From The Magazine

Marisa Abela Takes The Mic

The 27-year-old British actress had never sung in public before when she signed on to play one of the most famous voices of a generation: Amy Winehouse.

by Hattie Crisell

How do you get in character to play someone as singular as Amy Winehouse? For Marisa Abela, the 27-year-old British actress tapped by director Sam Taylor-Johnson to star as the singer in her upcoming biopic, it meant embracing Winehouse’s musical tastes, watching hours of footage, and studying her mannerisms. Still, if Abela was actually going to sing, she’d have to do something that Winehouse — rarely photographed without a cigarette — would not have approved of. “I actually stopped smoking,” Abela recalls over tea in London. “My singing teacher was happy, because you need a healthy instrument, but other people on the production were like, ‘You did what? Just before you play who?’”

It remains to be seen whether this will be seen as a commitment to craft or a betrayal of authenticity by fans and the media, who have been obsessing over Abela’s transformation into Winehouse since pictures of her in costume first emerged in early 2023. Winehouse was widely adored — George Michael called her “the most soulful vocalist the U.K. has ever seen” — and when she died at 27 from alcohol poisoning in 2011, the outpouring of grief was huge. “Dear God have mercy!!!” tweeted Rihanna from her Blackberry. “This is one of the saddest days of my life,” wrote Winehouse’s producer Mark Ronson.

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The singer-songwriter released two acclaimed studio albums in her short career. The second, Back to Black (from which the movie takes its title), won a then record-equaling five Grammys at the 2008 awards. Winehouse’s talent and her early passing have been memorialized in an Oscar-winning documentary, a statue in her home borough of Camden Town, and an exhibition at London’s Design Museum. Even so, many fans think it’s too soon for a biopic.

Abela is sympathetic. “These songs are with you at important moments in your life, and who am I to someone who went through heartbreak with Amy Winehouse?” she says. During the filmmaking process, Abela struggled with the force of some fans’ objections to her. “It was confusing, trying to separate my own nerves and anxiety about being on set, from Amy being in a really vulnerable place,” she says. “I’d never been so exposed as a person. I felt raw.” She ultimately decided to just keep going. “You put your work out there, and it’s not up to you how people feel about it. As long as you’re doing it for the right reasons, then you’re on the right track.”

Stella McCartney jacket

Back to Black is Abela’s first time carrying a movie (she’d previously costarred in HBO’s sleeper hit Industry and had a small part in the Barbie movie as “Teen Talk Barbie”), but it’s the fulfillment of a long-held dream. She grew up near the coastal town of Brighton, England, in a creative family — her father, Angelo Abela, is a director, and her mother, Caroline Gruber, is an actress — and graduated from London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. (She now lives in London with her boyfriend, Jamie Bogyo, an actor who appears frequently in the West End.) This role is, however, the first time she’s done any singing professionally. By Abela’s own admission, her previous vocal work largely included “karaoke night after a few drinks,” but still she impressed Taylor-Johnson with her dedication. “In the audition, she said that she couldn’t particularly sing well,” recalls the director. “So the most surprising thing — for her as much as for me — was that she ended up singing the whole movie. She just stepped up and trained relentlessly. I always had the idea in my head that if she couldn’t do it, I could dub her with Amy’s voice, but one day she sang for the music producer Giles Martin and myself, and I said to him, ‘I think she can do it. I think she can sing the entire movie.’ It was incredible.”

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Winehouse saw herself as a jazz musician, not a pop star, so Abela spent two hours a day, four days a week, singing Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington — the references that shaped Winehouse’s sound. “I never wanted the performance to feel like an impersonation,” she says. “I wanted it to feel like I was in touch with her soul. Early on, I would be singing Ella and I’d hear Amy coming. That was really exciting.”

It must have been a reassuring discovery, because on first meeting Abela, nobody would think of the singer. Where Winehouse was irreverent and free-wheeling, Abela is well-spoken and composed. She dresses simply for our interview — jeans, a powder-blue mohair sweater, a pink manicure, and no jewelry — and there’s no hint of the distinctive pinup look that Winehouse made her own. “All the other girls at casting came in with a bit of an Amy Winehouse look about them,” recalls Taylor-Johnson. “Marisa came in as herself and was just sweet and chatty. There was no cat-eye makeup, or headscarf, or big earrings. Then I put the camera on, and she said, ‘Can I have a minute to get myself ready?’ and she sat quietly. She looked into the lens, and in that one moment, it was Amy. Instantly, without even saying anything, she projected exactly Amy’s vibe. It gave me absolute chills — she didn’t impersonate her, she embodied her.”

