Editor’s note: This article was updated in August 2021 to mark 20 years since Aaliyah’s death.
For many singers, the transition from music to acting yields an equal amount of risk and reward. With the success of musicians such as Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson and Diana Ross giving acclaimed Oscar-nominated performances, one can’t help but wonder what kind of cinematic stamp Aaliyah would have left in Hollywood. Though it has been 18 years since her untimely passing, we still miss her presence on the big screen.
While only 22 at the time of her passing, Aaliyah had already starred in two full-length feature films: Romeo Must Die and Queen Of The Dammed. Both vastly different in terms of genre and tone, the films gave viewers a hint of how versatile Aaliyah could be as an actress.
Released in 2000, Romeo Must Die came at an interesting time during the singer’s career. Aaliyah was four years removed from her groundbreaking sophomore effort, One In A Million, and had contributed her musical talents to the Dr. Dolittle and Anastasia soundtracks. It only made sense for cinema to be Aaliyah’s next career move.
Although the movie is billed as a starring vehicle for Jet Li, there’s no denying that Aaliyah was the real star of the film. As Trish O’Day, the budding talent was the heart, lungs and soul of a film rife with gunfights and tragedy. None of this is more evident than in a scene when Trish laments over the murder of her brother, Colin.
Aside from adding some dramatic heft to the movie, Aaliyah was also quite the formidable opponent, as evident in a scene where her character Trish and Han (Li) physically fight off and kill an assassin.
Grossing $91 million against a budget of $20 million at the international box office, this seems to be when Aaliyah the action star was born. Few could have predicted that the R&B songstress would scale things up a notch in her next role: a bloodthirsty vampire queen.
The 2002 film Queen Of The Damned saw Aaliyah engage with her dark side as Akasha, an ancient vampire queen with an uncontrollable bloodlust. Aaliyah was sultry in the role of Akasha, even down to her strut, her mannerisms and her vocal inflections.
Though the movie didn’t exactly receive the best reviews, Aaliyah received the lion’s share of the praise for her performance. Released six months after her passing, Queen Of The Dammed took the top spot at the box office and ended up grossing over $45 million against a budget of $35 million.
Before her untimely passing in a plane crash on August 25, 2001, Aaliyah was originally set to play the role of Zee in The Matrix Reloaded. The role was eventually recast with Nona Gaye due to Aaliyah’s untimely passing, but the budding talent left a permanent and indelible imprint on her cast and crew members.
Based on her acting choices, Aaliyah’s acting career could have closely resembled that of Angela Bassett. Her participation in The Matrix franchise is akin to Bassett’s role as Lornette “Mace” Mason in the 1995 cyberpunk thriller Strange Days. There can also be a parallel drawn between Aaliyah’s role as Akasha in Queen Of The Dammed and Bassett’s role as Detective Rita Veder in Wes Craven’s 1995 horror film Vampire In Brooklyn.
To complete the parallels, Aaliyah was set to portray the role of Sparkle Anderson in a remake of the 1976 musical film Sparkle alongside Whitney Houston. This move could have paralleled Bassett’s leading role as Tina Turner in the film What’s Love Got To Do With It, a performance that resulted in an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. The role of Sparkle eventually went to Jordin Sparks, but Houston lamented on the impact of Aaliyah’s passing in an interview with The Insider.
The beauty of her spirit and the roles we didn’t get to see her in are just a couple of the many reasons that fans are still questioning what the future could have held for Aaliyah’s acting career.
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