Gabourey Sidibe, the 26-year-old star of "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," sits in an otherwise-empty row at a Malibu cinema, waiting for a screening of her movie to finish next door. The house lights are on, and the film's director, Lee Daniels, is in the row in front of her, just to her left.
"Why don't I just talk to her like I was in the car on the way here?" asks Daniels as he reclines, feet up, comically relaxed; she laughs and the two set in to teasing each other.
It's incongruous to see the withdrawn, inarticulate abuse victim of "Precious" replaced by this confident, downright cosmopolitan young woman. Then Daniels suggests the Harlem-native acting novice (and recent student of psychology) -- now a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominee -- be identified as "Gabourey Cupcake."
-- Michael Ordoña
This seems like the classic overnight success story.
Gabourey Sidibe: I know, isn't it weird?
Your first credit is an award-winning, heavily buzzed about movie. How are you setting your feet down?
GS: I've never been a serious person. And I don't ever intend to be. I don't often take stock of what room I'm in or where I am, just because it freaks me out. So, I totally have my feet off the ground.
Lee, you've said when you and Gabourey talked about the character in depth, she "gave you the facts."
Lee Daniels: Gabby is way smart. Nauseatingly so. [laughs] In my head, the only room that was clean in the Jones house was her bedroom because it was her sanctuary. So I wanted her to dust under the bed; she says, "Lee. I'm a big girl. I wouldn't be under there cleaning." So I was like, 'Ohhh. OK.' She's really smart.
How do you follow that?
GS: With agreement! [laughter]
Lee has said he was intimately familiar with the world of "Precious" from his own life. Is this true for you?
GS: Yeah, absolutely. I still run into people like her all the time. There was a girl in my junior high school who still didn't read, and I didn't want to be friends with her because she was a lot of drama. I was really kind of snobby about it because I'd been reading since I was 3 -- my mom's a teacher. I blew her off a lot. A lot. I feel a lot of guilt about it now. I wish I had tolerated her more than I did; I possibly could have helped her. She was heavy and had dark skin. She is my go-to in my head when I think about Precious.
You did a little bit of theater, right?
GS: A little, little bit.
Did you ever take on anything as emotionally demanding as this?
GS: No. I was an Indian and a pirate and I was Glinda, the Good Witch. I was a chorus member in "The Vagina Monologues" . . .
LD: Were you?
GS: Yeah! I was awesome too. [she laughs, then suddenly he laughs loudly]
LD: Just your comeback: "I was awesome too!"
GS: I was. I got a really funny part. And I did a full split on stage.
LD: Did you? Shut up.
LD: You're funny as hell.
GS: But there's nothing -- I've never had to take on a role like this, ever.
Lee, can you point to something Gabby did that surprised you?
LD: I knew she was going to do everything.
GS: Remember when we shot the classroom scene and I was still sick . . .
LD: Where the boys were teasing you?
LD: But that fit for the scene. God was working for us because in your sickness you looked pained. You were . . . miserable. Precious should have been miserable at that moment. But what I was most surprised at was the [film's] red carpet scene, where you're talking like you: "Hey, Bill, how ya doin'? You look fabulous!" That was a great moment for me, watching her delve into who she really is because Precious is not that. When you come in with her attitude, people fall in love with you. She had the whole set in love with her.
GS: Yeah, that did happen.
How has the response been for you?
GS: I get a lot of people thanking me because they thought these things only happened to them, and they felt really alone. You expect to talk to people who liked the movie, not to run into people who are so profoundly moved, that have lived this life. That's really rewarding. It's scary to think that these things happen to more than just one person, that they happen to so many people that we pass by and we have no idea, and who don't think it's OK to talk about it, and who don't think they'll ever be helped.