On the Set of “Precious” with Gabby Sidibe

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Photo: Anne Marie Fox, LionsgateRecently I worked on a low-budget film with a script that was so bleak it was kind of scary. We shot in the grimmest locations all night in freezing cold. There was one location that was covered in so much dog poop that you had to hopscotch your way around it. It rained a lot. It was not glamorous.

But it was the happiest and best experience I ever had on a movie set. I’ve never met so many great people who pulled together so well. I’ve never felt so welcome or laughed so hard. Up until then, I never felt that working on a film ever changed me…but this one did. And it is fitting that this very modest film, this total labor of love, is shaping up to become the biggest movie I have ever worked on in my life.

When I told my friends that I was going to be the production publicist on a movie called “Push” (now called “Precious”) written by an author and poet named Sapphire, none of them had ever heard of it. In fact, I couldn’t even find it under “S” in the literature section at Barnes and Noble. I was directed to a special table, where important black-themed books were laid out. Later on, the star of the film, Gabby Sidibe, told me that “Push” was a book that every black girl read. So when Anthony Lane in the New Yorker wonders why the movie is called “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” instead of just “Precious”—there’s your answer. “Precious” is an adaptation of what for many people is a classic.

Lee told me that a lot of people had tried to make the movie in the past, but that Sapphire trusted him. That made sense. The director, Lee Daniels, has a personal history of abuse is well-known and it’s driven the storylines of every single movie he’s made. And he was fearless enough to adapt “Push” without compromising it, and more importantly swing it into LeeDanielsWorld, a very peculiar and wonderful place I had been privileged to spend a bit of time in. Lee likes to dive into the pool without knowing for sure if there’s any water in it. My type of guy.

Gabby & Essence Writer Kenya Byrd show some attitude.  Photo: Reid Rosefelt Lee said I should come by the production office and meet Gabby. With another director, I might have asked “Why? I’ll see her on the set,” but with Lee you just do it. Anyway, I’d been knocked off my feet by Gabby’s audition tape (I was hoping to put it here, but it’s been taken off YouTube.) There’s really no way I can describe the way Gabby’s audition punched me out emotionally. “What the hell?”-- I couldn’t stop watching it over and over, gushing tears--“That poor woman. That poor, poor woman.”

I found Gabby sitting placidly against a wall in the office while the three-ringed tumult of low-budget preproduction swirled around her. What struck me immediately was her sunny calm. She was easily the most relaxed person in the room. She told me the story that she’s repeated over and over in the press recently, how she wasn’t even planning to go to the audition—and only did so at the last minute, after a friend kept bugging her about it. I sat there trying to connect the dots between the woman in the tape and the woman in front me. She just strolled in and did that audition? She just had to have prepared. And if it was true that she didn’t, then didn’t it have to be the obvious thing, that this seemingly happy person with the impish sense of humor, had dredged up some extremely dark things from her own life?

On the first morning of shooting, we were in Harlem doing the scene where Precious steals the bucket of fried chicken. The location happened to be very close to where Gabby lived. So there she was, sitting in a director’s chair with her name on the back, when a guy who lives in her building walks by without noticing. If this was me it would be off -the-charts surreal, but Gabby was acting like she’d been on a movie set her whole life. “Aren’t you at all nervous?” I asked her. “I have something to do,” she said. “I’m here to please Lee.” “Come on,” I said, “don’t tell me this whole deal isn’t a huge surprise for you.” She shook her head. “There were signs,” she said. It seemed that in an early attempt to film Sapphire’s novel, Gabby’s mother was considered for Mary, Precious’s mother. The role was way too much for her to handle, but it led to Gabby reading the book for the first time, and I bet a lot of intense discussions around the dining room table. Gabby had also heard an interview with Lee on Mo'Nique in "Shadowboxer" Wendy Williams’ show that she never forgot. Most importantly, Lee’s debut film as a director, “Shadowboxer” was her favorite movie—she’d watched it over and over. That didn’t seem all that surprising to me. After all, Lee had cast Mo’Nique to play Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s girlfriend, a role that was written for the typical Hollywood blonde. This was a very Lee Daniels thing to do—casting against type, using black entertainers not previously known for dramatic work—but mainly Lee was just being real: women who look like Mo’Nique have hot boyfriends too. It wasn’t hard to guess why this movie was at the top of Gabby’s playlist. (By the way, Mo’Nique’s character’s name in “Shadowboxer” was....drum roll….Precious.)

