The first thing that strikes you about Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe is the voice. It’s not that one expects the star and title character of the Oscar-nominated film “Precious” to talk in the hesitant mumbled tone heard in the film, but rather that her voice is not even East Coast. Sidibe sounds like a bubbly Valley Girl.
This only emphasizes the astonishing job she does in “Precious,” a harrowing yet uplifting drama about an abused 16-year-old African-American girl. Lee Daniels’ striking directorial debut, based upon the novel Push by Sapphire, mixes grim domestic scenes — featuring a monster of a mother played by comedienne Mo’Nique — with glamorous escapist fantasies. Also appearing in the film are Mariah Carey, who disappears under a black wig to play a social worker, and Lenny Kravitz, playing a male nurse.
First-timer Sidibe came out of nowhere to grab the titular role, and now she’s up for a Best Actress nomination. In “Precious,” her character may not say much, but you just can’t stop watching her. This interview happened a few weeks before the Oscar nominations were announced, but she’ll have more to say about that at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Chopin Virtuoso awards on Sunday.
Congratulations on all the attention. In the movie, Precious has fantasies of being on the red carpet and having her photo taken for glamour magazines. And now that’s coming true for you!
I know, it’s pretty weird.
Did you have any idea it would be this huge?
I really didn’t. I was happy thinking we were helping people, but I had no idea how super-huge it would be.
You were in college when you auditioned. What were you doing there?
I was a psych major.
What was your goal? Was acting a hobby? What were you going to do with your degree?
Never for one second did I want to be an actress. It’s a little weird. It was never my goal. My goal was to become a therapist.
So did your studies help with the character?
I think so. I’ve always been interested in the field of psychology and in incest. I read a lot of books on the anatomy of a victim and the anatomy of the victimizer, and so it did help, yeh. Precious would feel really ugly and she would want to hide within herself, even if she was in a room with other people, and that’s something I immediately took to in the role.
Yet ‘Precious’ is never really a victim. She never uses it as an excuse. Her growth is in self-expression, and the film never invites us to treat her as a poor victim.
That was certainly Mr. Daniel’s goal. He didn’t want the audience to cry for her in every single scene. The thing about Precious is, it’s her life. It’s not a “bad day.” It’s another day. It’s not something to feel bad about at all. She’s used to her life.
Were some of those scenes difficult to shoot as they are to watch?
No, no, no. We had so much fun on the set. I was working with people who I admire, and a lot of those scenes, like between Mo’Nique and I, were some of the best times, because she is so funny and we love each other so much. We kinda had to.
So when they yelled cut?
We went right back to normal. We’d hug each other, all of it. It helped us get through the scene, too.
How hands-on was Lee Daniels with you? Did you take suggestions from the other people you were working with?
Yes. He was so very hands on. Not in a control freaky sort of way. There were days when he’d do my makeup.
What up’s next for you? I heard you play a bully in your next film.
I play more of the victimizer this time around. I want to do comedies. I want to do this comedy with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. That would be awesome!
How was it like to work with Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz? Did they come to the set looking like the do in the film?
Mariah came to the set looking like Mariah; then she was transformed. Lenny is not that different from usual. He’s not wearing sunglasses! But it’s not like anyone put a fake nose on him. Pretty much, he rolled up looking like Lenny Kravitz.
Did you have to not focus on the fact that they were famous?
I think eventually I got over it a little bit. He’s so very cool. The thing about these celebrities is that they’re celebrities, yes, and you know them, and so do many other people. But they are just normal people. Mariah puts on her 24 karat gold pants one leg at a time, the same way I do.
How did you work on Precious’s voice, the way she speaks?
I took the accent of some girls I’d known from Harlem, and Mr. Daniels wanted me to deepen, deepen, deepen my voice, and that’s all it was. Because my real accent is so very different than the accent of girls I have grown up with. And I’ve been made fun of for my accent for a lot of my life. People have called me a Valley Girl since I was a baby! So at some point I learned to make fun of other peoples’ accents by imitating them.
How did you wind up sounding like a Val?
My father is from Senegal and he has an accent, and my mother is from southern Georgia and she has an accent. And somehow or another growing up underneath them my voice turned into this.
So Senegal plus Georgia equals Valley Girl?
Somehow! Like chocolate plus ice cream equals a Klondike Bar. . .
Is anyone giving you advice on how to handle this newfound fame?
Everyone’s been telling me to write down all my experiences. And they’ve been telling me to get as many photographs with celebrities as possible! The one celebrity I asked for a photo was Sidney Poitier, because my roommates and I have this running Sidney Poitier joke, and so I asked for a photo because I knew that would be awesome. And also I got one with Queen Latifah, and that’s because I have a crush on a boy who has a crush on her! And so I took a photo with her, and that’s it. But I do write down all my experiences. I just take every second like a moment in time, and I try to relax as much as possible.
So what do your roommates think of all this?
One of my roommates is actually in the film. The ‘fantasy boyfriend’ character. And his brother, Adam, who is a musician. It’s a weird kind of artsy house I live in.
IF YOU GO
Virtuoso Award Presentation
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12, during the Cinema Vanguard Award Tribute
Where: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St.