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Marisa Abela on playing Amy Winehouse in ‘Back to Black’: “Amy’s legacy taught me to be brave”

Marisa Abela on playing Amy Winehouse in 'Back to Black': “Amy’s legacy taught me to be brave”

“We felt that it was time to put Amy back in the centre of her own story, as a person rather than a victim of a tragedy.”

It’s the must-see Amy Winehouse biopic that’s dividing critics and Amy fans alike, but there’s no doubt that the break-out star of Back to Black is Marisa Abela, who plays the iconic singer. Marisa – who like Amy, is Jewish – had the unenviable task of not only physically taking on the role, controversially losing a lot of weight to portray Amy when she was in the grips of addiction and disordered eating, but also performing her most famous hits, including Tears Dry on Their Own, Rehab and of course, Back to Black.

And, in my opinion, having seen the film, I think she gives a magnificent performance, despite having already had to endure online criticism about her singing ability. Admittedly, her voice is not as powerful as Amy’s, but given that Amy was one of the greatest, most powerful singers of her generation, there are few people who would likely match it. But Marisa's (who at 27, is the same age as Amy was when she died) presence and mannerisms brilliantly mimic Amy’s. Prior to Back to Black, Marisa was best known for her role as Yasmin Kara-Hanai in Lena Dunham’s BBC series Industry. She also had a small role in Greta Gerwig’s 2023 smash-hit, Barbie, but it’s Back to Black that is set to really put Marisa on the map. GLAMOUR caught up with Marisa ahead of the film’s release to chat to chat empowerment, feminism and what she’s learnt from Amy’s legacy.

Despite Amy's obvious demons, at times your depiction of Amy comes across as one of empowerment. Do you think Amy was empowered during her career and life?

I think she was powerful. I think empowerment is a slightly different thing. There's a difference between having a lot of self-belief and self-worth, and I think that empowerment comes from that feeling of self-worth. I think there are snippets of her feeling that in her life, and huge big moments of that. But it's a fleeting feeling, especially when you're being picked apart by everyone that's watching you. But I think that she was powerful always, and I don't think that that can ever be taken away from her.

And what makes you feel empowered?

I think when I'm working I feel empowered. It's an incredible thing to take up space in those moments and to be allowed to do the work that you love. Yeah.

At one point in the film, Amy says, "I'm not a feminist. I like boys too much." Do you think Amy was a feminist?

She made that joke herself. That is in an interview. First of all, it's speaking about a different time. And I think that maybe the sentiment was different for Amy in terms of… She wrote songs like F Me Pumps, where she was criticising a certain type of woman for how they were presenting themselves. I'm sure that she was a feminist in the truest sense of the word, that she wanted equal rights for women. I'm sure she was not an anti-feminist… She didn't have much time for people that weren't strong. And then that's reflected in the people that were around her, so yeah.

Marisa Abela on playing Amy Winehouse in 'Back to Black': “Amy’s legacy taught me to be brave”

Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features

Amy was very much a victim of the era that she lived in. Do you think that her story might have been different if she had started her career now? I look at, for example, someone like Raye's success, and I think about how she disowned her label and is now her own boss. Do you think Amy was perhaps a victim of her era in that sense?

It's difficult to say because she was so much a product of her time that to separate her from that time, that place, that era is almost impossible, I think. But I mean, Amy, she did disown her label at some point and go under different management because she didn't want to be told how to look or speak or behave. But I think that the most insidious part of the culture at that time was the paparazzi culture, and this insatiable appetite to need to see more and more and more of a person. And she definitely was a victim of that. But again, I'm not sure if that's changed that much to be honest.

On that subject, obviously when the film was first announced and there were images from set released, the film came under quite a lot of criticism for saying it was going to exploit Amy's battles and distress once again. How do you feel about that criticism levelled at the project?

I understand how it's difficult to separate that exploitation from Amy's story now, and seeing a film just being another thing that piles on. The reason that I agreed to do this, and when I read the script it felt like an important story to tell, is because we've seen a lot of an image of Amy that feels like it is looking at her from the outside in. There's this voyeuristic nature, all of these photos of her walking down the street, going to the pub. Wherever she goes, it's clear that she was surrounded by paparazzi.

Marisa Abela on playing Amy Winehouse in 'Back to Black': “Amy’s legacy taught me to be brave”

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And what our film does is, it takes us right back to the creation and the conception of Amy's music. And I think we felt, Matt and Sam felt, that it was time to put Amy back in the centre of her own story as a person, rather than a victim of a tragedy. Of course, there were lots of tragic moments in Amy's life, but more than that, she was a human being. An incredibly powerful and impressive one. So using her voice, a.k.a. her lyrics, the songs that she wrote, to tell her story again, it felt like it was time to hear it that way.

That's really interesting you say that because I wanted to then ask, conversely, do you think that the film goes far enough to chronicle the really distressing battles that Amy fought. Do you think that that is accurately represented in the film?

Our intention, and you see it in the title of the film, it's about her music. So it's about what it was that inspired this album. The creation of that music lives on and affected her life. So it ends where it ends, which is after the album has come out. But anything beyond… I think people feel, as you say, you see the reaction to hearing that there's something else going to be out there about Amy. They're like, "We know what happened. We saw it. We saw it play out perhaps too much." And perhaps she was too exposed.

Marisa Abela on playing Amy Winehouse in 'Back to Black': “Amy’s legacy taught me to be brave”

Courtesy of Dean Rogers/Focus Features

We know from just simply the name of the kind of places that try and help people deal with addiction, that they need anonymity to be able to get better. And unfortunately, Amy was never afforded that. So I think we didn't want to create something that added to this catalogue of intense pain and tragedy. I mean, you see it in the film. You see what she goes through when… But what was most important to us was to leave the taste in people's mouths that it didn't eclipse her success and her talent again. That was the thing that we wanted people to walk out of the cinema feeling. Yes, of course it's sad to lose someone so incredible, so young. But to feel what she did achieve in her time was amazing.

What's the one thing that Amy's legacy has taught you?

I think Amy's legacy has taught me to be brave. I think she was an incredibly brave woman. That strength and vulnerability can go hand in hand. And in fact, that's the strongest thing of all, to bear your soul and be unafraid and not let anyone infiltrate your individuality in that way.

Back to Black is in cinemas nationwide on Friday April 12.

For more from GLAMOUR's Assistant Editor and Entertainment Director, Emily Maddick, follow her on Instagram @emilymaddick.