Naturi Naughton's role as Notorious B.I.G.'s girlfriend, rapper Lil' Kim, in the new biopic "Notorious," may prove to be her breakout part, but the New Jersey-born actress says she will always owe a debt to another famous singer, Whitney Houston.
When she was only 7, a momentary chance meeting with Houston helped set the now 24-year old on her path. Houston was handing out Christmas toys at an event. "She sat me on her lap and I told her ‘I want to be like you.' I had my picture taken and the next kid went," Naughton recalls. Seeing someone in the flesh like Houston, who sang in her church choir growing up just like Naughton, made "it tangible to have hit songs and recording albums and have people look at you as an icon in the music business," she recalls. "Those dreams are real."
By the time she was 14, Naughton was touring the world as one-third of 3LW, a girl group that opened for the likes of Destiny's Child and ‘N Sync. After the group disbanded, she continued singing and acting, including a two-and-a half-year Broadway run in "Hairspray" as Little Inez. "Being on Broadway really makes you a stronger performer. You always have to be on your toes to think fast and be ready when the lights go on because it's no joke," she says. "One time I was on stage and a prop came down too far and it hit me. I was in the middle of a dance move and I wanted to scream and cry and I had to suck it up and act like nothing happened."
She took a six-week break from Broadway to film "Notorious." She hoped to meet with Lil' Kim to talk about the role, but she never heard back from the rapper after reaching out. So instead, she soaked up every bit of info she could glean about this woman she was playing on the big screen. "I read about the issues she grew up with in Brooklyn growing up on the streets, being in a lot of abusive relationships. I listened to her music. I talked to a lot of people who were around Big and Kim and who knew about the relationship and just absorbed everything I could."
Ultimately, Naughton came to the conclusion that "it was probably for the best" they didn't come face to face: "You start compromising if you meet that person." This way, she says, "I was able to bring my own flair and my own edge. Anybody can be a mimic. I wanted to really show I was an actress and embody the character and bring something new and vulnerable."
Oddly, the two had similarly missed crossing paths a few years ago when Lil Kim appeared on Naughton's song "Real Chicks." "The producers contacted her people and she came into the studio, but I wasn't there," Naughton says.
Next up, Naughton will star in the theatrical remake of "Fame."