Hollywood stereotypes die hard. And Gabourey Sidibe – a plus-size, African-American actress with less-than-perfect features – fits no casting agent’s definition of a leading lady. But she is not deterred.
“I never wanted to be an actress,” said Sidibe, 26, the star of the just-released “Precious,” whose understated performance as an abused, 350-pound, illiterate teenager has garnered critical acclaim and unexpectedly catapulted her onto the short list of potential Oscar nominees.
“I didn’t want to open myself up to public speculation,” she said in an interview with TheWrap. “But now that it’s in my lap, I’ve fallen in love with acting, with creating a character from words on a page.
“I wasn’t an actress before,” she said. “I am now.”
After this weekend, her dream of a Hollywood career took a big leap forward. The film “Precious: Based on the novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” set a box office record by taking in $1.8 million on just 18 screens across the country, a record-setting $100,000 per screen.
To play the title character of “Precious,” Sidibe – everyone calls her “Gabby” — took on the persona of an illiterate, abused teenager in New York City who is pregnant for the second time, by her father. The performance requires her to draw on a deep well of pain, while projecting a quiet, almost miraculous ability to rise above the injustices of her life.
TheWrap’s Steve Pond talks to "Precious" director Lee Daniels and Gabby Sidibe below:
“Precious” director Lee Daniels has said that when it came to casting the title role, he called a leading Hollywood agent and said he was looking for a 350-pound African-American girl. The request was greeted with silence.
Eventually Daniels hit the streets himself and auditioned some 400 girls for the role, soliciting candidates from schoolyards and McDonald’s counters – and sending a few dozen of them to acting and singing camp.
But then he met Sidibe, a psychology student at Mercy College, through a mutual acquaintance. She was nothing like Precious – confident and articulate. But she had not acted since high school.
“I’d done some plays at Women’s College in the Bronx,” she said. “Little things – an Indian and a pirate in ‘Peter Pan.’ The Good Witch in ‘The Wiz.’ But I hadn’t done it for years when he called.”
But she understood Precious.
“The thing about this girl is she’s neglected and ignored by society,” said Sidibe. “I have walked past girls like Precious, boys like her, because I didn’t want to get involved. I wish I’d taken a second look. I wish I hadn’t walked past.”
Her success in playing Precious – the film has already won top awards at the Sundance and Toronto film festivals – is finding resonance among young women who have seen and read about it.
“I hear a lot of thank-yous,” Sidibe said. “People seem to connect with the character of Precious, and when they meet me, they connect with me also. But it almost feels like it’s misplaced. I don’t think I should be thanked.
“I get that people see me as a role model. That can sometimes be a little weird. I’m not perfect. I certainly stumble. It’s a little scary. I wouldn’t advise it. I’ve got a fan site, and a young woman wrote, ‘You inspire me to be a better person.’
“It touches me. I’m not sure how I’ve done that. I haven’t done anything that isn’t selfish. I’ve been living my life for myself for a long time. It’s amazing I can touch the life of someone I’ve never met, and whose face I’ve never seen.”
And the experience has opened Sidibe’s horizons to a career as an actress.
She knows she physically doesn’t resemble a typical Hollywood starlet.
“The odds are in a lot of ways against me,” she acknowledged. “If I were a brand-new actress going to cattle calls, casting calls … . But I think the work that I’ve done in this film will speak for itself. Possibly people will write things for me. So I have it easier than if I were just a regular struggling actress. I happen to have skipped that part. Which I’m grateful for.”
She added: “I understand it may be a harder road for me, which is OK. I’m ready to take that. I’m ready to lie on that sword.”