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The movie meets Winehouse at 19 years old, thriving and on the cusp of her debut album, Frank, with its Ivor Novello Award–winning single “Stronger Than Me.” At 22, she fell in love with Blake Fielder-Civil. Their relationship and subsequent marriage were volatile; she drank heavily and followed him into heroin use, all of which was distressingly documented by the media. Since Fielder-Civil is largely despised by Winehouse’s fans — and by her father, Mitch, who recalls warning him during their relationship, “Leave my daughter alone, you’re killing my daughter” — it was crucial that the film show why she fell for him. He is played with enormous charisma by Jack O’Connell, with whom Abela has palpable on-screen chemistry. “I think part of the reason the dynamic between us worked is that this is a huge job for me — definitely the biggest platform that I’ve been on — whereas Jack is a more established actor,” she says. “Just as Amy looked up to Blake, I was kind of in awe of Jack, and I think we both knew that was going to be helpful. Also, he’s just really fun. He’s as fun as I think Amy found Blake.”

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This was just one of the ways Abela found to connect with Winehouse’s story. “My dad left when I was young, as Amy’s did, for another woman, and I think there’s something about what that does to you — in terms of pushing against your mother and wanting attention from your father, but also resenting yourself and your parents for that,” she says. She also found plenty to admire in Winehouse herself. “Amy was a young, proud Jewish woman, which is so cool. I grew up in a village called Rottingdean, and I was the only Jew around, so I was not particularly proud,” she says. “Amy wore that big, f*ck-off Star of David in her cleavage — I thought that was sick.”

While watching footage of the singer, Abela realized that even her mannerisms told a story. “She started out boisterous and unafraid to gesture and take up space, but her physical language got smaller and smaller in later life. I could really map out: OK, if this is in July 2003, she’s going to be looking like this, moving like this, feeling like this.” To represent the unhappier moments of the singer’s life, Abela lost weight under the supervision of a nutritionist and hormone specialist. “I had three months to get to that place, and then we filmed the story almost reverse-chronologically, so that I could put weight back on,” she says. “It would have been a lot to lose while filming. The fact that Amy existed in that body for a significant amount of time says so much about what she was going through — a dangerously small body feels very different to being healthy and full of life.”

Hermés jacket and pants, ARSN The Label rings

Creating an authentic performance for the fans is pressure enough, but Abela also had to contend with the singer’s parents. Mitch and Janis Winehouse are fierce advocates for their daughter’s legacy, and their permission was needed to use the music, though “there was no approval whatsoever,” says Abela. This may be a relief to some fans, who believe Winehouse’s father exploited her talent for his own gain — in 2005, he dismissed the suggestion that she should enter treatment for alcohol addiction, which Winehouse famously sang about in “Rehab” with the lyric “my daddy thinks I’m fine.” Abela won’t be drawn on these dynamics. “We weren’t there to judge the relationships that were most important to Amy,” she says. “We wanted to show life through her eyes, and she loved her father very much.”

Prada coat and shoes

Mitch and Janis would sometimes visit the set when Abela was singing — a complicated experience for the actor playing their daughter. “No matter how hard you want to do your job, your number one intention at that point has to be to check that they’re OK, so that part of it felt weird, but they were very generous.” She pauses. “It did make them emotional. I remember Janis once said, ‘I can’t believe all of these people are here for my naughty Amy.’” This feels unbearably sad. “I know,” says Abela. “But actually it was good to be reminded of the human person, the girl.”

Winehouse’s early death means she’s forever trapped in girlhood. She would have turned 40 in September 2023, and though an early biopic has its critics, it offers a new generation the chance to discover what Winehouse cared about most: the music. “It’s easy to remember Amy with the tragedy attached,” Abela says. “But I hope people go home, put her albums on, and remember how good she was — this little girl from Camden with a big voice and a huge capacity to feel and experience life.”

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