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For Gabourey Sidibe, 'Precious' is a fantasy come to life

A fantasy coms to life: Gabourey Sidibe joins Mariah Carey, director Lee Daniels and Paula Patton on the red carpet at Cannes 2009.

In her next film, Gabby Sidibe will play Miss Popularity. This is a fair distance from the abused, fearful victim she plays in the title role of "Precious." People half-convinced the actress must be like the character will need a readjustment.

Gabourey Sidibe, who you may be seeing at the Oscars, is older, funnier and much more confident than Precious. "I'm excited anyone could take a look at this film and think I could play Miss Popularity," she was telling me "Well, I kind of was Miss Popularity back in junior high, except Hollywood would never peg me as Miss Popularity, so I guess I'm playing against type."

The film, named "Yelling to the Sky," comes out of the Sundance indie workshop. "She's the queen of the school, she's a bad girl, she makes out with her boyfriend and she drinks," Gabby told me cheerfully.

Her popularity in junior high is connected to how she got the nickname Gabby. "My name is Gabourey, which is Senegalese," she said. "People tortured my name my whole life and so around junior high I let people call me Gabby. My Mom wanted to call me Gabby and I hit her in the face, as a baby. I didn't mean to, I promise."

"I was ornery, like a little gremlin child, but when I changed my name to Gabby, I got a personality, which is weird, but it came along and it's a happier name. It's sunshiny; it means 'my trust is in God.' Is that weird?"

Gabby, "Precious" and its director, Lee Daniels, have been riding a whirlwind since the film won the important Audience Award at Sundance 2009. Since then it added the Audience Awards at Sundance and just last week at Chicago. Opening Friday (10/23), backed by the cheerleading of Oprah Winfrey, it seems poised as a come-from-nowhere contender like last year's "Slumdog Millionaire."

For Gabourey Sidibe, 26, it's meant a dramatic life change. She was a college student when she went to an enormous open audition for the lead in the film of Sapphire's novel Push. She was called back the next day to the office of Daniels, whose Hollywood start came as producer of "Monster's Ball."

"He talked to me for like 45 minutes about nothing of importance, about sunglasses and Lenny Kravitz and cake from Brooklyn," Gabby remembered. "And then he asked, 'If you get this film, what happens to your college classes?' And I said, 'Whoa, something would have to give. It's not every day you're up for a movie role.' And he said, 'I want you to be in my film,' without making me read again. So that's how that happened."

On the first day of shooting, she said, she was working with Paula Patton, who plays Ms. Rain, the teacher who determines to help her. "I say, 'oh cool, a real actress is here!' And she gets so mad at me: 'You're a real actress. Don't ever say that you're not because are in this role -- and this is who you are, an actress.

"But I think that nervousness kind of worked. It worked especially with Mo'nique [who plays her abusive mother, Mary]. I was afraid of her because I idolized her. And Precious is afraid of Mary. For those scenes it worked that I was scared. Eventually it fades away because at the end of the day I had to do a job, no matter what, nervousness aside."

The camera sees the truth, I said.

"I've seen actors and actresses who have been to all these different acting technique courses. I've never taken a one. I think sometimes you can have too much information. I feel weird saying it came natural to me but I mean, I know this girl. I know her in my family, I know her in my friends, I've seen her, I've lived beside this girl. And there's no class I could have taken to help me to learn more about her because I knew her already." A pause. "I didn't want to be friends with those girls because they had too much drama going on in their lives. I feel guilty for having ignored them".

This was at the Wit Hotel on the afternoon before the movie's red carpet premiere at the Chicago festival. I mentioned the movie's fantasy scenes, which provide a respite for Precious's grim daily reality. She imagines herself as a fashion model and movie star.

"Oh, they were the best scenes because on some days I was bleeding and had dirt on me . So when I got to have makeup on and really pretty hair and a pretty dress, those were just the best days. Because on other days I sometimes had a pregnancy pad on and it just made it worse. Yeah, not only did I have to wear tight, unflattering clothes, sometimes I'd have to be on the ground in leaves or underneath a bridge or a cold gutter or someplace and so it was all hell as a fat girl."

And the scenes of her being assaulted and abused at home... "While Precious loves her mother and I think later on it becomes evident that Mary loves Precious, they're enemies. But Mo'Nique and I love each other; we do. And I think with the gravity of those scenes we had to love each other twice as hard during the filming. So on 'action' we were enemies. But at 'cut,' we hugged each other. We sang, we danced, we joked around. We had to do it in order to survive it.

Lee Daniels said, "I mean, take 4 of the hallway scene? All three of us, we were hysterical. Mo'Nique's saying, 'You no good bitch; you ain't never been nothin', you ain't ever gonna be nothin' and da, da, da, da, da.' I said, 'Keep going, Mo'Nique.' She's, 'Lee, there's nothing else I can call her.' And we just started laughing."

Daniels said he made the film first of all for his family. "My mother and family members don't really get 'Monster's Ball.' They saw 'Monster's Ball,' 'The Woodsman,' 'Shadowboxer,' and they were like, 'Why can't you make movies like Tyler Perry? Miss Maybelle from the church said somethin' happened to you, because why you makin' a movie ‘bout a pedophile" [Kevin Bacon's character in "The Woodsman."]

"So I really made it this movie for African-Americans. For my family. One night I was outside a 7-11 at Sundance and this Chinese-American lady broke down crying in my arms. And I realized that it was a universal story; that just by telling my truth that it was universal."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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