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Naomi Ackie on leveling up, style on screen and stepping into Whitney’s shoes

If you’re not already familiar with NAOMI ACKIE’s work from her roster of recent career-making roles, then now is the time to get to know the London-born actor. Soon, we will see her co-star in the third season of Netflix’s award-winning Master of None, alongside Lena Waithe, before she steps into the shoes of pop icon Whitney Houston in the much-anticipated biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody. Here, she speaks to ELLEN E JONES about realizing the significance of her latest role, her love of fashion moments on screen and the daunting task of playing Whitney

Portrait by Marcus Ohlsson for Star Wars: the Rise of Skywalker & Lucasfilm Ltd. LLC

It’s been just three years since Naomi Ackie was hosting corporate awaydays – her last “jobbing-job”, as she refers to it – yet, as she sits in her home, looking beatifically happy in a green-patterned dress and purple head wrap, it’s easy to imagine that it feels longer.

So much has happened, and in such quick succession: there’s the 28-year-old’s first-ever, award-winning movie role, alongside Florence Pugh, in the British indie film Lady Macbeth; the Bafta-winning, vengeful oddball Bonnie in cult dark comedy series The End of the F***ing World; playing a kindly Caribbean savior of cast-aside kids in Small Axe (Steve McQueen’s anthology opus of Black Britain); and, not forgetting the ultimate pop-culture honor, a place in the Star Wars firmament. It’s a lot, she agrees, but then, “I feel like that’s what this job is sometimes: stop-start, and then suddenly, vrrrooom!!”

In a career that’s seemingly full of back-to-back breakthroughs, it may well be the deceptively understated Master of None that turns out to be a game-changer. Despite joining the show for its third season, Ackie essentially co-stars as Alicia, the wife of Denise (played by Queen & Slim screenwriter Lena Waithe). Aziz Ansari, the show’s co-creator and co-writer, was the protagonist of the previous two seasons, playing Dev, a habitually lovelorn, jobbing actor in New York and Italy. Dev does appear in season three, but in a supporting role, the main purpose of which is to deepen our understanding of Denise and Alicia’s story.

Ackie was already a Master of None fan, but it wasn’t until shooting began that she grasped the radicalism of this new approach: “On set, we were both aware that it was not normal to see two queer Black women in a marriage, just living their lives. But, at the same time, it felt really natural, you know?” It’s particularly thrilling to see the show’s signature, quietly observant, wryly humorous, 1970s-cinema-referencing style applied to characters that are very much not the Woody Allen types. But, crucially, says Ackie, “It doesn’t feel like it's a comment. It’s a project that is so authentic that that is the comment itself.”

“I felt like decisions were being made that Aziz really brought me into,” Ackie goes on to explain. “I was so happy about it – like, ‘Wow, I’m really ready to do this myself one day.’” Indeed, she’s been writing for a while and used lockdown to complete a TV script “about gentrification”, which she’s hoping to get off the ground in the coming months.

As Alicia, Ackie turns in a performance of exceptional warmth and emotional nuance – using her native north London accent to particularly great effect in the argument scenes – but her contribution also shows up on screen in her collaboration with costume designer Dana Covarrubias. This is the kind of show you’ll watch with one eye on your NET-A-PORTER Wish List, adding items as inspiration strikes. “Yeah, mate!” says Ackie, when I pay her this compliment. “I just love clothes. It was just, like, ‘Oh, this is a style! This is a look! She’s eclectic! She’s a little bit Afrocentric! She loves vintage!’” Somewhat inevitably, most of Alicia’s clothes have now ended up in Naomi’s wardrobe. “If I can put in a fashion moment on screen, I will, but that’s not always a choice. Like The End of the F***ing World – so many ugly sweaters!” she laughs.

On set, we were aware that it was not normal to see two queer Black women in a marriage, just living their lives. But, at the same time, it felt really natural, you know?
Naomi Ackie (left) stars alongside Lena Waithe in Netflix’s Master of None

Ackie is currently knee-deep in YouTube documentaries and music-industry memoirs – all research for her next big level-up, starring in the highly anticipated Whitney Houston biopic, I Wanna Dance With Somebody. It’s an exciting, if daunting, prospect. “I want to hold Whitney’s essence and do her life story justice,” she says, carefully. Much of the pressure Ackie feels comes from her own conscientious attitude, but there’s also an external element. “I’m so aware that not only am I a huge fan, but the world is a huge fan. Trying to stick to how I want to honor her amidst potential expectations is a mental exercise in itself!”

The process is also bringing up some more personal fears around the increased public exposure that comes with success. “I guess, in a way, that helps with understanding Whitney’s relation to fame, but the conversation isn’t always just about what you’ve made. It’s about the clothes you put on your body, or what your face looks like – there’s so much.” Staying away from social media is one strategy she’s deployed. “I’m just uncomfortable with it at the moment. It just felt like this weird value system…” she trails off. “If I go back, I want to share really cool information, share good art, and be a part of making people feel good about themselves.”

When the Game of Thrones prequel she was cast in got scrapped by HBO in 2019, it felt like a set-back. “It broke my heart. I was like, I’m not going to become this, like, ‘franchise queen’, doing a bit of Star Wars, doing a bit of Game of Thrones. I just didn’t know what I was going to be.” In retrospect, though, this seems – for her personally, anyway – a blessing in disguise. “Because, y’know, TV shows like that are super-epic, they last for years and years and so, had I done that, I wouldn’t have been able to do Master of None or I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”

Ackie knows that failure isn’t fun, but that huge success can also be unsettling, and so whatever happens next – international movie stardom seems the likeliest bet – she can handle it. The “big lesson”, she says, is keeping friends and family close. “If anything, the job has pulled me closer. It’s a lot of ‘you-centric’ stuff and you need good people around you to balance you out. Like, the amount of times I’ve freaked out over this job and I’ve just needed someone to be like, ‘Nay, I know you love it, but it is only acting.’”

Master of None season three will be available to watch on Netflix from May 23

The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown