The Verge: Gabourey Sidibe
In a great year for breakthroughs, Gabourey Sidibe may have the story to beat. Her film may not rake in $85 million like Paranormal Activity, nor announce a new It Girl a la An Education. But Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is an even more intriguing commodity: A searing, don't-look-back screen debut featuring Sidibe as an illiterate Harlem high schooler pregnant with her second child by her own father and trapped in a brutally abusive home with her mother Mary (played with predatory venom by Mo'Nique). Shipped off to a special educational program for high-risk teens, she comes into her own even as tragedy pursues her from all sides. It's as raw, tender and unprecedented a character as any this year, and Sidibe owns it as such -- her early, lumbering inelegance giving way to grace, her defiance alive with hope.
And the awards hunt is on: I met Sidibe for a chat earlier this month in New York, minutes after she and director Lee Daniels had concluded a screening of Precious for the National Board of Review.
How did the screening next door go?
I think it went well! People responded to it. I usually like to see the way they react during the film, but afterward it was pretty clear that they enjoyed it. Most of them, at least.
The film's made that kind of impression for almost a year now since Sundance, though. What were you expecting going into all this?
I don't know. I don't really have any point of reference. I don't know what it's like to be in films that people want to see, or that people don't want to see. Every day has been a bit unnerving or a little bit scary because I have no idea, and I still don't really know. I'm looking at it all from a baby's eyes.
I read that you auditioned on a Monday and were cast two days later. It's like Lee wasn't going to give you a chance to have second thoughts.
Yeah, well the fact that I even showed up meant that I was not going to say "no." But it was very, very quick.
I also heard you two didn't see totally eye-to-eye about your character at first.
I think we actually had the same perspective. That's a comment I hear a lot, and I have no idea where it came from. Sometimes I disagreed with the wardrobe department about what Precious might wear. They would dress her as though she was ugly and wasn't trying to be anything other than ugly. I think Lee thought she should be ugly and not trying, too. But I said: "You know, it's my face and my body. And if you're going off me for Precious's face and body, I want you to know that I try." I make sure I'm cute when I leave the house, and I don't see why Precious wouldn't either. And he agreed with that. But 100 percent of the time, we were on the same page about who she is.
What was your relationship to the novel before going into the film?
I read the novel about four years prior to the audition. I felt like I recognized this girl. I recognized her in friends and family, and I recognized her in people that I'd stopped being friends with. I saw her so vividly, and I felt a lot of guilt. I've been part of the population that has oppressed this woman and neglected her. Does that make any sense? The story gave me compassion and turned my heart around.
Well, you studied psychology in college. How did that inform your reaction to Precious -- and then your interpretation of her?
I've always been interested in psychology; I started reading psychology books when I was in junior high, just because it was what was around. I'd read anatomies of abused children, or the anatomy of the victimized and the victimizer. So it was little things. Like the way that someone who's been as severely abused as Precious has been, I kind of figured she wouldn't be as animated herself. She sits in the room, and she feels like the ugliest person in the room whether she is or not. She wants to hide, and even though she can't, she hides within her body, she hides in her voice, she hides in her stance. That's the psychology training I adapted to her.
You mentioned the victimizer. How did your training influence your interpretation of [Precious's abusive mother] Mary?
I think it didn't really apply until the very last scene. Being in Precious's position -- even though she wasn't me -- I really felt for her. But Mary was an enemy. I didn't want to identify with her at all. I wasn't even trying to figure out where she was coming from. I didn't care. She was terrible. And it was until the last scene where Mo'Nique, as Mary, kind of turns it around. Or not "turns it around," but she delved into her psyche. And you delve into her reasoning, and it all kind of kicks in at once. I bled for her.
You bled for her?
I know that's really weird to say, but I felt so strongly for her. That did not condone any of the things she had done -- any of it -- but it's obvious that she, too, is a victim.
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