For any actress, landing the title role in a movie like Lee Daniels’ “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” a powerful drama about an overweight, illiterate teenager who escapes her abusive mother with the help of a dedicated teacher (Paula Patton) and a social worker (Mariah Carey), would be a coup.
For Brooklyn-born newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, 26, it was especially gratifying, if only because it took her so much by surprise.
“I did two plays in college, ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘The Wiz,’ so I can’t say I had a lot of acting experience,” she says with a pleasantly infectious laugh.
“I wasn’t a theater major, and I’ve never taken an acting class. So the fact that Drew Barrymore is showing at my party [at the Toronto Film Festival] is amazing. How did this happen?”
Sidibe dismisses the notion that “Precious” — which opens Friday — could make her a strong Academy Award contender.
“I have no idea what it takes to be an award-winning actress. I’m still very much a receptionist and college student,” she says. Yet the movie, thanks in no small part to the promotional efforts of its two superstar producers, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, is generating more buzz than perhaps any other these days.
Just don’t tell that to Daniels, 49, who recalls staying in bed for a week “feeling worthless” after 2005’s “The Woodsman,” which he produced, failed to earn an Oscar nomination for star Kevin Bacon.
“I like this movie,” Daniels says of “Precious.” “But not everybody likes my movies, and at the end of the day you have to remain true to the stories that make you happy. I feel really good that we crossed over outside the black urban world.
“I’m still amazed, wondering how white people can identify with this story. But then you see it has a universal appeal, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Daniels auditioned more than 400 young actresses for the title role before choosing Sidibe, whom he credits with being the brains behind the film. Though he has nothing but praise for her performance, he believes some of her finest on-screen moments weren’t acting.
“Gabby grew as a person during the filming,” he says. “She’s so beautiful at the end of the movie, and that’s not me directing her. That’s what comes from being treated with respect and kindness, being made to feel like a movie star. That’s her spirit shining through.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, Paula Patton, Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, Lenny Kravitz
Written by Damien Paul, Sapphire
Directed by Lee Daniels
Running time 1 hour 49 minutes