Something fresh and miraculous happens, from an acting perspective among other things, in the remarkable film Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. Comedian-actress Mo’Nique grabs us in an in-your-face way as an abusive mother in Harlem whose daughter, Precious, is a high school student with a child by her father. In the title role, newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe seizes our attention from an entirely different angle, channeling a life of endured pain and abuse—and struggle for self-determination—into a model minimalist performance, with most of her lines spoken in interior monologue.
Sidibe, who had been studying psychology and not entertaining a life in show business before the tailor-made Precious came along, suddenly is a toast of the movie season, and a ripe candidate for one of the festival’s Chopin Virtuoso Awards. I spoke to the Brooklyn native recently as she was hunkered down in Los Angeles, as part of the press-pressing following a movie sensation and surrounding awards season.
Your performance in Precious had a unique and quiet power. Was it hard for you to get inside the head of this character? No, it wasn’t too hard at all. The thing about her is that … most people don’t believe she exists, but she does. I’ve seen her and I’ve known her. So it wasn’t too hard to find her, because she’s my next-door neighbor. She was in my classroom, she’s my cousin, she’s so many different people.
You actually were headed toward psychology, before the movies took you in an entirely new direction, right? Yeah, I was a psych student before, for a long time. I wanted to be a therapist, but then I had to drop out and become a movie star. [Laughs.] Somebody told me that I probably would be helping so many more people with this film than I ever could as a therapist. So I think that justifies my dropping out.
You do seem to have a fresh approach, maybe partly because of your clean slate situation. Yeah. I look up to comedians. That’s kind of my alliance. I’ve always looked up to, say, Tina Fey and all the really funny women on Saturday Night Live. I like comedians—Ellen [DeGeneres] and Amy Poehler.
There isn’t a lot of humor, per se, in Precious. I actually think there is a lot of humor in it. Some people can see it. Sometimes, it’s a little harder to find it, because of the subject matter.
Mo’Nique was a darkly captivating presence on the screen. Did you have a strong rapport with her during the filming? Absolutely. She is amazing. Again, because I’ve been interested in comedians for so long, she was one of the people I looked up to—not because of her acting but because she’s so funny.
Your mother is an R&B singer. Do you think maybe that helped put the bug in you, as a performer? I don’t know. I can sing, and my mom wanted me to be a singer. But because she wanted me to, I didn’t want to do it. I’m a stubborn girl that way. All my life, my family has been telling me that I need to be a performer, and I’ve always said no. But apparently, it’s in my blood, and it’s something I can’t deny.
Obviously, besides the great performances in this movie, it’s an important film in that it opens a window on life in a corner of America that doesn’t usually come through Hollywood. At least since I’ve been paying attention, I’ve never seen a story quite like Precious.
African-American life has gotten more screen time in the last several years than it has before. Does it have a long way to go still? Yeah, because when you think of actors or actresses, it’s people like Angelina Jolie and maybe Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. It’s almost a segregated industry, in a lot of ways. But I think we certainly are making strides and getting better.
You have another film in the hopper—Yelling to the Sky. I assume that was a very different working experience than the Precious working process. Yeah. For Precious, because I was the star of the film, I had to be on the set every single day, and I kind of had more of a weird hands-on approach because I knew the character so well and our director, Mr. [Lee] Daniels, worked very closely with me on it. But for everything else I’ve done so far, I’m further in the background, which is okay with me, because taking on the responsibility of filming is very, very hard work.
Was it emotionally draining or painful for you to take such an intense role and inhabit it the way you did? No, it wasn’t, because … I was doing nothing more than telling someone’s story. While I realize it’s a very sad thing that happens, it’s also extremely normal in a lot of ways. For a lot of people and a lot of families, this kind of behavior or the details of this story happen way too often. I think that shining a light on it will help it to happen less. I never felt bad. I never felt sad. I really felt good that we were talking about it.
Could you see yourself taking on more roles like this one, now that your career officially is underway? Sure, I see myself taking on all sorts of roles. I don’t think I want to do something so dramatic for a while. I’d like to do something funny.
Maybe we’ll see you on Saturday Night Live sometime? I would really love that. [Laughs.]
Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe—along with Emily Blunt, Carey Mulligan, Saoirse Ronan, and Michael Stuhlbarg—will be honored with the Chopin Virtuosos Award on Sunday, February 7, at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.).