Chasing Amy: How Marisa Abela became Amy Winehouse for ‘Back to Black’

By Hilary Fox, The Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — There’s no point asking Marisa Abela to sing Amy Winehouse songs at karaoke. Her friends have already tried and failed.

But you can see her sing — and become — Winehouse in the new film “Back to Black,” which opens in the U.S. on Friday.

Abela, best known for the sex, drugs and banking TV series “Industry,” did not want her performance to feel like a mere impersonation of the iconic British singer. She spent four months learning to sing in Winehouse’s specific vocal style (two hours a day, five days a week), play guitar (one hour a day, three times a week) and move like her through “intense” physical training.

Abela immersed herself in Winehouse’s life and music until, she says, it was “annoying.” Deciding to give her flatmates a break from the sound of her guitar practice (“at the beginning everything sounded terrible”) or watching performances on a loop (“over and over and over again”), she relocated to Camden.

It’s the area in north London where Winehouse lived and died and where she is still much loved and remembered. Her image and music are everywhere.

“She was out and she was at pubs and at restaurants and, you know, singing when she shouldn’t have been sometimes. And also when she should have been,” Abela says.

“Back to Black,” directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, follows the experiences that led Winehouse to write the album of the same title. It shows her rise to fame from her debut album “Frank” to her triumph at the 2008 Grammys. Away from music, we see her Friday night family dinners and the heartbreak of her relationship with Blake Fielder-Civil (played by Jack O’Connell).

Abela is now 27, the same age Winehouse was when she died in 2011. The actor met The Associated Press recently at Camden’s traditional pub and music venue The Dublin Castle, a well-known Winehouse hangout and a filming location for “Back to Black.”

“It was important to her to be in Camden always,” Abela says. “Everyone has stories and that’s really helpful.”

The actor remembers coming in for a pint after she booked the job, just to get a feel for the place. Winehouse played gigs there and would pop behind the bar to pull pints. There are signed photos to landlady Peggy Conlon proudly displayed behind the bar (they had to be removed for filming).

Abela describes how the tabletops and sticky floors that Winehouse once trod upon infused realism into the scenes that featured extras standing around with fake drinks in their hands.

“There’s just an amazing history to these venues, especially the music venues that she was a part of and then became a part of her legacy,” Abela says.

The only problem with making a movie about Winehouse in Camden: It’s impossible to hide behind the closed doors of a movie set.

So Abela was caught by the paparazzi, as Winehouse was, walking around in the rain, sporting red lipstick, backcombed black hair and ballet slippers, “basically barefoot.” But when the time came, she embraced the towering stilettos the singer would wear onstage.

“Those heels are just insane,” Abela says. “She did an incredible job staying upright in those heels, especially with that hair, I mean, it’s not light. It’s a heavy piece on your head.”

It was even suggested that the actor wear sneakers, when her feet were out of shot during a scene recreating Winehouse’s 2008 Glastonbury performance, for safety reasons.

“But it changes your physicality so much to be in trainers running. So, no, I’ll stay in the heels, thanks very much,” Abela decided.

Taylor-Johnson met with Winehouse’s family, but says they had no artistic control over the film. It was written by Matt Greenhalgh, who also wrote biopics of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis (2007’s “Control”) and John Lennon (2009’s “Nowhere Boy”). A big Winehouse fan, Taylor-Johnson says she knew early on in the audition process that Abela could channel and bring “forth the feeling of Amy.”

Abela says she poured “blood, sweat and tears” into the role is because she knew first hand how much Winehouse meant to people.

Growing up in a Jewish family, living in small village outside Brighton on England’s south coast, Abela went to a Church of England school and didn’t know other Jewish people.

“I didn’t see any cool women out there rocking the Star of David. And then, like, Amy Winehouse is out and about. And that was just so cool to me,” Abela recalls.

“Back to Black” topped the box office twice when it opened in the U.K. and Ireland last month. Abela isn’t reading reviews, but admits the thought of what Winehouse would think of her kept her awake at night. Eventually, she came to the conclusion that the singer would at least respect the amount of work she put into her performance.

She insisted on singing for real, if they decided she was good enough, as a way to “unlock” Winehouse. But, for now, Abela has no plans to capitalize on her singing lessons.

“It’s not how I choose to express myself artistically,” she says. “I don’t think we’re going to see an album from me any time soon.”

Hilary Fox, The Associated Press

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