NEW YORK (AP) – Yaya DaCosta had to dig deep to reach the confidence radiated by Whitney Houston at her peak, especially on stage.
But in portraying the legendary performer and recording artist in Lifetime's new TV film, "Whitney," which premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. EST on Lifetime, DaCosta saw no alternative.
"I'm not a singer," DaCosta said Friday. "But even if I were, Whitney Houston was a very specific kind of singer. Beyond any mimicry, there was a certain essence that I challenged myself to capture on stage. It meant exuding a confidence that had to be real.
"And in becoming her, I found a new level of confidence in myself."
Houston's actual vocals on hits including "The Greatest Love of All" and "I Will Always Love You" are furnished by Deborah Cox, but DaCosta reports that while the cameras rolled she was belting out those numbers, as best she could, for a private audience of the film's cast and crew. "They were very kind," she says with a laugh.
DaCosta co-stars with Arlen Escarpeta as singer-songwriter Bobby Brown, with whom Houston shared a torrid courtship and a tumultuous marriage before her untimely death three years ago at age 48.
DaCosta's previous credits include Lee Daniel's "The Butler," ''The Messenger" with Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster, and the critically acclaimed "The Kids Are All Right."
But apart from "Whitney," she'll be a TV presence in the weeks ahead for the new season of PBS' "AfroPoP."
Billed as a series of documentaries on contemporary art, life and culture across the African Diaspora, "AfroPoP" premieres the first of its five weekly editions Monday at 8 p.m. EST, with "The Carrier," a portrait of an unconventional family set against the backdrop of the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in Zambia.
Hosts in its previous six seasons have included Idris Elba, Gabourey Sidibe and Wyatt Cenac.
For her biopic, DaCosta says she approached the role of Whitney Houston knowing only "what the average fan knows — so I studied up a lot, which, among other things, meant hours and hours of YouTube videos."
Asked to single out a discovery from her research, DaCosta said she was surprised at how accomplished her subject was as a dancer.
"I never saw Whitney Houston perform in person, but on television she was usually singing a ballad or in a music video where she was dancing very minimally," DaCosta said. "But I got to see videos of her performing on tour and she was full of energy and dance moves, doing a lot of the choreography right along with her backup dancers. I was really excited to see that and be able to incorporate some of that in our film."
Growing up in Harlem, DaCosta rated Whitney No. 1 among her favorite singers, "and not just because of her songs, which I knew all the lyrics to. I loved what she represented. I loved how people looked up to someone who was a slender woman at a time when, in the community I grew up in, being a skinny little girl was not cute and no boys liked me.
"I didn't fit in, so it was nice that people looked up to Whitney Houston," said the fan who would grow up to portray her. "Everybody agreed that she was beautiful, so I decided I must be, too."