Unknown "Precious" actress lives unlikely dream
By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe is riding a once unthinkable trajectory of newcomer movie stardom that rivals any fairy tale.
She won the title role in the new film "Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire" with no serious training, and beat out hundreds of hopefuls in her first real audition.
The result is that she shines in scenes with stars like Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz. And her character, an obese abused teenage girl, tells an urban tale of despair and redemption that was never meant to make it to the big screen.
Opening in the United States on Friday November 6, "Precious" is now proving a winner with critics and audiences since it screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry have signed on as executive producers.
"It's been almost nine months since we did Sundance with the film, so it's like being pregnant where everybody wants to rub your belly," Sidibe, a Harlem-raised 26-year-old, giggled about her experience in a recent interview.
Sidibe portrays Claireece "Precious" Jones, who is twice impregnated by her father and beaten by her mother who despite such a difficult upbringing, tries to find her way to a better life.
The tragic, sometimes comical and ultimately hopeful tale is based on a best-selling novel by New York poet Sapphire.
Before scoring the leading role in the film set in Harlem in 1987, Sidibe was a receptionist whose mother occasionally sang on New York's subway platforms. She attended local colleges and studied psychology.
Now she tours the world attending film festivals where the movie has won top prizes -- both the jury and audience awards at Sundance and the top award at the Toronto film festival. She gets standing ovations, poses for photo shoots and walks red carpets that may extend to the Oscars, award watchers say.
Sidibe says her favorite moment so far was taking her mother to the premiere of a movie by Tyler Perry.
"There were people taking pictures of me and interviews and I looked over to check on my mom because we are like that and she was beaming," said Sidibe, who is nicknamed "Gabby." "My mom is always proud of me, but it was a different face of pride."
During auditions, director Lee Daniels said he had narrowed down a list of girls whose real lives were not unlike the grim reality of the 16-year-old, 350-pound "Precious" before Sidibe came along and impressed Daniels with her acting skills.
"I was like, what? Who are you? And I realized if I used any of those other Precious's that really were like Precious, I would have been exploiting them," he said. "You can't say that about Gabby, she is quite fierce."
Sidibe says her own life is different from her character.
"I am sure I know people who have lived this life," she said. "I had to do them justice."
But like Precious, she has dealt with people gaping at her bigger body size.
"Because I am not, I guess, of a normal weight, people look at me like I am not worth a life and stuff. And I have been told plenty of times that my life would never mean anything," she told Reuters.
"That type of negative self-image, it can drive someone to death, absolutely. And so while I believed that for a lot of time in my life, eventually I stopped listening," she added.
Daniels says her strong sense of self-worth will lead to more success, and Sidibe is already shooting her second film.
"I did not always have this confidence," she said. "Now I live my life for me, I think I am beautiful and that's all that matters."
But stories Daniels tells that Sidibe keeps four or five boyfriends on the run simply aren't true, she says.
"He is so crazy, he makes everyone think I am a ho-ho," she laughed. "How could I keep them straight? I am never in the same state for more than two days at a time!"
(editing by Bob Tourtellotte)