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August 27, 2014, 3:03 pm

Cast: Houston was motherly on, off camera

Grammy Award-winner Whitney Houston delivers a strong performance as Emma in the remake of “Sparkle.” Stripped from any similarities of the 1976 classic, Emma is a tough, deeply religious woman. As a single mother and dress shop owner, she tries to keep her daughters, Sparkle, Sister and Dee — played by Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo and Tika Sumpter, respectively — protected from the harsh realities of the music industry. And when her daughters refuse to follow her rules, conflicts begin to surface and Emma realizes that she cannot restrain their passion to dream big.

Ejogo and Sparks share their experience with working with Houston in her last film project.

“She brought a reminder to me everyday that we worked together [with] the value of humility,” Ejogo said. “She was [an] incredibly humble person who recognized that she has been given a great opportunity to tell a great story. And she didn’t squander it. She took it so seriously.

“To watch somebody with that much commitment to the project was a really valuable experience. To be reminded that no matter how iconic you can become you can still have a humility that allows you to relate to the other actors, to the whole experience in a way that makes it really authentic for everyone that is a part of it. That was really special.”

Sparks says that she was always a Houston fan and to be in her presence was surreal.

“To be across from somebody that you’ve idolized your whole life and loved your whole life, and wanted to be like, is definitely something …,” Sparks said. “It was amazing to be across from her, and I heard her sing everyday. I know people would have given their right arm to just hear that. The fact that she has always delivered on screen, to see how amazing she was, she was a constant professional — she came in and set the tone for the day. To be able to be across from that and learn, I was basically like a sponge soaking up everything.”

Even with Houston’s celebrity status, the ladies said that behind the scenes Houston allowed for other actors to shine, too.

“I really don’t know why I wasn’t totally expecting that, but I wasn’t,” Ejobo said. “She was so nurturing and waiting to make sure that everything was good for us. This was her coming out moment, but she was as invested in making sure it was our moment too. That’s a rare thing for someone who has reached that level of iconic status — to have that much interest in how other people are faring.”

“She was very conscious of the real-life pitfalls of this industry. I didn’t know this, but apparently she had a track record throughout her career supporting young talent, really nurturing and making sure people felt that they were in a good space,” Sparks said.

“But to be able to get the example of ‘don’t forget where you came from,’ ‘don’t be ashamed of who you are’ and ‘always remain humble’ was an example because she was all those things. She wasn’t ashamed of who she was and what she’s been through.”

Emma, Sparkle, Sister and Dee’s life together parallels Houston’s life.

Ejogo said Houston was aware of these similarities.

“She was very open about her life if I needed it,” Ejogo said. “Whitney knew the movie she was making — that there were parallels between her life and Sister’s — but there are also parallels about her life and Sparkle. Whitney was also that amazing singer that had this gift, but Cissy [Houston’s mother] was very protective of Whitney as a young girl … ‘I don’t want my baby in that industry. I want to keep her away from it.’ Even Delores, there is a strength about Tika where she just says it like it is — which is very Whitney. She was very straight up in that way.”