and it’s a lot of fun to watch.
But some folks may wonder what, exactly, was left out, which is what freelancer Mark Dawson asked about when he interviewed Yolonda Ross, who plays Whitney’s (rumored) lesbian lover in the movie.
There’s one thing Yolonda Ross — the actress who plays the role of Whitney Houston’s (rumored) lesbian lover in the upcoming Lifetime movie, which premieres Saturday — knows for sure about Whitney and her gal pal, Robyn: “They were two people that deeply loved, cared for and respected one another,” she says. “Theirs could have been more than a friendship and if so, it’s really unfortunate if others got in the way of it or compromised it.”
Directed by Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett, Whitney Houston will focus on the singer’s rise to stardom and her stormy relationship with Bobby Brown.
To prepare for the role, Ross feverishly studied Houston and her longtime assistant, Robyn Crawford. According to reports, the two met at 16 during a summer job in East Orange, N.J., and allegedly soon began a romantic relationship. They purportedly broke up when Houston married Brown in 1992.
“Robyn seems to be a straight-up, very grounded person,” Ross says, “somebody who, no matter what the situation, has got your back or is gonna set you straight. She offered security to Whitney and uncompromised companionship.”
The film is the first-ever produced about the life and death of Whitney Houston. Ross predicts it will be a piece of history. “Like The Jackson’s movie, The Temptations and The Five Heartbeats: three movies every black person in America has seen at least once in their life. This will be one of those, but reach an even wider audience due to today’s global media.”
Ross made her feature film debut in 2001’s Stranger Inside. The film earned the actress her first Film Independent Spirit Award nomination, along with the IFP Gotham Award for breakthrough performance.
She went on to appear in Denzel Washington’s Antwone Fisher, Woody Allen’s Whatever Works, David Mamet’s Phil Spector, HBO’s Treme and the independent film, Yelling To The Sky. In 2014, she starred in John Sayles Go For Sisters, a film that has done what no other has — featured two black women leading a buddy film. This role earned the Omaha native her second Spirit Award nomination (for supporting actress). She has several films slated for 2015 including the indie drama Meadowland with Olivia Wilde and Lila and Eve starring Jennifer Lopez and Viola Davis.
“I’ve always been creative,” she says. “I paint, write, sing and play instruments.” However, she never imagined she’d pursue a career in acting. “I have always been painfully shy. Getting in front of people and acting something out was nothing I ever thought I would do.”
That all changed when she moved to New York City and realized she would need extra money to get by.
“I was in school and friends convinced me to try commercials and music videos. The opportunity came to do extra work on Saturday Night Live. It got me my AFTRA card and an agent. I didn’t hear from the agency for a while, but out of the blue, they sent me on an audition for New York Undercover, and I booked it. Months later they called me for another audition. It was for Stranger Inside.”
That HBO film forever changed the course of the young actress’ life.
“I had never taken an acting course,” she says. “But I was blessed with a gift and I have always studied people, and used music to help me create. I just applied that knowledge to scripts.”
When taking on a role, Ross’ objective is to embody a character to its fullest. “I aim to be that person inside and out, from the way they smell to the way they think. I want to know their ticks and personal traits. I want the character to speak through me and to make the viewer feel something,” she explains.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing. Ross describes being a young black woman in Hollywood today as “swimming upstream against the current and sometimes having rocks thrown at you.”
There are multiple hurdles. “Where roles for white actresses are endless, we only get to play limited types of characters,” she says, “and many are side roles that are only given few lines in a movie.”
She also sites lack of support from the black community. “Unless you’re Halle, Angela, Kerry Washington, or Viola now, it’s easy to be overlooked by the community, but social networking does help. Some of us keep ourselves employed by creating our own interesting content, but it takes money, time and people to do all that and not all actors want to do everything.”
Fortunately for Ross, she does.