Gabourey Sidibe doesn't know what's coming. The star and title character of Precious, the film based on the novel Push by Sapphire, is a delightful and talented actress—and perhaps the first one to ever honestly eschew fame. "It's something I've never wanted," she says. "I didn't want to be an actress at all, or famous even. I certainly enjoy acting now, absolutely. Time will tell whether or not I enjoy fame."
Whether she enjoys it or not, fame is most certainly on the horizon. Sidibe (who goes by Gabby), delivers a raw and intensely emotional performance as Clareece "Precious" Jones, an overweight teenager who's beaten by her mother, Mary (played by Mo'Nique), and is carrying her father's baby. For a second time. Nothing has ever gone her way, until she enrolls in an alternative school under the tutelage of Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), a kind-hearted teacher who sees potential in Precious. Sidibe is on the best-actress short list when it comes to the 2010 Academy Awards®. In October, she was the cover girl for an issue of the New York Times Magazine. She walked away with the New Hollywood statue at this year's Hollywood Awards, largely considered the kickoff to awards season. The film, which was executive produced by Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, has been surrounded by Oscar buzz since its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was the first film ever to win both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. Still, Sidibe isn't ready to call it a hit. "All the talk of awards is exciting and nerve-wracking," she says. "It feels a tad bit premature, but it certainly is something to be proud of."
Sidibe's road to Precious is one even she hasn't totally wrapped her head around. "I cut school, kind of on autopilot, to go to the audition, and within an hour of the audition, I got a call for the callback. And within half an hour of the callback, I got a call saying the director [Lee Daniels] wanted to meet with me. We met the next day, and he offered me the part," she says. "I started to cry—I guess as anyone would. I don't think I wanted the part until I had it, because it hadn't entered my mind. I didn't believe it until I was on set. I'm always looking for the other shoe to drop, so I certainly couldn't believe it until I was actually there."
Perhaps more unbelievable, though, is how incredibly believable Sidibe is as the down-and-out, illiterate 16-year-old. Upon hearing her real-life high-pitched voice and friendly giggle, viewers will likely find themselves triple-checking that this seemingly happy-go-lucky, self-assured 26-year-old is in fact the woman behind the mumbling, defeated Precious Jones. Though Sidibe says she hardly sees herself in her character, she had plenty of individuals to look to for inspiration. "I knew her. She's so familiar to me. I recognize her in friends that I've had, and family members, and people I didn't want to know and people I used to be friends with," Sidibe says. "She doesn't have the greatest self-esteem, and that was certainly me at 16. But who does have a great sense of self at 16?"
Talking to Sidibe now, it's clear her sense of self is fully in tact. That she knows who she is, and that she isn't interested in celebrity or awards or success changing that, is clear. "I'm already a set person, so I can only be myself now and take each day as it comes," she says.
For now, those days include the Precious press tour with her co-stars and director, the very people she says are largely responsible for her performance. "Mr. Daniels is very parental and protective of me, of all the actors, rather. That really put me at ease, because I was so scared," she says. As for her A-list co-stars like Mariah Carey, Patton, Mo'Nique and Lenny Kravitz? "They're all really awesome, talented people. Every day on set was a party."
Hard to imagine on a film as disturbing as this one. "We had to be upbeat because of the subject matter," Sidibe insists. "We had to love each other so much more."
Sidibe is counting on that positive energy to help deliver Precious' message of hope to the viewing public. "Precious, she gets hit by life so many different ways and so many times, but she doesn't yield to it. She continues to get up and she continues to struggle for a better life," she says.
Precious may have been Sidibe's first foray into acting, but it won't be her last. She's already wrapped up shooting her second movie, Yelling to the Sky. "In it I get to play a bad girl who drinks and fights and makes out with boys. All the things Precious would not have done," she says.
With just a few days until the film's release, Sidibe would have to be really out of touch not to sense the oncoming fame train, hesitant as she may be to acknowledge it. "I know that when Precious is released it may be harder for me to go to the mall and the movie theater, so I'm certainly not on the edge of my seat," she says. "I'm trying to take advantage of my life as much as possible until then."
So, is she nervous? "Certainly cautious. I know a change is coming, and I don't know what that change will be," she says. "Still, I'm not about to start calling myself a celebrity."