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Originally published November 15, 2009 at 12:06 AM | Page modified November 16, 2009 at 11:28 AM

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Actress Gabourey Sidibe is not at all 'Precious'

An interview with actress Gabourey Sidibe. She is worlds away from the victimized character she plays in "Precious," a Sundance Film Festival award-winner that opens in Seattle Nov. 20.

Seattle Times movie critic

Coming soon

'Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire'

Opens Friday at Seattle-area theaters. For a review, pick up Friday's MovieTimes or go Thursday to seattletimes.com/movies.

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First-time screen actress Gabourey Sidibe wasn't sure what to expect from the Sundance Film Festival, where her film "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire" made its world premiere early this year. So she rented the HBO series "Entourage" from Netflix before going and watched the Sundance episode.

"I kind of fantasized that maybe it would be like that, and it totally was," she said, laughing. "I was super famous on Main Street, which was funny."

Sidibe, a poised yet giggly 26-year-old who goes by Gabby, watched "Precious" win three awards at Sundance. Our interview took place nine months later at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where "Precious" won the audience award. It will open in Seattle theaters Friday.

In the film, Sidibe plays the title character: a Harlem teenager miserably abused by her monstrous mother (Mo'Nique), pregnant with her second child, unable to read and barely able to articulate how she feels about her life

Sidibe, looking glamorous as she sits in a posh Toronto hotel suite, seems worlds away from the character — and, she's careful to point out, always was. "I was very, very aware of who the character was versus who I was, and I never got those lines crossed," she said.

Before "Precious," Sidibe was a psychology major at City College in New York. Her acting experience was confined to a few college stage productions (she giggles, recounting "a solid performance" as Pirate No. 2 in "Peter Pan") when she heard of the "Precious" auditions. And she almost didn't go — because she would have had to cut class.

Her mother encouraged her to go to the audition, and Sidibe took a few minutes to look at the novel "Precious" again (she'd read it several years previously), "just enough to hear her voice."

"But I wasn't serious about it, still," she said. "I left the house. I had class literally at the same time as the audition, and so it was either go uptown to the audition or downtown to class, and I just ended up on the uptown side of the street."

This was, as things turned out, a lucky crossing. Sidibe's audition (she was one of some 400 actresses considered) was on a Monday. She was called back Tuesday for another reading, and met with director Lee Daniels on Wednesday.

"We talked,' she said, "about nothing in particular. And then he offered me the part."

Asked if Daniels later told her what it was that made her stand out from the others, Sidibe said, "I think it's the fact that I was not Precious at all. I think he just wanted to see whether or not the girl on the audition tape was the same girl as was in his office."

On the set, Sidibe said, her performance came both from instinct and from readings she'd done in her studies of psychology. "I had a lot of knowledge of the way victims act," she said. "The way they regress into themselves, or try to hide in their own bodies."

On screen, her Precious is heartbreakingly quiet. "She doesn't want to be seen and she doesn't really want to be heard," said Sidibe.

Contemplating her unexpected new career, Sidibe said she still has a day job (at the Fresh Air Fund) but would love to consider more acting work.

She'll soon shoot a Sundance lab film and hopes that more opportunities arise after "Precious" is more widely viewed.

"I got to do a lot of awesome things [with 'Precious']," she said. "I try to take experiences and be very happy and appreciative of them."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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