Chasing Amy: Marisa Abela on playing an icon in ‘Back to Black’

Chasing Amy: Marisa Abela on playing an icon in ‘Back to Black’

In partnership with STUDIOCANAL

When Marisa Abela found out she was going to play Amy Winehouse in a big-budget movie, she wasn’t sat by the phone, waiting for her agent to ring and chewing her nails anxiously. No, she was in Edinburgh airport, having a laugh with some girlfriends and getting ready to jet off on holiday to Ibiza.

“In true Amy style!” she grins, telling the story with appropriate, moment-my-life-changed gusto. “We’d just been to the Fringe… and I got the phone call from [Back to Black director] Sam Taylor-Johnson. I was so excited.”

Naturally, Abela and her mates had a pre-flight glass of bubbly to celebrate, but as soon as the 27-year-old rising actress plonked down in her plane seat, the “mammoth” task that lay ahead started to sink in. “I remember very clearly the click of my seatbelt and suddenly I thought, ‘Whoa, what the hell?!’ Then the whole journey to Ibiza, I was like, ‘Err…?!’”

CREDIT: Sam Taylor-Johnson

Err is right. There are few singers as talented or well-known as the beehived queen of Camden Amy Winehouse. Even now, nearly 13 years after her death, the iconic on-stage look – carefully applied cat-eye mascara, tottering heels, tower of hair – plus that inimitable voice, make her as unique and impossible to copy as Beyoncé or The Beatles. Where do you even begin?

If you’re Taylor-Johnson you begin, well, at the beginning. Back to Black opens on Amy’s teenage years – spent scribbling down song lyrics and getting up to mischief around north London – before moving onto her sensational rise to pop pin-up, the accompanying struggles with fame and the devastating heartbreak that inspired some of her greatest tunes. Abela’s is a wide-ranging, multifaceted portrayal that captures all of that emotion and more. The role has dominated her life for nearly two years – through a series of intense auditions to a shoot that saw her go head-to-head with a cast of acclaimed British talent including Oscar nominee Lesley Manville (who plays Winehouse’s supportive grandma Cynthia) and BAFTA-winning hunk Jack O’Connell (toxic boyfriend-then-husband Blake Fielder-Civil). “It was incredibly nerve-wracking,” says Abela. “I felt an obligation to prove to everyone that… this was something that was gonna be good.”

“I learned to play guitar… I did two hours of singing a day, five days a week”

Abela’s journey to becoming Amy began in April 2022, when she was asked to try out for the part by Taylor-Johnson and casting director Nina Gold. At the time, Abela was still a fledgling in the industry but was raising eyebrows for a compelling turn on HBO series Industry – a swanky office drama remixed into a Skins-style, raunchy teen series. Gold had whittled down hundreds of would-be Winehouses to just eight hopefuls – seven of whom came dressed as the singer on the day. Abela, however, rocked up in her own clothes with “no special make-up or hair”.

It felt like the “only” choice, she says, “I didn’t want them to see a certain structure of my nose or my eyeliner and think, ‘Oh yeah, with the right lighting we can make this work’… It had to be about capturing the essence of her soul.” In fact, Abela was so certain only the perfect person should play Amy that she was initially “hesitant” to try out at all – and it took a week of reflecting and researching (plus some persuasion from her agent) before she agreed to a meeting with Taylor-Johnson and Gold. After that came the first audition, then a screen-test with O’Connell, and finally a performance in full costume at Abbey Road Studios (yes, the same Abbey Road that countless recording legends have cut tracks at). She sang ‘What Is It About Men’, from Amy’s 2003 debut album ‘Frank’, and the “technically very difficult” ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’. She obviously sang them very well because there weren’t any more auditions after that. Abela got the gig – and she immediately went to work.

“It was about getting to the younger Amy, driven to suck the most out of life”

First, she moved to Camden. Not many artists are as inextricably linked to a place as Winehouse is to the capital’s noughties music Mecca. Brimming with young creatives and wannabe artists, Camden represented something similar to the indie set of the era (Pete Doherty, Noel Fielding, Alexa Chung that New York City’s Greenwich Village did to the likes of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in the 1960s. If you needed artistic inspiration – or just fancied a good night out – you slipped on a Fred Perry tee and descended into the stuffy Northern Line.

Amy’s favourite spots were unpretentious pubs and venues such as The Hawley Arms and The Good Mixer – loud, vibrant rooms where you were just as likely to meet Kate Moss as you were a penniless busker. Abela spent more than a few evenings soaking up the atmosphere. “Those places are exactly the same as they were then,” she says. “There ’s no ego in Camden.”

Abela also threw herself into the physical preparation – the arguably impossible job of learning how to sing like one of the greatest singers ever in just four months. She’d always enjoyed singing, and she’d always loved Amy Winehouse. “I still remember when my dad recorded her 2004 Jonathan Ross [performance] and he made me and my brother sit down and watch it. He said, ‘Watch this girl because she’s going to be huge.’” But making diehard fans believe they were seeing (and hearing) their idol in the flesh again? That was going to take a lot of hard graft. “I did two hours of singing a day, five days a week,” says Abela. “I learned how to play guitar. I did four-hour sessions with a movement coach, three days a week. And then I’d come home for a Zoom with my accent coach.” She also tried to recreate Amy’s musical education, rattling through records by jazz luminaries Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. “I felt like I was beginning, at last, to understand who she was.”

CREDIT: Sam Taylor-Johnson

Today, there’s still a bit of Amy about Abela. Not just the dark hair and equally cheeky smile, but in her authenticity and lack of pretension – our interview is conducted via video call from Abela’s kitchen, the countertops in the background cluttered with biscuit tins, utensils and a coffee-maker. She doesn’t try to present an ultra glossy image, which is quintessential Amy. The similarities don’t end there. When we ask what part of her experience she best related to, Abela brings up her childhood. Raised in east Sussex, near Brighton, Abela is Jewish (like Amy) and lived in a single-parent household (also like Amy). She says that, growing up, they both “had a desire to be seen and heard… by a slightly more absent parent.” This led each to rebel against the present parent, says Abela. “Amy craved boundaries but [also] resisted them… For me, it was about getting to that version, that younger Amy who was driven to suck the most out of life that she possibly could.”

This week (from April 12), audiences will finally get to see the results of Abela’s years-long immersion in the world of Winehouse. She still can’t quite believe it. “There are so many things that I never thought would happen,” she says with another big grin. “Like singing at Abbey Road… Being on the cover of NME… I just went to the BAFTAs and the Brit Awards… It’s an amazing honour and incredible.” She adds: “If I could wish for anything, though, it would be that… Amy would feel honoured by the lifeblood that we’ve poured into celebrating her.”

Thinking back to that sudden moment of terror at 30,000 feet, you can’t help feeling Abela needn’t have panicked. In fact, it’s probably time for another big holiday. She’s definitely earned it.

‘Back to Black’ is in cinemas from April 12 – get tickets here

Exclusive photos by Sam Taylor-Johnson

The post Chasing Amy: Marisa Abela on playing an icon in ‘Back to Black’ appeared first on NME.

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