Meet Marisa Abela, the Star of the New Amy Winehouse Biopic, ‘Back to Black’

On the third floor of the Edition hotel in West Hollywood, three chairs were pushed against a wall in a hallway, supporting a rotating cast of entertainment journalists.

The interviewers made hushed small talk, waiting for their turns with the director and star of “Back to Black,” a new film about the singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse.

A British man disclosed that he’d dreaded the movie, as if watching it would give him war flashbacks. He once lived near Ms. Winehouse in London, and they shared mutual acquaintances.

An American woman held a notecard with a question that read: “Muh reese uh” — the phonetic pronunciation of Marisa — “not only was your portrayal of Amy beyond uncanny in every imaginable way, your performance was grounded in such truth and authenticity, and it was beautifully humanizing. Can you talk about how that place of abundant love and passion was a north star of sorts when stepping into her shoes?”

Marisa Abela would sit for 56 interviews that Monday. Even her lunch break was an interview — an hour with The New York Times on a hotel patio, where the sun drilled into her pores and her takeout box of sushi.

Ms. Abela, 27, spent the last month promoting the film, traveling from London to Paris and Rome. “Back to Black” was released on April 12 in Britain, where it led the box office for two weeks (unseated only by “Challengers”). The film will be released on May 17 in the United States.

Mostly, Ms. Abela has been greeted at these junkets with politeness and praise. But underneath the talk of “abundant love and passion” have been tough questions, too. Like, Should you even be doing this?

Early coverage of the film was wary at best. There was a sense that Ms. Winehouse, who died in 2011 from alcohol poisoning, had already been exploited enough, as depicted in the 2015 Oscar-winning documentary “Amy.”

Ms. Abela suddenly felt less like an actor and more like a “diplomat,” she said: “You become almost a salesperson slash politician for the movie. Especially for something like this that requires a lot of sensitivity and knowledge and thoroughness in your answers.”

Social media outrage followed each set photo and teaser clip. Long before the film’s release, Ms. Abela was criticized online for not looking or sounding enough like Ms. Winehouse.

But Ms. Abela was not interested in physical impersonation. When she auditioned for the director Sam Taylor-Johnson, she was the only actor who arrived as herself, “a vessel,” she said — no eyeliner, no beehive, no hoops.

“I don’t need to convince people that they’re actually watching Amy,” she said. “I need to remind people of her soul.”

The audition story has been told many times on the press tour. It is easier to tell this story than to “put into words the amount of emotion and psychological real estate” required by the role, said Ms. Abela, who lost about 25 pounds to play Ms. Winehouse; wore a Star of David necklace that belonged to Ms. Winehouse; sometimes slept with eyeliner on just to see what the streaks would have looked like on Ms. Winehouse’s pillowcase; and spritzed herself with a popular 2000s perfume (Alien by Thierry Mugler) to get into character as Ms. Winehouse.

“You also don’t want to say that in a five-minute interview because it can come across so … I don’t know, odd.”

So far in her career, Ms. Abela has appealed to directors and producers looking for unknown actors — fresh faces who won’t immediately be associated with any other character they’ve played. Her biggest role before “Back to Black” was a young investment banker named Yasmin on the HBO ensemble series “Industry.”

That phase of her career is over now — or rather it is ending in real time. She is on the cover of magazines. Paparazzi follow her and her boyfriend on their walks around London. And she is already preparing for her next job: a Steven Soderbergh thriller opposite Cate Blanchett and Michael Fassbender.

“With both ‘Industry’ and this job, the point was to pluck an actor out of obscurity,” Ms. Abela said. “You’ve never seen this person before, and now here she is.”

Here she is. Visiting Los Angeles for the first time, trying out hot yoga classes and the hot food bar at Erewhon, mugging with her modestly sized billboard on Sunset Boulevard, swept up in a professional current, never less famous than she is right now.

One way to push through a challenging press tour: have what Mickey Down, the co-creator of “Industry,” called “a massive amount of charm.”

The characters on “Industry” can be “heinous,” said Mr. Down, who created the show with Konrad Kay. Yasmin is a posh publishing heiress — entitled, vicious, loves to party.

“But Marisa, because she’s such a charming person herself, has brought a lot of charm and humor and vulnerability and empathy to a character who on a page can be read a little bit hateable,” Mr. Down said.

Ms. Abela does not force her charm. She smokes slim Vogue cigarettes and loves reality television. She is earnest about her craft. She smiles a lot and made the decision to smile a lot during early performance scenes in “Back to Black,” a film that wants to be more of a celebration than an indictment or a tragedy.

The real Ms. Winehouse was more known for her intensity during performances and wickedness during interviews. She could be cruel, especially to herself. She was a relentless perfectionist. Ms. Abela could relate to that.

“It always feels like there’s 2 percent more that you can get out of a scene,” she said. “I don’t like to watch what I do.”

