x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The actress Gabourey Sidibe on fame, fate and friendship

Now at work on her third film and with TV experience as well, Sidibe's career is on the rise.

Gabourey Sidibe in a scene from the Oscar-nominated film Precious.
Gabourey Sidibe in a scene from the Oscar-nominated film Precious.

Gabourey Sidibe has the type of rags-to-riches story that Hollywood seems to specialise in. The 27-year old actress was plucked from obscurity when she landed the title role in Precious, an adaptation of the novel Push by Sapphire. The performance earned the debutante an Oscar nomination, and since then her life has been an endless stream of glamorous parties and cool acting gigs.

She says that this transformation seems "much grander for outsiders, but to me it's just life". Since the Oscars, Sidibe has been working hard, too. "I've made the TV show The Big C and am in the film Yelling to the Sky and am doing the film Tower Heist now."

In addition to the acting work, she has hosted Saturday Night Live, which is a sure sign that you've made it as an entertainer in America. Her debut role saw her nominated for an Oscar, becoming only the eighth African-American woman to be nominated for the biggest prize in acting.

No wonder when the actress- who likes to be called Gabby - talks about her career she says: "I love it. I never wanted to be an actress - not ever. But once it kind of fell in my lap, I can't go back to a real life. I want to do more."

She laughs, though, at the story that she was down and out and happened on to the Precious role by a chance meeting with director Lee Daniels.

The star says: "Lee is so dramatic. He likes to tell it like I was found on the corner of 144 and Lennox and that I was living in a refrigerator box. I was not. I went to an audition in a college in the Bronx, a friend of mine told me about it, and they were looking for a certain type of girl and a lot of people didn't meet the physical requirements, and my friend called me and thought I should go in.

"I went to an audition in a college in the Bronx. I never went to that school and on a whim I just went in and got the part. When Mr Daniels told me he wanted me to be in the film, I was crying that I had the part. I was like, 'stop playing.'"

One of her co-stars in Precious is Lenny Kravitz, and there is a link with the rock star in her new film Yelling to the Sky. It stars the singer's daughter Zoe Kravitz, although it was Daniels rather than Lenny Kravitz who first introduced the pair. Zoe Kravitz was interning at the director's office when Daniels first met Sidibe. Kravitz recalls the director running home and showing the audition tape to everyone. The young actresses then became fast friends, partying together at Sundance when Precious first aired and hanging out, and it was a coincidence that both had already committed to doing Yelling to the Sky.

Sidibe agreed to the role in the directorial debut from former actress Victoria Mahoney before the success of Precious. There are many similarities in the storyline between the two films, but instead of playing the victim, Sidibe is cast as a brutal bully who picks on Kravitz's character, Sweetness O'Hara.

The semi-autobiographical tale of a mixed-race girl growing up in Queens, New York, is about the struggle of Sweetness to beat poverty and the unstable world she grows up in. Sweetness turns to crime to help pay her way and in doing so earns the respect of her peers.

But acting with her friend Kravitz was not the pleasure that Sidibe envisioned: "Being mean to each other is definitely not a plus because I love Zoe. That's a strange aspect of being in this film together because we are enemies and that can get really strange - we are both sensitive people with plenty of emotion and the emotion that we have to reach in order to have this fight is very hard to get into with someone I love and someone I care about. Nonetheless, it was really cool to hang out on set and be able to do girl talk. That was the best part for me."

The actors got so involved in their characters that Sidibe admits that she and Kravitz cried when the cameras stopped rolling.

The downside of fame is that Sidibe is finding it increasingly difficult to live a normal life. Even going out to the shops can be troubling. "I walk around New York," she says. "I shop, I ride around with my friends and I ride buses and stuff like that, but I do it at a much slower pace because every fifth person I have to hug, or sign autographs for and take pictures with and things like that. Sometimes I wear a hat and sunglasses so I don't have to do it as much. I try to hide but for some reason it doesn't always work. I was at some random store and I was wearing a hat, sunglasses and a turtleneck sweater, and all you could see was my chin and someone says 'Are you Gabby?' and I was like really, how do you know? And they said: 'I recognise this chin'.

"How do you recognise anyone from that? I'm as normal as you can possibly be for someone who was on every TV screen last year."

One thing that shines through when chatting to Sidibe is that she always has a smile on her face. It's almost as though she can't quite believe she's a star, but now that she is, she's going to enjoy every second she can. She says: "I find humour in the tragedy of things that I have been through and it helps me find humour in all aspects of life. People don't realise how much choice they have in life, you can choose to be happy or you can choose to be sad. It's so much more work to be sad. It's so much work to be humourless and depressed. It's so much easier to make jokes all the time, it really is."

Her next role will utilise her comic skills as she is starring in the comedy Tower Heist, directed by Brett Ratner and starring Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick and Casey Affleck. All she says that she can reveal about the film is that it is about a group of thieves who decide to take money from the richest man with offices in a skyscraper, and she gets entangled in the affair. The biggest challenging for the actress was trying to hold her own against Eddie Murphy. "I was really worried because a lot of my scenes are with Eddie Murphy and whenever I think about Eddie Murphy, I think about Eddie Murphy Raw and how genius it is," she recounts. "He has that red leather suit and he is so funny and off the cuff I was so nervous about what it would be like to film with him."

Tower Heist is set to be released in November. Who knows how much more Sidibe's life will have changed by then.

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