Gabby told me that she was a singer—mostly gospel and R&B--and had performed Ella Fitzgerald songs in musical revues at Lehman College. Her mother, Alice Tan Ridley, was also a singer. “Look her up on YouTube,” she said. So I did:

The picture was getting clearer. Gabby was hardly an anonymous person who walked in off the street—she was royalty, the daughter of one of the most amazing singers I had ever heard—a mother, who, not incidentally, had reduced me to tears just as her daughter had done. So what if Gabby’s mother sang at the 42nd Street Subway Station instead of Carnegie Hall? Later on, Gabby made an offhand remark about how the Lehman people had put her name on an “Uptown Serenades” poster without asking her. She wasn’t too pleased with that. For me that said it all: both her friends need to have their headliner and her ambivalence about her talent.  But if  I was right and her singing was off the charts, why didn’t she want to pursue that?

Alice Ridley used to have a regular job at the school Gabby attended, but she left it to pursue her dream of being a full-time singer. She made enough singing in the subway so that Gabby always lived in nice apartments and had everything she needed. She went to very good schools. Gabby loved her mother very much, but she worried: you don’t get health insurance or a pension from singing in the subway. What was going to happen when her mother wasn’t able to do that anymore?

Gabby knew quite well she had a gift; she just knew there were a lot of risks in that kind of life, and she wanted no part of it. She wanted a real job, one with health insurance and a 401K.

So on that Monday in September, Gabby was starting her first semester of college and just getting into the rhythm of it. Auditioning for the movie would be a distraction and a waste of time. She wouldn’t get it anyway. But there was a friend of hers from the drama department at Lehman named Henry Ovalles. He knew she wouldn’t be wasting her time; he knew the part was hers if she would only try out for it. So he didn’t let up on her until she did.

Photo: Reid RosefeltAfter astonishing the casting directors on Monday, Gabby had a callback on Tuesday, and was dispatched to Lee Daniels’ office on Wednesday. She sat on the couch and listened to Lee talk about everything under the sun in his loony-glorious Lee Daniels way—I’ve seen a video of it--and Gabby sat there, more than a little overwhelmed by her first shot of Daniels--“He was ten feet tall,” she told me later—and preparing herself mentally to read for him. And then—abruptly--Lee stopped his shenanigans, turned to her and said in a quiet voice: “I want you to be my Precious.” This caught Gabby off guard, so she said, “but--” and Lee said, no ‘but,’ I want you to be my Precious.” And then it was Gabby’s turn to cry.

I understood everything now. I understood why Gabby almost didn’t show up for the audition. I understood why she was so incredible in it. I understood why she was so relaxed about playing the lead role in a movie, and why she was so comfortable in her own skin. She was a born natural. She had what it takes and she knew it, so she just had to go out and do it. What’s the big deal?

I read an interview with Lee saying that Gabby had to reduce her natural confidence to play Precious. It’s an interesting notion, but in my opinion it was because she thought so highly of herself that she could take the character to those scarily low places. (I’m sure it was that way with Mo’Nique too.) And I think it’s the briskness of the intelligence that Gabby bestows on Precious that makes her such a winning character. Precious may be illiterate, but she’s nobody’s fool.

There’s lots of waiting around on a movie set. One night, to pass the time, Gabby and I, who share the same twisted sense of humor, improvised a story about her supposed addiction to NyQuil for the benefit of a pair of production assistants. She kept pushing this narrative to Dickensian or at least VH1-ian levels, until: “It all bottomed out for me when I had my head in the toilet in this bar in Tijuana.” I studied the faces of the P.A.’s: were they buying this nonsense? Maybe not, but she sure had their attention. “I knew that I had hit bottom,” she said, “and it was time for me to do something to change my life.” Then she added ruefully: “But even today, as I walk through the aisles of Duane Reade—her voice cracked—“it’s so hard for me.” (I know there’s Oscar talk about Gabby now, but the voters should have seen this!)

Photo: Robert MaxwellLee made Gabby do some of the most intense scenes over and over. People were worried about her but she was very matter-of-fact about it—she just wanted to give Lee what he wanted. Maybe lying on her back in the street for a few hours in the rain and cold wasn’t her favorite thing, but if Lee wanted her to cry a dozen times, that wasn’t a big stretch. “You’re going to have a career,” I told her. “No matter what happens with the movie, once people discover what you can do, and then they find out you’re so funny, so easy to work with, and the world’s greatest auditioner?” Definitely some people listening in to these conversations thought I was filling her with false hopes, but I thought, ‘Okay, maybe there aren’t any roles right now for someone who looks like her, but when they see her coming—they sure as hell are going to write some.” 

Watch out world! Lady Gabourey is in the building. She is precious, she’s always been precious and she will always be precious.