I recently got the chance to talk to Debra Port about her role in ‘Sparkle’. Here, Debra talks about how she got involved in the project and what it was like working with the cast and crew on-set…
What’s the general plotline surrounding the film?
“Sister And Her Sisters” – (Ejogo, Sumpter, Sparks) get discovered by charming newcomer Stix – (Luke) at a local club during open mike night when the sisters unseat the ruling king, Black – (CeeLo Green). This sets in motion their rise in the local Motown club scene, unbeknownst to their mother (Houston) who vehemently opposes and actively squelches any dreams her daughters might have about show business because of her disastrous past in the music business. The youngest sister, Sparkle – (Sparks), is the backbone of the group, writing their songs and pursuing her dream. Dee (Sumpter) is in it for the money so that she can pursue her dream of going to medical school. And Sister (Ejogo) is the sexy front woman, selling the songs – desperately seeking attention and a way out of her mother’s house. Sister catches the eye of two men. The hardworking, good-hearted Levi – (Hardwick) and local slimy, rich TV comedian Satin – (Epps). Sister goes for the bling and ends up in a violent, drug-addicted relationship which ruins the group’s chance at success and almost ruins Dee’s and Sparkle’s dreams too. Sister ends up in jail; Dee heads off to med school.
Sparkle persists in her writing and stands up to her mother, the record exec (Curtis Armstrong) – and his receptionist (me) – and Stix, her now boyfriend-manager. ‘Sparkle’ brings Motown to its feet with her songs and solo show.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
My involvement in ‘Sparkle’ started out just like any other job: I got the call from my agent that I had an audition for a film about a 1960’s Motown girl group for the role of a record company receptionist “with an attitude”. I checked it out in IMDbPro and learned the film was a remake of a 1976 movie; read the cast list – (my kids had to clue me in on Jordin Sparks). Had fun with the audition, chatted with some of the other actors, met a friend for coffee. There were no callbacks and after two weeks or so I completely dismissed the possibility of being cast. Six weeks passed; I kept doing what an actor does – auditioning for various commercials, film, did some live event work in the automotive industry – (remember I live in Michigan; talking about cars is a lucrative side job for a lot of actors here). I was actually in Dallas for an automotive event when my agent called to say I was booked for two days and scheduled for a fitting and shooting in 10 days.
How would you say this film is different and unique?
Honestly, I didn’t know the story going in. No copy of the script was provided; only the pages for the day. My character was the gatekeeper at the record company. You had to get through me in order to see anybody, and another girl group was nothing special. Add to that, Detroit was reeling from the ’67 riots and there was no love between the races. Hair and make-up helped with the cold, polite attitude I gave Sparkle. I was transformed to an officious, fake eye-lashed, pink lip-sticked, hair-flipped worker girl. Next to me, Carmen Ejogo and Tika Sumpter were getting transformed too: beautiful wigs, makeup, wardrobe. I met all the stars expect Omari Hardwick and Whitney Houston. Sorry, no Whitney stories.
The film stars Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter and Omari Hardwick – with Salim Akil onboard as director – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set? Any good anecdotes?
On the set, from the director on down, everybody was really mellow, calm. The first day I spent in the make-shift green room with Jordin, Carmen, Tika, Erika, all the hair and makeup and wardrobe assistants. We shot in a vacant office building so lots of room, no furniture. Pull up a piece of carpet… Jordin fired up her laptop and played Michael Jackson most of the evening, occasionally humming/singing along. I usually don’t gush about people but she deserves some because she really is so sweet, happy, pleasant, humble, genuine. This was her first film and she carried it like a seasoned pro, I thought. But can I just say, Carmen Ejogo is the one who deserves a nod from the Academy for her performance in this film.
What I enjoyed most was getting to know Curtis Armstrong who played Larry, the record exec, and Erika Hoveland who played Larry’s secretary. We talked food, books, kids, technology, politics. Curtis and I have a friend in common, which I knew about but he didn’t. So when I mentioned Curtis’ best friend by name, Curtis nearly fell out of his seat with disbelief. I had won Curtis over. And I gained “mom bonus points” when I told my son that I spent the afternoon talking with Curtis Armstrong, the actor who voices the character Snot on my son’s fav show, ‘American Dad’. My daughter, too, thought it was cool that her Mom was in a movie starring Jordin Sparks and CeeLo Green…especially once we saw the final product and my scenes were still in it. That’s the thing with a small role; you never know if you made the final cut. So what started as just another audition ended up landing me in a high-profile film. August was a fun month with the release of the film. I attended a special brunch at Cliff Bells where some of the club scenes were shot, and attended an invited sneak preview screening. And now, an interview by you!
