Many actors are now facing the same demands as professional endurance athletes, with intense workouts, advice from nutritionists, and guidance from multiple coaches to improve their performance. This is especially true for those who are attempting to portray famous singers and need to transform their physique.
Anne-Marie Speed, who has coached actors in musicals such as Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and most recently worked with performers on Danny Boyle’s Sex Pistols TV show, was a member of the coaching team that assisted Industry star Marisa Abela in her transformation to play the lead role in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s upcoming Amy Winehouse project, Back to Black.
The duo collaborated from September 2022 to January 2023, coinciding with the beginning of filming for the biopic. The film also features Lesley Manville as Winehouse’s grandmother, Cynthia, and Jack O’Connell as her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil.
Abela had to start from the beginning to learn how to sing and went through training with Speed and another vocal instructor. She also took guitar lessons and followed an exercise routine to prepare for the role. Speed compared the demanding schedule to that of a professional athlete.
She compared voice production to an athlete’s full-time training and emphasized the physical demands of it, which are often underestimated. The body must be properly engaged in order to support and produce the voice effectively.
Taylor-Johnson has already tackled the life of one iconic British musician with 2009’s Nowhere Boy, which told the story of John Lennon’s early life. But getting Abela ready to play Winehouse, whose unique soulful voice is one of the most instantly recognisable of the modern era, was a different type of challenge.
According to Speed, the goal is to have a strong vocal performance that closely resembles the original, but not to the point of mimicking it. Otherwise, it would be easier to just lip sync to her recordings. Speed also mentions that he spent a significant amount of time rehearsing with Abela, meeting four times a week for two hours each session, for three months prior to filming. This required a significant commitment.
Previously, Abela stated that she viewed her body as “a genuine tool” and had to decrease her weight in order to portray the deceased star from 2011. She also mentioned that her voice required diligent practice, similar to how she practiced playing the guitar.
More actors are having to learn to sing as the demand for musical biopics has increased in recent years, with some calling it a “golden age” for the genre, with recent successes including Rocketman (Elton John), Straight Outta Compton (NWA) and Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (Priscilla Presley).
There has been a recent focus on the training that actors receive for their roles, with some preferring a “method” approach. Bradley Cooper, who is being considered for an Oscar for his portrayal of conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, revealed that he spent six years preparing for the role.
Although not all actors undergo such an intense process, Speed believes that being able to sing has become a vital skill for actors. However, he also emphasizes the difficulty of mastering this skill.
“I believe it is a valuable skill, but not everyone may be interested in prioritizing [it] … you must locate someone who is willing to put in the effort as it requires work and practice.”
One common misconception among the public is that actors have endless attempts to get a scene right. However, due to a tight schedule, this is not the case. When they arrive on set, they must be able to perform without multiple takes.