Jordin Sparks reflects on Whitney Houston, debut film role in 'Sparkle'

"I can talk about Whitney [Houston] all day," she said last week, curled up on a gold chair at the Four Seasons hotel in midtown Atlanta.

The bright and bubbly Sparks, best known as the 2007 winner of "American Idol," was in town to promote the remake of the 1976 story about a trio of singing sisters hoping to become the next Diana Ross and the Supremes.

The singer, 22, who stars as the title character previously played by Irena Cara, recounted many on-set instances where she, Houston — who plays Sparkle's mother — and Carmen Ejogo and Tika Sumpter — who play Sparkle's sisters — engaged in family-like behavior during their 12-14 hour days together on set in Detroit.

"We had this family bond that had to shine through the screen, and spending all that time together really helped with the family dynamic you see on screen," said Sparks, clad in black.

While Sparks wishes she would have found that moment to say to Houston, "Whitney, is there anything you could give me [as a singer]?" She received unsolicited advice from the megastar, anyway.

"One thing that really stuck with me was, I can't remember the scene, but I was kind of unsure, and she said, 'Believe in your talent. Believe in the gift that you have.' People say that, anyway, but to hear it coming from somebody I had grown up listening to and really loved and tried to emulate every single note that she sang -- that really stuck," Sparks said.

Though the svelte Sparks is a traveling veteran, between the "American Idols Live!" tour in 2007 and recent jaunts with Britney Spears and New Kids on the Block/Backstreet Boys, she hadn't spent any time in Detroit, a city she often daydreamed about because if its deep musical roots.

"My grandparents introduced me to Motown," she said. "So [while filming] I was passing these buildings going, 'Diana Ross probably walked out of this building with a fur and Stevie Wonder probably ate there.' Shooting there made the energy of the movie light up even more."

Sparks, whose Sparkle is primarily a fledgling pop songwriter, basks in the singing spotlight a couple of times in the film, performing the familiar Curtis Mayfield tunes popularized in the original ("Something He Can Feel," "Jump") and songs written and/or produced by R. Kelly.

(Houston also unleashes a now-chilling rendition of the gospel song, "His Eye is on the Sparrow" in a scene sure to provoke misty eyes.)

"I have a bone to pick with [R. Kelly]," Sparks said, breaking into a wide smile. "I want to tell him thank you, but I can't get ahold of him. I want to be able to say, these songs, you really wrote the heck out of them. I had never done anything stylistically like that with my voice."

Sparks, who performed in the Broadway musical "In the Heights" in 2010, was so influenced by the soulful leanings of the "Sparkle" songs that she's steering her new record into R&B territory. Not, she jokes, "heavy slow jams," but more, "light R&B, like early Mariah Carey or Whitney."

Working on the new album is part of her current juggling act of promoting "Sparkle" and also filming her second movie, the indie drama, "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete," in New York. She plays "an Afro-Latina from the Bronx" in the movie, which co-stars fellow "Idol" album Jennifer Hudson and is being produced by Alicia Keys.

Sparks giggles when it's suggested she follow Hudson's career path to the Oscar reception line, content with her performance in "Sparkle" and that she got to spend some time with a legend.

"We were part of something that [Whitney's] family says was one of the happiest times of her life," Sparks said. "To know we helped make her smile -- it's incredible."

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