Interview By Brad Balfour
For a total newcomer like Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe to find a starring role in any film was beyond comprehension. But to find one where her ultra plus-sized frame proved to be an asset was more than extraordinary. Nonetheless, this daughter of R&B/gospel singer Alice Tan Ridley and Senegalese father Ibnou Sidibe got the lead role in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire and is now being touted as an Oscar contender.
In director Lee Daniels' devastating yet ultimately hopeful film, the adult Sidibe plays the 300+ pound,16 year-old Precious, who has been abused and raped by both her mother and father. Though she has two children by her father and is near-illiterate, several adults throughout this saga recognize her potential, and through hard work and a survivor's determination, Precious rises above her miserable situation to look towards the future.
Besides the uncanny find of Sidibe, Daniels also got remarkable performances out of other cast members such as Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz and Mo'Nique. And he has managed this before; Mo'Nique starred in his hard-hitting directorial debut Shadowboxer; Carey was in Tennessee, a film Daniels produced. Daniels has tackled controversial projects that sit outside the box; the first film he produced, Monster's Ball, dealt with an interracial relationship (and won an Oscar for lead Halle Berry) and the second, The Woodsman offered a sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile (played by Kevin Bacon).
Harlem resident Sidibe never expected to pursue acting let alone be in such a bright spotlight, first as the audience award winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival then the winner at The Toronto International Film Festival. But now, a myriad of festivals later--including a big premiere night as the centerpiece of the New York Film Festival and as the opener for the up-coming Denver Film Fest--the accolades and reactions are still rolling out well before the film opens at the end of this week.
Q: How did you connect with your character Precious?
GS: I felt like she was in my family, she was my friend and was with people that I didn't want her to be friends with. I realized that I had judged this girl and had stopped being friends with this girl over and over again. I actually felt a lot of guilt behind it. So I think in reading the novel it gave me more compassion and it opened my heart to more cases like Precious.
When it came time to film, and to actually take on the role of Precious, I felt an immense responsibility to do it justice, to do justice for the girls who have gone through it, to do justice for the men who have gone through things like that [as well].
I felt a responsibility to these people as well as to Sapphire the writer, and to Lee Daniels, the director. He plucked me from obscurity and put me basically in the same room with Helen Mirren, with Halle Berry, with all these people that I idolize, and I didn't want him to be wrong in choosing me.
Q: What gives you such a sense of confidence and composure?
GS: I'm 26 years old. I'm a grownup. So when I got the role I was 24-years old. It wasn't very hard for me to play a 16 year old. I only operate at about a 19-year old level anyway. So my sense of self comes from being a grownup.
I know who I am because I've lived with myself for 26 years. That's really where it comes from. In turn, I know Precious because I know who I am. Does that make sense?
The lines don't blur because I know exactly who I am and I knew who I was before I started.
Q: Since she is so thoroughly depicted in Sapphire's book, how did you bring this character to life so distinctly? What was it in you that you homed in on to bring her to the screen?
GS: As I said, I had a lot of guilt because I'd walked past this character. I had walked past Precious and a lot of different people before in my life, and I felt like I owed it to the people out there who hold this kind of pain, who live this kind of life. And, I felt a lot of responsibility to the writer, to Sapphire.
Q: You've talked about the pomp and circumstance around the movie, but what about the negative things that have surrounded this project for you?
GS: Some of the negative stuff--things that have hurt my feelings, which I stopped reading--are when people comment on clothes that I've worn or whatever. That's weird, because it's my own style and I've been dressing myself for a very long time and I wear clothes that fit me, things that I like.
But people expect more because they think I'm rich or think that someone else is pulling strings around me. No.
It's always weird, when someone [says], "Someone needs to get that girl a stylist." It's like, "No." I tell me what to wear. That's the negative part, when people expect something different from me.
Also, people expect to me be a role model, which is cool. But I am a role model because I have 13-year old sisters and I have a 20-year old brother--because I have siblings and cousins, that's why I'm a role model. Not because I'm in a movie. My first responsibility is to my family and to myself.
It's so weird to turn on a switch and be the role model for all women, for all African-Americans. That doesn't happen that easily. It does not. So I don't act up in public and don't do anything weird, because my sisters are watching me. Not because the world is watching me.
Q: There are so many positive African American stories out there. Why do you think this story needs to be told?
GS: I think this story needed to be told because no one has told it and it's reality. When I actually did research--these numbers change from month to month--but when I [looked], seven out of 10 children were physically abused, sexually abused. And out of those seven, one in three were victims of incest. That's too many people.
Think about how many people you walk by, how many people you know, and you don't know what their story is because no one is saying anything and because it eats at them inside. That type of secret eats away and destroys a human.
This story needed to be told because it starts a dialogue. It says that it's okay, that you're not the only one that's been hurt, that you can get past it, you can talk about it, and that it can possibly save another life.
Q: Your mother, Alice Tan Ridley, once said she was offered Mo'Nique's role but that it was too hard for her to do because of the reality behind the story itself. Did that makes it too difficult for her?
GS: My mom found it to be really, really hard and heartbreaking. But another reason why she didn't want to do it is because she's not an actress and she's not famous worldwide the way that Mo'Nique is. She was afraid that strangers wouldn't be able to differentiate between her and the role.
Also, my mom has been a teacher since she was 12 years old. That's crazy in itself, but my mom loves children and she's like, "There's no way I can do that. I can't even act like I'm going to harm a child." She just couldn't do it.
Q: You didn't have that fear that when you took on the role that people would liken that portrayal of what you're doing to your reality?
GS: No. I've been in a million situations since filming where people have seen it and seen the trailer and they think that I'm that girl, but all it takes is for me to say hello because I'm so very different. The difference between her and me is so distinct that, in a word, that I'm [very] different.
Q: After working with Mo'Nique, you two had to bond in such an emotionally charged project. What was your relationship with her like as you worked together and what is your relationship with her now?
GS: Mo'Nique is so full of love. I've been describing her all day as being like the tree in Pocahontas. She's really wise and she's so loving and she is everything.
Mary [the mother] is not. Mary is there to degrade Precious. Mo'Nique is there to uplift. Precious and Mary are enemies. They're in a constant fight and they've always been in a constant fight. So when the director says action, we're fighting because we're Precious and we're Mary.
When he says cut, I certainly go back to being Gabby and she goes back to being Mo'Nique; we hug each other and we love each other. We really do have to love each other so much more, because while the tape is rolling we hate each other.
Q: How are you dealing with all the attention you're getting now from this role? Have you gotten any advice from executive producer Oprah in terms of dealing with a possible Oscar nomination and how is that affecting you and what you want to do next?
GS: I don't know--[I take it] one day at a time. It's a new life, certainly, but it's still a life. It's all so weird. It's an office job in a way, and my office happens to be a red carpet or a room full of interviewers. So I take it like it's life. It's fun. It's more exciting, but I still take it as something that I have to do.
As far as the advice that Oprah has given me, unfortunately Oprah is so awesome that I can't hear when she talks to me. My brain shuts down. I met her and all I remember is her saying my name over and over and over again.
I talked to her maybe twice, for two days in Toronto, and we had a bunch of conversations. But all I can remember is that her favorite color is not purple. It's green.
Q: How was it talking to the other executive producer, Tyler Perry? What was it like getting to know and hanging out with him?
GS: Oh my gosh! He's really tall and so handsome [laughs]. It's so weird when you meet all these celebrities and you meet people you admire. It's one thing to meet them, but then to hang around them for a while, they dissolve from being superstars to just being a dude.
Tyler is just a dude now. Tyler is really, really awesome. He's really, really funny and he's handsome. Weirdly enough, Mariah [Carey] is just a chick, she's just a girl.
Q: This job has taken you to such heights. Has it been hard to go back to your life, your neighborhood, to Lehman? What's keeping you grounded at this point?
GS: I don't know. I never actually went to Lehman College. It's not my school. It's my best friend's school and I had done a lot of plays there, but I was never enrolled in Lehman. I go back every now and then should there be a party going on, something like that, or to visit friends. But I'm certainly not hindered by this life at all.
At this point, I still go where I want to go and I do what I want to do. While I do get recognized a lot, it's not like I'm getting recognized every second of the day. Not every second of the day is a red carpet or these type of things where everyone knows who I am. For the most part, I pretty much live my life in pajama pants and hoodies.
Q: Where did you go to college?
GS: I went to City College, BMCC, and Mercy.
Q: What experiences on set were fun and will they end up on the DVD?
GS: We certainly had our documentary boys--we called them docu-boys--that filmed everything. One thing, it was Paula Patton's birthday and her husband, [singer] Robin Thicke, came to the set. It was a big surprise. She didn't know he was coming. Mr. Daniels had hired a mariachi band and they got cupcakes from Magnolia and there was apple cider. It was a really, really big surprise party that she didn't know was happening.
So we all started singing happy birthday to her and she was all flummoxed and embarrassed. Tthen this mariachi band comes in and then Robin has flowers in his hand and he's all jazzed up. It was amazing.
The whole company was in this one tiny classroom celebrating Paula's birthday. We danced and sang; we ate cupcakes and drank fake champagne. That was the best. I know it's on the docu-cameras because I've since seen the footage. That should totally be on the DVD extras.
Q: How do you feel about the Oscar possibilities?
GS: I have not followed the Oscars because I wasn't an actress and wasn't interested. It wasn't my field. So I don't know what makes an Oscar film and I don't know what makes an Oscar winning actress. I just don't know.
While it's all very nice, I don't understand any of it, to be honest. I don't know what I did that's different from what any other actress has done in order to receive an Oscar.
Q: What are you going to do next?
GS: I would certainly love to continue acting.
Q: Do you want to do a comedy? Some people might send you scripts that are similar to this. Are you open to that or do you want to do something completely different?
GS: So far, so good. The thing about this film is there probably isn't going to be another role like this, another Precious role or film, for a while at least.
Fortunately, no one has yet pigeonholed me to this character. I've received scripts that are all different kinds of characters.
So I would love to do a comedy. I'd love to do a romance. I'd love to do a lot of really different films. I must do other stuff. How else will I prove that I'm an actress, if not to take on different kinds of characters?