Coming From The Heart

With 'Precious,' Woodlawn Native Mo'nique Makes A Searing Leap From Sassy Sitcom Star To Serious Oscar Contender

November 15, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,

Describing how her character brutalizes her daughter in "Precious" and at one point endangers the life of her infant granddaughter, Mo'Nique says, "That was rough for me. But the moment the director says 'cut,' you leave it right on the floor."

In this break-out year for the popular Baltimore County-born comedian and instant BET talk-show star, Mo'Nique's fearlessness in the movie, as well as her professional equilibrium, should make her a sought-after dramatic actress - and maybe an Academy Award nominee, along with her surprising co-stars, pop diva Mariah Carey (as a social worker) and a newcomer named Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe (as daughter Precious).

"It was exciting, fun," says Mo'Nique. "We were in a moment in time: That is what it was, baby. Not a lot of rehearsal. You have to come from the heart."

Mo'Nique has been "coming from the heart" her whole career. The Woodlawn native and Milford Mill Academy graduate first tried stand-up on a dare, in 1991, and killed at a local club. While holding down her job as a customer sales representative for MCI, she became a regular at area comedy clubs and then a repeat performer on TV's "Showtime at the Apollo," and "Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam." She soon had her own Baltimore showcase and restaurant, Mo'Nique's, as well as a slot co-hosting a morning radio show on WWIN (95.9 FM). By 1999, she won a part in the UPN sitcom "The Parkers." She followed that with a slew of broad, popular big-screen comedies.

When most crowd-pleasing comedians get raw, they go in for purple hijinks. Mo'Nique does something completely opposite in "Precious": She dips into a primal ooze of malformed emotions and delivers it to viewers without dilution.

Mo'Nique had already worked for director Lee Daniels, playing a character coincidentally named Precious on Daniels' hit-woman movie, "Shadowboxer" (which starred Helen Mirren). Mo'Nique had no qualms about accepting the role of Mary Jones in "Precious.'.

"I was honored that Mr. Daniels would trust me with that," she says. "I was honored that he was courageous enough to go against the grain [of my comic image]. And I was honored to tell the story in its truth."

Daniels says it's hard for him to remember when he first heard Mo'Nique deliver the horrifying, heartbreaking lines, "Who was going to love me? Who was going to make me feel good?" They're not in the book; he's sure they're in the script. But Mo'Nique delivers them as if they're improvised.

She says Daniels asked her to play a "monster," and she wasn't going to blunt the character's selfishness.

Usually, a filmmaker looking for hidden dimensions in a drama won't stick a character with a label as limiting as "monster."

"But as far as I'm concerned," Daniels explains, "Mo'Nique loves me and makes me feel good as a person. And she trusts me and makes me feel good as a director and not insecure as a talent. And with that comes my bravado in giving her unequivocal truth. She calls me Mr. Daniels. She makes me feel important. And gives me the utmost respect. I never worked with anyone more respectful in my life. And with that comes the ability for me to be very, very truthful with her and for her to see and reveal ... so much."

Daniels is an ebullient fellow, but tears start streaming down his face as he says, "I can't describe the trust I have for her. She makes me feel very important, and it shows on screen. We become one."

She has not only earned the devotion of her director but the respect of her more conventionally trained co-stars. Paula Patton, who brings a limpid ray of beauty to the film as Precious' savior-teacher, Blu Rain, had to focus on her own world in the movie. It was only afterward, seeing the picture as a whole, that Patton could say, "Wow, she was phenomenal."

Mo'Nique credits Daniels' candor for her performance. His description of Mary clicked with her immediately. "When he told me, 'I want you to be a monster,' I knew I could do that, because I knew a monster. The monster was my oldest brother. My brother was a molester, so when Mr. Daniels told me to be a monster, I knew what a monster was. When he said, 'Action,' that was it."

But she didn't take the specifics of her characterization from her sibling horror stories. Her performance is a genuine feat of acting imagination. She gives Mary Jones a hyper-awareness around her daughter that's skin-crawling in its intimacy.

"That's the character and the mental illness of who she was," says Mo'Nique. "As angry as I was with Mary Jones, I still felt sorry for her. That's a life of misery, and she's lived that life for a long time. Because if you listen to the movie, it tells you what her childhood was like. She didn't know better; it was inside her." Mo'Nique plays down any soul-searching she did for her acting preparation.

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