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Stars Gabby Sidibe and Mariah Carey, and director Lee Daniels talk about the making of Precious, one of the most remarkable films of 2009, now out on DVD; Sidibe reveals she told Daniels things about the character he hadn’t considered and Daniels reveals how he stalked author Sapphire for 10 years in pursuit of the movie rights.

It’s a terrific performance in Precious, but I understand you had no real aspirations to become an actor. You thought it was a dream too far…
Yes. That makes a lot of sense, a dream too far. I had been told for most of my life that I would never be able to do something like this. Also I got a lot of cues from the media: when it comes to actresses and people the media cares about, you can probably count the girls that look like me on one hand. So I certainly didn’t think I could break any barriers and become an actress.

And even when you got the audition you weren’t convinced?
No. I wasn’t. I was withholding; on the fence. I thought it was a dumb idea to go in and do the audition because there was no way that I could be an actress. It had never been within my scope and I never auditioned for anything. I wasn’t an actress. I had no training. Nothing. I thought it made more sense that I to go to school. I was a receptionist for a company while I was studying psychology. But somehow or other it ended up with my going to the audition.

Who persuaded you?
It was partly my mother and also I have a friend, Henry, who is the assistant director in my local theatre. He called me when they were coming to cast and he thought of me — because they were looking for a very specific girl that I look like. After the audition I went straight to work and by the time I got out of the subway, which is literally an hour later, I had the call back.

Lee Daniels says that you told him things about the character that he had not considered. Do you remember what?
Being a fan of the book, anytime they wanted to do something a little different I would get up on a soapbox, saying, ‘No, you can’t do that because they didn’t do that in the book and we can’t change the book.’ I am anal and got very serious about the character. I have probably told him a lot of things just because there are so many layers to Precious and he just thought because she was big and dark skinned that she had to be a certain way. But in meeting me, I am big and I have dark skin but I am certainly better than what he thought of me. He thought I would be not so and certainly I changed his idea of who Precious is, based on the way I am.

Can you talk about your look for the film and do you think people will be surprised by it?
A lot of people didn’t recognise me, and I was actually happy about that. But it’s not that I was shocked. I knew what we had done. I knew what Lee was going for. He really was smart about that. It wouldn’t have worked if it had been any other way. You know what I mean? It couldn’t have been just don’t wear make up and have your hair to the side. That wouldn’t have even looked the way he wanted. He wanted it to be a complete shedding of skins, almost, and going into this other place and becoming this other woman with a different walk. My speech is completely different. Even the tempo of the way I speak, and the accent of the whole thing. It was like removing masks, as opposed to putting them on.

How did you work on the character of Ms. Weiss, given she’s a social worker?
I felt like I had to make her voice…the cadence had to be really calm. As someone in that job, you would experience so much hectic behaviour. So many things are going to get thrown at you that would floor somebody. People are walking in with stories not dissimilar to Precious, being pregnant by their family members or whatever other things are going on…so I couldn’t just be like ‘Hi! How are you today? What’s going on Precious? Is everything good?’ It would’ve been really out of character for this woman. So to me it was important, especially dealing with Mo’Nique’s character – the mother – that I had to stay strong. She’s such a strong actress and her role is so incredibly powerful, to stay toe-to-toe with her in that scene, without breaking down or allowing that woman to get to me as Ms. Weiss, was my challenge.

Initially, the author, Sapphire, was against a film adaptation. Yet you won her round…
Love her. Love her for that. It took me nine, probably ten, years to stalk her. I have stalked her for ten years. Sapphire is a scholar. She is a genius. She is a poet. She is an intellect beyond belief. She doesn’t give a fuck about Hollywood. She don’t care about it, just doesn’t. It is about literature and I think that Lady Luck must have been on my side because she finally embraced the idea. I think that even if I did a bad movie, it would not affect her brilliant masterpiece and I think that she saw the difference in both. She finally realised it and I was there the right time stalking her.

Do you know why she changed her mind? Did she see one of your other films maybe?
I think it was a combination of things, but I think she saw Shadowboxer and she really thought I could bring something to the world that she created and she is very excited that I am doing it.

Did she come to the film set?
She came down once or twice. I think she had to watch some of what I was doing because I am dealing with her very profound book. She laughed at something that only Mo’Nique and I thought was funny and she was laughing with us because she got it. She understood that there is humour and that she was still the creator. There was a moment when Mo’Nique was laughing at something and I was laughing at something and Sapphire was laughing at something and we realised that nobody else was laughing but us and that we were on another plane. It was a surreal moment.

What was the moment?
It was the scene when the mother tells Precious about the HIV. Precious says, ‘Do you have it?’ And the mother says ‘No.’ And Precious says, ‘How do you know?’ And the mother says, ‘Because we didn’t do it up in the ass!’ No one else thought that was funny. I don’t think it was funny but it was this brilliant delivery of it. I think we were laughing at the execution. It was exactly how Sapphire wrote it in the book so there was this triangle of understanding between Mo’Nique, Sapphire and myself.

It is a tough film but also a very tough book. You have had to soften the delivery a little bit, and add a few more rays of light…
A little bit?! A lot of a bit! If I had done the book it would have been X-rated. Not that I have a problem with doing X-rated films. I haven’t yet. But this would have lost an audience. I think that the audience should be entitled to breathe. I think with the book, if it gets too much, emotionally, you can put it down. It affected me so that I had to stop. I had to digest it. I put it down and picked it up again later on and I think that the sequences and the touches of humour that we put in the script really do it justice. Geoffrey Fletcher really did a marvellous job translating this book, this script, and we just took it to another place on the screen. We had to let the audience breathe. If you’ve read that book you will know what I am talking about.

Published June 3, 2010

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Gabby Sidibe


Mariah Carey

Lee Daniels

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