Daniels describes the tack he took in meeting with potential backers: to paint the broadest possible view of the film he wanted to make, if only to distract attention from the brutal details of Precious’s life. “Ultimately this is the story of overcoming adversity, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and achieving a dream,” he explains. “That’s sort of how I was pitching it as I was thrown out of one office after the next.”
Eventually he cobbled together the reported $3 million budget only to realize that finding a lead actress would be an equal challenge since, as he notes, “you can’t call a Hollywood agent for a 350-pound black girl.” Instead, Daniels, who is African-American, scouted the streets and held open casting calls for anyone who fit the character’s physical description. Given the potential vulnerability of the young women he met, it was a delicate and frustrating process, one he remembers as “painful.”
Sidibe heard about the audition from a friend who worked in the New York theater but almost didn’t go because it required her to cut a class at the City University of New York, where she was working toward a degree between hours as a phone company employee. Now 26, Sidibe grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and in Harlem and had no prior acting experience to speak of, though she wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the idea of performing: Her mother is a professional singer, and while in college Sidibe had a few stage roles, including Glinda in The Wiz.
“Very important work,” she teases. “In junior high school, kids used to pay me to sing Mariah Carey songs. It doesn’t even make sense that now I get to hang out with her.”
Sidibe’s prep for the Precious audition consisted of reviewing the first several pages of the novel, which she had read a few years earlier, and styling herself in a headband and a shirt decorated “with monkeys and hearts” to look eight years younger. She got a callback within half an hour of her first read and the next day returned to do a screen test. “Nobody said anything afterwards,” Sidibe recalls. “Then they all took a breath and said, ‘Get her a script. Get her a script now!’”
Daniels remembers being equally impressed by Sidibe’s poise and unapologetic self-presentation. At first, he admits, he wondered if perhaps she was in denial about her weight, but soon he realized she was aware but confident.
“She has a boyfriend, does her thing and conducts herself like a lady,” Daniels says, underscoring the vast gulf between Sidibe as a person and the fictional creation that is Precious. “Precious’s character is something we worked very hard to create.” And yet Sidibe’s screen debut is so painfully detailed that, as Mo’Nique points out, it can sometimes feel like a real person living her life in front of a documentary camera.