The Powerful Force at the Center of Precious

A receptionist becomes a movie star by starring in the most buzzed about film of the season.

11.02.09 2:16 AM ET

Before Gabourey “Gaby” Sidibe walked into director Lee Daniels’ life, he was, as he said, “depressed.”

He’d been searching high and low for the perfect girl to play Claireece "Precious" Jones in the small film he was making based on the novel, Push, by Sapphire, and after auditioning 500 of them, he was still without his lead.

“We simply couldn’t find the girl,” Daniels said, speaking earlier this year at the Toronto Film Festival.

In describing his frustration, the African-American Daniels said something that sounded almost incendiary: “Because these girls were Precious… They had been abused, they were working at McDonald’s. What made Gaby brilliant is that she’s so much smarter. Though she’s from Harlem, she’s so evolved.”

The hitherto unknown Sidibe—who has emerged as the biggest discovery in movies this year and is awash in Oscar buzz—is, indeed, a different creature from the woman she portrays in Precious: a young woman so beaten down by her own personal hell that she can barely raise her eyes and make contact with the few people in her life who want to help her. Yet so convincingly does Sidibe play the part that meeting the actress for the first time is jarringly surreal. For a split second, one assumes that it’s the “real” Gaby that’s an act.

In person, the 26-year-old Sidibe—who was working as a receptionist while going to college when she auditioned for Precious—has a radiant, queen-like quality. She’s precocious, witty, and disarmingly put together.

“She seems to become beautiful,” director Lee Daniels said of Sidibe, “and I can’t take credit for that… By the end, she was treated like a movie star because she was a movie star."

And then there is that voice—high-pitched and crisper than a school teacher’s—which Sidibe jokingly calls her “white girl voice,” and which has elicited endless taunts over the years.

“For most of my life, my friends would ask me, ‘Were you adopted by white people?’ And I’d say, ‘No, my parents went to college.’

“My voice is different because my dad’s Senegalese and my mom is from the South, so they both have accents. The mix of their accents created mine; I have little sisters who sound like me, too. And we are certainly black!”

A dark, beautiful black that fills up the screen in Precious—like Sapphire’s character, Sidibe has ample girth—making her character as much a force as a person; one that speaks through movement more than speech. When Sidibe scuffles along the streets of New York, the weight of her journey is felt. When she looms at the top of the stairs, looking down at her pitiful, and dangerous, mother, there is a sad triumph to which no words could ever do justice.

According to Daniels, it took work to get Sidibe, whose only acting experience had been in college productions of The Wiz and Peter Pan, to strip it all back and get to the more primal state Precious embodies.

“I worked on her dialect and her visuals—how she walks, how she ate. We worked on a character,” he said.

More Daily Beast coverage of PreciousBut ultimately it was Sidibe who was responsible for Precious’ onscreen transformation. “She seems to become beautiful,” Daniels continued, “and I can’t take credit for that… By the end, she was treated like a movie star because she was a movie star. She was the star of our film. And that seed blossomed. So by the end of the movie, it was like: is this a movie or is this life happening?”

Surrounded by an amazing cast, including Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey, and Paula Patton, Sidibe said she learned by observation. “I just sat and watched a lot,” she said. “I was so quiet on set sometimes, because I’d just be watching.”

Then there are the off-screen stars Sidibe has met through the film, including Oprah Winfrey, an executive producer on Precious (“I really felt like I should bow down and curtsy to her”); the singer Robin Thicke, Patton’s husband, (“I had the biggest crush on him”); and Jane Fonda (“She was cool”).

“There are all these parties, and you meet people that you idolize, but, really, it’s like being at my own party,” Sidibe said. “I’m doing interviews, that whole bit. It’s like a wedding.”

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Nicole LaPorte is a West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.