Lifetime’s Whitney focuses on only five years of Whitney Houston‘s life, but the late singer’s best friend, Robyn Crawford, was a huge part of it. Yolonda Ross plays Robyn in the Angela Bassett-directed biopic, which premieres January 17, and she went into the role knowing not much more than we do. Rumors of Whitney (played by Yaya DaCosta in the Lifetime film) having a romantic relationship with Robyn have permeated tabloids even while the singer was still alive, but Robyn has maintained a private life out of the spotlight before and during Whitney’s career, and never confirmed or denied the gossip. No one but Whitney and Robyn can really speak to their friendship, and if it was anything more, but nonetheless, Yolanda wants people to see that Robyn was Whitney’s rock.
“I think the thing gets overlooked is whether or not they were a couple ever, is that these two people loved and cared for each other, period,” Yolonda said during a Whitney press day at TCA. “I’ve read some online comments and it’s not fair to down a relationship of any sort because I mean, at the end of the day you need somebody that loves and cares for you. She needed someone to keep her in check, someone she could trust. I think, Robin lost somebody. You don’t wish that on someone. So in my long winded way, I guess what’s missing is that whether or not they were in a relationship or not, they cared for each other.”
Although some reviews of Whitney proclaim that the TV movie plays up the romantic relationship, Yolonda says people only find what they are looking for.
“It is how much is in someone’s head,” Yolonda said. “Because from what I know could have happened, more could have been there, but we were walking a fine line. It was just a performance. Nothing was written. There were these scenes, and it’s how much the viewer wants to put on it.”
Because Robyn is so private, Yolonda said she had limited resources when it came to finding out what she could about who the real Robyn Crawford is.
“I was trying to do research, I thought, ‘Is this person real?’ I heard of her but I couldn’t find anything,” Yolonda said. “I saw two images, production had two images, but later on after we shot there was stuff put on the internet. Like, there’s a Whitney documentary in which she talks. I had to go back and look at that.”
Yolonda said she also read the Esquire tribute Robyn wrote after Whitney’s death, but there wasn’t much for her to work with in terms of gestures or any other kind of physical or vocal likeness.
“Her mannerisms was whatever came to mind in the scene. I wanted to find out what she was,” Yolonda said. “But I just kept in mind who I thought she was and what her purpose was in Whitney’s life. Just knowing that you were kids together, you were girls together, then you go through things that change because then your girl gets married. And that’s a change. I just kept that in mind in every scene and where we were in that part and just played it, not foreshadowing, but just being in the scene and playing true to that.”
Robyn’s affections for her best friend are clear in Whitney, but there’s nothing that specifically indicates that they were romantically or sexually involved. She said she stuck to what was in the script, and wanted to be true to the moment.
“Robyn was the solid to Whitney. She was the go-between,” Yolonda said. “She was the one that would keep the riff raff away from her. She was the voice of reason for the both of them when things were going crazy.”
The “riff raff” includes Bobby Brown, as the singers had an infamously tumultuous love affair, which is the major focus of Whitney. In one scene, Robyn tries to keep Bobby from coming to see Whitney after she’s caught him cheating. Mostly she seems skeptical and protective, never jealous or domineering.
Yolonda has played pivotal gay roles before, including the starring role in Cheryl Dunye‘s prison drama, Stranger Inside, which aired on HBO in 2001. Yolonda said it was her favorite role of all time, but it’s hard for her to watch shows like Orange is the New Black because of her knowledge of the real lives of black women in prison.
“I can’t watch it. When people ask me that, no disrespect but I did Stranger Inside,” Yolonda said. “And I don’t find women in prison to be funny, and especially women of color. I don’t find it jokey. So how I come at it is different from other people. I understand what the creator is saying about TV and everything and how Networks want to get their information out, to do that you have to slide in real stuff with funny stuff. That’s for funny people, but I just like to write real stuff.”
As a creator, Yolonda says she’s working on things that will help bring better representation to out and proud black women.
“I’m writing, so that’s all I’m saying, and I’m as black you can get,” she said. “So I’m trying to get it out there!”
Yolonda won’t go into specifics about her current project, but said she enjoys writing “complete worlds.” Her 2013 short, Breaking Night, followed a young girl in the 1970s (played by Yolanda) who is in an interracial relationship and experiences a metamorphosis after leaving her small town.
“I like portraying people that on the surface are the stereotypes, but then forcing the viewer to look at that person as human,” she said. “We can look at someone, and this is how we are all conditioned, but you can’t just pass judgement on someone. You don’t know what their circumstances are. How they got from A to B, and what were the steps between that made them what you see. And even what you see, what are the shades of that.”
Yolonda said there are LGBT characters and “different parts of the community” included in her work, and she seeks to normalize everyone.
“These people are in the world, everyone is in this world together,” Yolonda said. “Just because they might lead a certain type of life, that doesn’t mean they don’t then go to the grocery store with this kind of person. Everyone is living in this together. So I write to help people understand peoples lives. Because if you don’t know somebody then you will be more judgmental. I just want to help people see that everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time.”
And as Robyn Crawford, an out black woman that, for better or worse, was part of the spotlight as her famous best friend’s star continued to rise in the ’80s and ’90s as depicted in Whitney, Yolonda just wanted to do the real woman justice. She laughed about some of the dated outfits–especially a lavender maid of honor get-up that Robyn really wore at Whitney’s wedding—but says her favorite moment was one with her and Yaya as Robyn and Whitney on a private plane. It’s a very sweet moment, where Whitney arrives late after spending the day with her beau, Bobby Brown, and presents Robyn with a gift.
“One reason [I loved it was] because the circumstances of that scene,” Yolonda said. “We were on a plane, and we weren’t supposed to be. We were shut down after that take. That was the first take that you see! Then that was it. I was like, her coming in, me knocking the water over and going, ‘Oh fuck!'”
The water spilling, it turns out, was not in the script, but ends up in the film.
“We were like ‘Shit!'” Yolanda said. “But then you keep going because you don’t want to mess up what the scene was. ADR—I don’t know how they do that technically, but they had to take the F bomb out. Angela was like, ‘I know what your favorite word is!’ I couldn’t help it at all.”
Follow Yolonda Ross on Twitter: @yolondaross