Let’s talk a bit about you Debra. What made you want to get into the industry in the first place?
My piano teacher, Mrs. Giles, unintentionally opened the door. She required her students to stand up and deliver a story about the piece they were playing. So at the age of 5, I stood beside her imposing Steinway in front of a room full of parents and gave my first performance, even before I played my recital piece “Fluffy the Puppy”. I finally decided to pursue a career in acting during grad school. And who really got me into the industry was Robby Benson. He cast me as Annabelle in his film ‘Modern Love’. It was my first film, a great role and I was hooked. I got my SAG card in 1989. Shortly thereafter, I was cast in ‘Exorcist III’ as a diner waitress playing a short scene with George C. Scott. And then off to LA after graduation. “Well, that was easy,” I mused. Yeah, right.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue a career in the industry?
Being a working actor is NOT easy, but I am still working. My advice to a person wanting to pursue a career in the film industry is this: while you’re honing your craft and working toward getting your SAG-AFTRA card (the Unions merged this year), take a marketing class or two! All artistic ability and good luck aside, it is imperative that you understand that YOU, the actor, are a unique product that must be marketed to agents, casting directors, directors, producers.
You’ve been in a number of different projects – which actors/actresses have been your favourites to work with and why? Any good stories?
When my agent called to tell me that ‘Salvation Boulevard’ director George Ratliff had chosen me from my headshot – no audition – to play trophy wife to actor Pierce Brosnan, I gasped with amazement, leapt into the air, and couldn’t stop repeating “Oh my god!!!” Playing with an iconic 007!!!! The real acting was not acting like a fool when I met him. Thankfully, the extra who played the housekeeper took the hit by saying to him, “OH, you look really good”. With practised aplomb Pierce just said, “Why thank you”, and gave me a quick conspiratorial smile. He put me at ease with his warm welcome, professionalism and his quick, biting wit. And I like to think I did the same for him when I gave him a thumbs up on his choice of a hymn he was humming in the shower scene he had to do. In that moment we were just two actors working together, very cool. I had three scenes with him and sadly, they all got cut! Now I never mention that I’m in a movie until I see that I’m in it.
What is currently on your I-Pod right now?
Just about everything Sting has ever recorded; he’s my absolute favourite. Really liking Mariachi El Bronx, great for cooking up dinner. New favourite: The Decemberists; their lyrics and style remind me of R.E.M. – (love their version of Wall of Death). And last season’s American Idol #2, Joshua Ledet; I downloaded all his recordings and am waiting for more to buy. Oh yes, and the sublime Betty Carter.
If you could have dinner with three guests – (living or dead), who would you choose and why?
Without a doubt, I would invite Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most powerful woman in 12th century Europe, and quite by her own right. Perhaps she was even the most influential woman of all medieval Europe. I’d like to talk with her while she was wooing her future king, Henry II, who was much younger than she was, and ultimately what that passionate, tumultuous relationship taught her. Eleanor was educated, powerful, political, sexy, resilient, resourceful, a mother of 10 children whose progeny reined all over Europe for centuries. I’d love to know what she’d have to say about our current political and international scene and what her advice to us would be. I’d also like to invite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; she would make challenging and enlightening dinner conversation and I’d urge her to run for President. I’d complete the table with Ellen Degeneres, who is such an endearing, generous, hilarious host. What an evening that would be!
You’re stuck on a desert island, you’re only allowed three personal things with you – what would you choose and why?
Impulsively I thought of three practical items: a machete, a bottle of top-shelf whiskey, and my Riverside Shakespeare. But then I reread the question: Shakespeare stays so that I will have all of those characters to keep me company; my piano to play when I get tired of talking; and my family’s most recent vacation photo taken in Chicago.
What’s coming up for you in 2012/2013?
Well, the only certainty is that I will continue auditioning for whatever comes my way. I’ll be in Miami and LA in November for automotive events, and I always try to make an audition or meeting happen while I’m on the road. ‘Low Winter Sun’, (yes, BBC did it first!) a new AMC TV pilot is shooting here in Detroit; hopefully the writers will add some female cops or attorneys! And I’m ever hopeful that the indie film ‘Liquid Red’ that I starred in will get released before I’m a grandmother.
Thanks for the interview!