Marisa Abela on celebrating the power of Amy Winehouse

Last night, we hosted the annual Harper's Bazaar International Women's Day dinner at the Peninsula in London, where a number of inspiring women spoke on topics ranging from human rights to the power of great journalism. One of the distinguished guests on stage was the actress Marisa Abela, who plays Amy Winehouse in Sam Taylor Johnson's new biopic Back To Black – and who opened up about taking on the role of a lifetime.

"What we were interested in doing was bringing audiences back to who she was when she first captured everyone’s imaginations," Abela said, of what they wanted to achieve with the film. "It was about that moment where she really set the world on fire with her album 'Frank'. We wanted to get back to that place – who was she, at the centre of her own narrative? I wanted to capture the essence of her soul."

marisa abela
Oliver Holms

The actress explained that this was about putting Amy back in the driver’s seat of her own story. "When we look back on her narrative, we are somehow using other people to inform us about her story. Our film is really trying to take it back to how Amy felt, what Amy was thinking – and there is no judgement there."

marisa abela as amy winehouse
Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse in ’Back To Black’Studio Canal

Taking on the role came with its challenges, including plenty of physical and mental preparation. Abela trained intensely for months in order to get her vocals up to scratch – insisting on doing all the singing herself – while she also lost a significant amount of weight, something that she believes was necessary in order to tell the story authentically.

"When you make a decision to take on board something like this, you have an obligation and a responsibility to go as deep as physically and emotionally and mentally as you can. I wanted to do that in every way that was open to me. I wanted to explore every avenue possible. Everything that Amy did was Amy’s choice, so who am I as an actor to decide that we weren’t going to include that in the film?

a group of women sitting at a table
Marisa Abela on stage with Bazaar’s Helena LeeOliver Holms

"When you are a different size, you take up a lot less space and that just changes how you interact with the world and how the world interacts with you. I think Amy can be defined by a million things, most of all her power and her voice and her legacy, but it's true that she was victim of a disease, which was addiction and she had an eating disorder – and that changes you physically. I didn’t feel like it was my place as an actor to say that we don’t need to tell that part of the story. It’s her story."

Abela also touched on some of the criticism she faced when the first pictures surfaced of her shooting as Winehouse, explaining that it was unexpected, and that she had no choice but to shake it off.

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Marisa Abela on stageOliver Holms

"It was a new experience for me to be so exposed," she said of the trolling and media glare. "But the enemy of acting is self-consciousness or being rigid with fear. Being afraid is something you have to work through very quickly to be able to do your job the next day."

Of course, this gave Abela just a slight glimpse of some of the horrific abuse that Winehouse suffered in the press. But, ultimately, she wants this film to focus on who the singer was at her core and the power she had.

"How have we got to this place where she is a victim of her own story?" the actress asked outloud. "Of course, she was a victim of addiction and the media attention, but before all of that, she was a powerful woman."

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Marisa Abela attended the International Women’s Day dinner with her mother, Caroline GruberOliver Holms

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