Precious director Lee Daniels talks about finding the film's star, Gabourey Sidibe, getting Mariah out of her heels and helping Mo'Nique prepare for one of the most challenging roles of her life.
O: How did you find first-time actress Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Precious?

Lee Daniels: "I had no idea how hard it would be. You cannot call a Hollywood agent and say, 'Hey, got any 300-pound black girls?' We did a massive search that went on for months; we even had 'Precious camps,' where 30 girls would work with an acting coach. A lot of them were the character; they had lived the life. Gabby has not lived the life, although she is physically the character. She has a worldly sensibility, and she's very smart about taking direction—no one else could dive into those fantasy sequences like Gabby."

O: You cast two very famous women, Mariah Carey and Mo'Nique , who are almost unrecognizable in the film…

Daniels: "Most actors want the audience to like them, and that leads to bad acting. I told Mo'Nique, 'Your character will not be redeemed, but she will be understood.' That made sense to her.

"Mariah is a good friend, and she's incredible at imitating voices. She does the best Aretha Franklin anybody has ever heard. I knew she could do that [ imitates her character's Long Island accent ] Lawn-Guyland thing. But it's difficult for her to go without makeup, to strip bare. She also had to learn to walk flat-footed, because she spends her life in heels. Even barefoot, she walks on her tippy-toes."

O: How would you describe this film to a friend?

Daniels: "I'd say it's a story about getting over the worst obstacles in life. It's almost like a fairy tale. It's really a story of triumph."

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