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Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and comedian Mo’Nique will astonish audiences in their new drama.
Screen novice Gabourey Sidibe and actress-comedian Mo’Nique have convened in a lush private garden in Santa Monica to discuss Precious. The small film, in which they star, boldly flouts Hollywood’s every convention and prejudice. Based on the novel Push by black writer and poet Sapphire, the movie looks back on the worst of the Eighties crack epidemic in New York’s Harlem neighborhood and maps the despair of Sidibe’s teenage character, Claireece “Precious” Jones, an illiterate 350-pound girl who is pregnant with a second child conceived with her own HIV-positive father and who suffers daily psychological attacks by her monstrous mother, played by Mo’Nique.
The commercial prospects for an incest story starring a plus-plus-size unknown from Harlem would seem to be nearly zilch. It’s a testament to the salesmanship of director Lee Daniels that he was even able to get the film made, and a tribute to astonishing performances from Sidibe and Mo’Nique—as well as superlative supporting work from Mariah Carey (risen from the ashes of Glitter), Paula Patton and Lenny Kravitz—that Precious won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Soon after, Oprah Winfrey caught wind of the project and attached herself as an executive producer, and now Precious will be promoted on perhaps the biggest media platform in the hemisphere. What exactly does that mean for the film? Just ask Mo’Nique. Following an afternoon of serious and measured conversation (which includes talking about the sexual molestation she endured as a child), the comedian lets her epic personality rip.
“What do you think it means,” she thunders with mock righteousness, “when the person under God says the movie is good? Oprah might be right there with the Lord! She done gave the whole world free chicken! That’s godly, baby. That’s called a miracle. So what does it mean when Oprah Winfrey says, ‘This is good’? Then the world—not just America, the world—says, ‘It’s good.’”
Regardless of the world’s eventual judgment, Hollywood insiders are already buzzing about Precious, which screened at Sundance under the film’s earlier title, Push. Sidibe and Mo’Nique will surely garner award nominations this winter—despite the fact that neither actress fits into any cookie-cutter category recognized by the industry.
Precious, which will be released in November, got its start in the late Nineties, when Daniels picked up Push and was shaken, he recalls, by the “sheer audaciousness and brutal honesty” of the story, which is told from Precious’s point of view and in her rudimentary English. After showing Sapphire his debut directing effort, 2005’s Shadowboxer, Daniels convinced her to entrust him with the film rights. Finding the money to proceed, however, was much tougher, even though Daniels produced a movie as challenging to commercial taste as 2004’s The Woodsman, which stars Kevin Bacon as a pedophile who is released from jail.
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.
Precious’s mother was easier to cast, says Daniels, as he and Mo’Nique had been friends since they worked together on Shadowboxer, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Helen Mirren. “He called me up and said, ‘Hey I have something for you, but it could f— up your career,’’’ recalls Mo’Nique. “I said, ‘Let’s play.’”
Daniels explains that while he had no doubt about Mo’Nique’s ability to “throw down what she threw down,” he did worry that the role could put off the loyal following that has made her a queen of black popular culture. Mo’Nique, 41, is best known for her stand-up comedy and her funny, bigmouthed roles in mainstream movies like Phat Girlz and Soul Plane, in which she played security checker Jamiqua. “She’s like the Oprah of the projects,” Daniels says. Yet with Mary, she creates a character of such astonishing ferocity—and, in one brilliant scene, wounded humanity—that the performance fully justifies her boast that “I kicked it in the ass, baby.” She brushes off Daniels’s concern that Mary may alienate her fans, pointing to comics including Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, who forged into more serious work without losing their audience’s trust.
Be that as it may, Mo’Nique’s Mary is still one of the cruelest female characters to be attempted outside of the slasher genre, and to get into that depraved mind-set she had to excavate her most painful memories of being sexually abused as a child. “Lee said, ‘When I say action, I need you to be a monster,’” Mo’Nique recalls. “I was molested by my oldest brother, who was a monster to me. So to get into the mind of that woman, I remembered that monster.”
Mo’Nique adds that in more recent years she has confronted her brother, and although he has not fully acknowledged his guilt and sought contrition, she has forgiven him nonetheless. “I’ve got to,” she says simply. “I can’t walk around with that. If I don’t forgive him, I’ll be the victim for the rest of my life, and I don’t choose to be that.” Certainly her capacity to absolve informed Mo’Nique’s performance as well: When, late in the movie, Mary tells her story for the first time, Mo’Nique endows her character with a fleeting moment of conscience that allows the audience to find compassion for her as a sick woman. “You might understand her and still say, ‘Lock that bitch up,’” the actress concedes.
Things weren’t always so intense on set. The film was shot throughout Harlem and in outer borough locations over the course of seven weeks, and the cast made every effort to lighten the atmosphere between takes. “As soon as Mo’Nique turned Mary off, we were laughing, hugging, singing and making jokes,” says Sidibe. “And when Mr. Daniels said ‘Cut,’ Precious was out of me.”
The realization of what they had done between “action” and “cut” hit both actresses at Sundance, where, as Sidibe sweetly confesses, the sensation surrounding the film made her “so famous” on the ski town’s Main Street. Mo’Nique was floored by the experience of watching Precious alongside the festival audience of Tinseltown elite. “None of those people looked like us,” Mo’Nique recalls, addressing the issues of race, class and gender that adhere to the film. “And it was mind-blowing when it was over, to have white men in their 60s coming up to us, crying. It killed the myth. It killed the myth that a white man couldn’t possibly enjoy two big black women onscreen.”
“It was the gratification of knowing that on set we were right,” adds Sidibe, who says she has been called for meetings all over Hollywood and has lined up her next job in Yelling to the Sky, with Don Cheadle. “That we were doing something special and important. That it’s not just a black movie.”