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Inside Marisa Abela’s ‘Back to Black’ Transformation: How Movement Coach Sara Green Helped Her ‘Inhabit’ Amy Winehouse ‘From the Inside Out’

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How does an actor authentically and respectfully embody a legendary real-life singer on screen without it being seen as tribute act? And how do they do it when so much of that person’s life as a performer — a life that tragically ended not long ago — was played out in front of the cameras, across the media, in interviews and captured on phones?

This was the task given to Sara Green, the choreographer and movement coach who worked closely with “Back to Black” star Marisa Abela to help transform her into Amy Winehouse for Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biopic, which releases in the U.K. on Friday with StudioCanal (and in the U.S. on May 17 with Focus Features). It was a task she admits, given the “plethora of footage” of the late music icon, was “quite daunting.”

Unsurprisingly, hours of hard work and research were essential, with Abela and Green meeting up in a north London studio four times a week for more than three months before shooting started in January 2023. It was there where Abela’s Winehouse first came together, but rather than simply learning how to mimic the singer, the main aim was to get behind the famed beehive, eyelashes and tattoos to truly understand the person she was portraying. 

“It was really key that she could inhabit Amy from the inside out,” Green says. “We’re not trying to impersonate Amy. We’re not trying to copy her. We want to understand why she moves the way she does.”

To do this, the two dove deep into all things Winehouse, exploring everything that could have influenced her, including where she was hanging out, what she was into, what she ate, what she didn’t eat and what she was wearing. “It was a bit like being a detective,” Green says. “You’re investigating somebody and piecing together why they did the things they did and why they moved the way they did.”

By the time cameras started rolling on “Back to Black,” she says their three-month work on Winehouse amounted to a “thesis” on the singer. “Marisa probably knew Amy better than anyone by that point,” Green says.

Emily Lowe

Although Winehouse’s career was sadly cut short through alcohol poisoning at the age of just 27 in 2011, her stage presence and style became almost as instantly recognizable as her voice. But that’s not to say it didn’t change, sometimes dramatically, even in the relatively short amount of time that she was recording. And with the biopic charting her meteoric rise from talented pub singer to her breakout debut album “Frank” to global recognition and multi Grammy-winning success with “Back to Black,” this was also something Green and Abela had to take into — highly-detailed — account. 

“I think the interesting thing about the ‘Back to Black’ stage of Amy is that it wasn’t something that physically crept into her, it was a very ‘smash-into’ transformation,” Green says. “It tightened up her posture, we see her losing more and more weight and we see that in her physicality, and she suddenly becomes much lighter, almost floating away from the ground.”

And then there’s the famed beehive hair, the weight of which on such a slight frame also had a significant influence on how she moved. “It meant she really had to hold herself with a huge amount of strength,” says Green, who adds that, with Winehouse going from wearing ballet pumps to high heels, she had “pull all her weight into the center of her body to try and keep her balance.” 

As Green also points out, this tighter, pulled-in look compared to the fluidity of her earlier years also reflected Amy’s attempts to “try and contain the difficulties that she’s going through.” 

These difficulties are the focus of much of the second half of “Back to Black,” with Winehouse juggling the glare of being a phenomenally successful recording star and celebrity with her own seismic internal struggles. 

When portraying such deeply sensitive issues, Green and Abela chose to simply concentrate on the small things. 

“The only villain really in this film is the addiction,” Green says. “And the effects on her body were really raw. So it was our job to show those effects as honestly as we could, whilst also retaining as much of the power of Amy as possible. Even in those later years, she was still decisive, she was still powerful, she knew what she wanted and she went after it.”

Green is repped by Casarotto Ramsay & Associates.