Lee Daniels’s Precious, the new film adaptation of Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push, features stars like Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, and Mo’Nique. But the actor getting the most attention is a 26-year-old young woman from Harlem who never dreamed about being in front of a camera. Gabourey Sidibe spends most of her time in Precious saying next to nothing as she is physically and emotionally abused by her mother, becomes pregnant with her father’s child, and is taken under the wing of a tireless social worker. But the raw materials of a gifted actress are evident in Sidibe’s every gesture. Precious is a brutal account of poverty, illiteracy, hate, and urban isolation so well-crafted that it swept the awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s also going to turn a onetime college psychology student into an unexpected star.
MO'NIQUE: Here’s what I ask, because right now the world is scratching their heads, saying, “Who is this young lady, Gabby? We haven’t seen her before, and she’s done such an amazing job. Who is she?” Tell the world who you are.
GABOUREY SIDIBE: I’m just a girl from Harlem who ended up in the right place at the right time. I was a college student studying psychology, and a friend of mine told me about the audition for Precious. I had read that book because my mom made me. Actually, I hadn’t wanted to go to the audition because I had to cut school in order to do so. But I just went on autopilot, did the audition, and got a call back within an hour. I went back the next day and got another call within a half hour, saying that the director wanted to meet me. We talked for 45 minutes about nothing, and then he offered me the part. So what I am is just a very lucky girl.
MO'NIQUE: Wow. Now if you weren’t this incredible actress, would you be a psychologist?
SIDIBE: I think I’d be a research psychologist. Most of my life, I wanted to be a therapist, but then I just decided that I didn’t want to be in charge of giving people advice. I want to know everything there is to know about psychology. But a therapist? No. [laughs]
MO'NIQUE: Was acting something that you ever wanted to do?
SIDIBE: Not ever. Certainly not professionally. You know, I’d done little school plays and things, like I was a pirate in Peter Pan and I was Glinda the Good Witch in The Wiz, but it was mostly for fun and I had bigger singing parts than acting parts. In fact, I didn’t want to pursue it because I didn’t want to subject myself to the opinion of the world.
MO'NIQUE: What do you think the opinion of the world is of you now?
SIDIBE: I try to stay off the Internet. [laughs] Just because people hurt my feelings sometimes. My audition tape somehow ended up on YouTube, and, like, 40,000 people have seen it, and a lot of people have commented that I’m an incredible actress. But other opinions weren’t so nice, physically or whatever.
MO'NIQUE: You know what you do with those kinds of opinions, right?
SIDIBE: Forget them?
MO'NIQUE: You put ’em in the shit bucket. [Sidibe laughs] Get rid of them. Now tell me what your first day on set was like.
SIDIBE: I thought I would be really nervous but I wasn’t. It just felt like work, you know? It was really weird; everyone was running around doing everything for me—like putting on my socks! But it was a really easy, interesting day.
MO'NIQUE: What did you think of the director, Lee Daniels?
SIDIBE: He is so amazing. He’s very dedicated to the story. [pauses] He’s actually really protective of all the actors on the set—especially of me. I think that was because I had never done anything like this. He’s used to working with actors like Halle Berry, Cuba Gooding Jr.—people whose lives are in film. Whereas I was basically off the street. He likes to tell people that he found me on 144th and Lenox. [both laugh]
MO'NIQUE: What was the best part of making the movie for you?
SIDIBE: Seeing it for the first time at Sundance when we all got to walk the red carpet and we took all these pictures. It was the first time the whole cast had been together at the same time, in the same place. A lot of people had never met each other, you know? It was weird because we’re all part of this great big movie. That was amazing—all of us in the same room and getting to see what we had worked so hard for.
MO'NIQUE: When you saw yourself on the screen for the first time, what were you thinking?
SIDIBE: For a second, I was jarred. And then I was really, really, really proud. Before I even saw my own face it said in the credits, introducing Gabourey Sidibe, and it was just like, holy crap, that’s my name!
MO'NIQUE: So what’s next for you?
SIDIBE: I would like to continue acting. I tell people I can’t go back to real life. [laughs] I have to see how far I can go with it. I am serious about it, and I believe that it’s my calling. I think it’s what my life’s path is. It’s what God has given me. It’s what I was born to do. And so I must do it.
MO'NIQUE: That’s right, mama. Now let me ask you: There are people that will watch the movie and not be able to separate Gabby from Precious. Is there any Gabby in Precious or any Precious in Gabby?
SIDIBE: Yeah, I think it does go both ways. We have the same body, I guess, and so we both had to grow up with people staring at us and people judging us based on what we looked like. That is certainly what I brought to Precious and what kind of brought her out of me. I’m a grown-up now. I don’t fixate on other people’s opinions of my body. But she’s 16. It still hurts her. So I brought 16-year-old Gabby to Precious, certainly. And they have a lot in common. Even though Precious has such a hard life to live, she keeps living. And when life gets hard for me, I keep living, too.
MO'NIQUE: There’s a scene in the trailer, where Precious is saying, “I wish I had a light-skinned boyfriend . . . But first I want to be in one of them BET videos.” Is that something that Gabby ever thought about?
Watch Precious trailer:
SIDIBE: [groans] Oh, totally. Not specific to the light-skinned boyfriend. I just wished I had a boyfriend. [laughs] Now I’ve had a boyfriend and I see how troubling they are . . . But certainly I used to wish I looked more like those girls in videos. I certainly used to wish that I was skinny, lighter-skinned, with long, pretty hair. But only because I used to get made fun of for being the absolute opposite. I didn’t see all of that stuff as the American Dream. I just wanted to look normal. Now that I’m older, I really do feel like I am a beautiful girl.
Mo'Nique is a best-selling author, television producer, and acclaimed actress, she has appeared in the comedies Soul Plane and Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins.
Photo: Gabourey Sidibe in New York, May 2009. Shirt: Sidibe's own. Necklace: Vintage Schiffer at Cherry NYC. Cosmetics: Temptu, including S/B Foundations. Hair products: Kiehl's Since 1851, including Creative Cream Wax. Fragrance: Beautiful by Estee Lauder. Styling: Ana Steiner/Streeters. Hair: Christiaan. Makeup: Lisa Butler/Tim Howard Management. Manicure: Rica Romain/The Wall Group. Special thanks: Pier 59.