For any actress, landing the title role in a movie like Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, a powerful drama about an overweight, illiterate teenager who escapes her abusive mother with the help of a dedicated teacher (Paula Patton) and a social worker (Mariah Carey), would be a coup.
For Brooklyn-born newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, 26, it was especially gratifying, if only because it took her so much by surprise.
“I did two plays in college, Peter Pan and The Wiz, so I can’t say I had a lot of acting experience,” she says with a pleasantly infectious laugh. “I wasn’t a theater major, and I’ve never taken an acting class. So the fact that Drew Barrymore is showing up at my party [at the Toronto Film Festival] is amazing. How did this happen?”
Sidibe, a psychology major, had just started a new semester at college when she heard about the casting call for Precious. Despite her inexperience, she was intrigued – she was familiar with Sapphire’s novel, having read Push years earlier when her mother, singer Alice Tan Ridley, was approached about appearing in a stage adaptation. Sidibe re-acquainted herself with the story and auditioned. When Daniels informed her after a second audition that she’d earned the role, Sidibe broke down in tears.
Today, she dismisses the notion that Precious could make her a strong Academy Award contender. “I have no idea what it takes to be an award-winning actress. I’m still very much a receptionist and college student,” she says. Yet the movie, thanks in no small part to the promotional efforts of its two superstar producers, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, is generating more buzz than perhaps any other.
Just don’t tell that to Daniels, 49, who recalls staying in bed for a week “feeling worthless” after 2005’s The Woodsman, which he produced, failed to earn an Oscar nomination for star Kevin Bacon.
“All these festivals are huge wins, but I’m just happy people are seeing the movie,” Daniels says of Precious, which earned the People’s Choice Award at Toronto and the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance. “I speak for independent filmmaker who just wants their movie seen one time on the big screen. And every time that happens, it’s like an amazing orgasm.
“I don’t expect anything in terms of awards. I like this movie. But not everybody likes my movies, and at the end of the day you have to remain true to the stories that make you happy. I feel really good that we crossed over outside the black urban world. I’m still amazed, wondering how white people can identify with this story. But then you see it has a universal appeal, and that’s a fucking beautiful thing.”
Daniels auditioned more than 400 young actresses for the title role before choosing Sidibe, whom he credits with being the brains behind the film. Though he has nothing but praise for her performance, he believes some of her finest on-screen moments weren’t acting.
“Gabby grew as a person during the filming,” he says. “She’s so beautiful at the end of the movie, and that’s not me directing her. That’s what comes from being treated with respect and kindness, being made to feel like a movie star. That’s her spirit shining through.”
Patton, 33, who grew up across the street from the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles and dreamed of acting professionally since childhood, seems in awe of her younger co-star.
“Working with her was humbling,” Patton says. “I call her a prodigy. She’s like a young Jodie Foster.
“What she does is incredible. Actors can work their whole lives and never deliver a performance like she does in this movie. She changed the way she walked, the way she talked – she can cry at the drop of a dime, take after take. She found the emotion in her character and made all our jobs easier.”