She connected with the character in other ways. One early “trigger,” she said, was Ms. Winehouse’s affection for her father. (While the relationship was fraught — see the lyrics to “Rehab” — Ms. Winehouse had a tattoo that read “Daddy’s Girl.”)

“It’s an interesting thing when a young woman grows up without a father as present as their mother — the need for that attention, and where you decide to get it from,” Ms. Abela said.

She and Ms. Winehouse, raised in the homes of single mothers, chose performance. They both wanted to be “good enough at something to inspire a loving response,” Ms. Abela said.

Ms. Abela grew up in Brighton, England, but she was raised in the dressing rooms of regional theaters. Her mother was an actress who met her father, a director, while he was performing stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

At 11, she earned a performing arts scholarship to a local boarding school. Administrators pointed to her as a “success story,” she said. She became a walking sales pitch to donors. It was her first lesson in public relations.

At 19, she enrolled in the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. By the time she graduated, she had filmed her first two episodes of “Industry.”

The show had its premiere in November 2020. Vogue published an article to coincide with the pilot, calling Ms. Abela a “breakout star.” Her agent emailed her the link. It was the first thing she saw after turning on her phone following an eight-hour surgery to remove her thyroid.

Earlier that year, at 23, Ms. Abela was diagnosed with thyroid cancer; she had assumed her swollen sore throat was Covid, until it failed to go away.

People often say to her, regarding “Back to Black,” something like, “This must be the craziest thing to ever happen to you,” Ms. Abela said.

It is not. What was crazier, she said, was taking medication that made her so radioactive that she had to isolate herself in a lead-lined room, use gloves to touch light switches and bleach her bathroom after every use.

Ms. Abela has never spoken publicly about the cancer. It came up in conversation only after I mentioned “She Is Love,” an improvised indie movie that she filmed over six days in 2021. It was her first project after being cleared to work. She felt incredibly vulnerable.

“That job was weirdly one of the most important things I ever did,” said Ms. Abela, whose character wore high-neck tops and accessories, hiding the long L-shaped scar running down the side of her neck. “It just got me brave again. You can’t do this job if you feel scared.”

She has never been able to watch the film.

It is a distinct pleasure to introduce a British person to the sizzling, greasy, maximally indulgent dish of queso fundido. Ms. Abela wanted to try Mexican food on her first trip to Los Angeles. So we sat in a lacquered red booth at El Compadre, an old-school Hollywood restaurant, ordered flaming margaritas and discussed other musical biopics of recent years.

These films can make stars. Rami Malek won an Academy Award for playing Freddie Mercury in 2019; Austin Butler won a Golden Globe and BAFTA for playing Elvis in 2023. With a few exceptions, like films about Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, this genre continues to be dominated by movies about men made by men.

“Back to Black,” as Sam Taylor-Johnson has pointed out, was female-led in almost every department.

“Had this been a story about a man, directed by a man, starring a young unknown man,” Ms. Abela said, “I don’t believe anyone would be nearly as ready to criticize as they have been with ours.”

But her thought was interrupted. A man at the restaurant approached our booth and asked if he could buy her a drink. She said no.

When he left — and he did not leave immediately — Ms. Abela continued, “I think that if I was still speaking as Amy Winehouse, for example, everyone would be like, ‘Get over yourself.’”

(To be fair, people did tell Mr. Butler to get over himself, but he was still nominated for every major acting award, and few people complained that his singing voice didn’t measure up to Elvis Presley’s.)

Ms. Abela has maintained that she doesn’t read reviews. So has Ms. Taylor-Johnson, a director who seems drawn to difficult projects like a moth to a movie projector. Her oeuvre includes adaptations of “A Million Little Pieces” (a memoir with famously fabricated details) and “Fifty Shades of Grey” (whose author famously battled her for creative control of the film).

Still, they are obviously aware that the reception has been “a bit barbed,” as Ms. Taylor-Johnson put it. (A publicist used the word “cruel.”)

However, most critics have praised Ms. Abela specifically, giving her the same appraisal that Ms. Taylor-Johnson and Mr. Kay of “Industry” separately offered:

“I’ve watched it three million times, and I just can’t find Marisa in there,” Ms. Taylor-Johnson said.

“After a while, I stopped seeing Marisa, stopped seeing Yasmin,” Mr. Kay said. “And this is after spending hours and hours and hours in the edit booth looking at Yasmin and knowing every inch of that performance.”

Season 3 of “Industry” will see an expanded role for Ms. Abela. The writers said they leaned into a traumatic new plotline for Yasmin because of Ms. Abela’s ability to find lightness in dark scenes and darkness in light scenes — “to never give you a false moment,” Mr. Kay said.

“It’s a really hard thing to say, because people don’t really like to hear it,” Mr. Kay said: “But some people have it and some people don’t. Marisa, she just has it.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *