GABOUREY “Gabby” SIDIBE was born in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in 1983 to RandB/Gospel singer Alice Tan Ridley, and Ibnou Sidibe, a cab driver from Senegal. After her parents separated, Gabby was raised in Harlem by her mother who supported the family by teaching special ed and by singing in the subway.
A graduate of Washington Irving High School, Gabby was pursuing a degree in psychology at Mercy College and working as a telephone company customer service representative when she decided to try out for the title role in the movie Precious. Her audition so wowed director Lee Daniels that he had no hesitation about picking her over the 400 other actresses answering the casting call.
Here, Gabby talks about the film and her critically-acclaimed performance, both of which have Hollywood humming with early Oscar buzz.
Tell me a little about your background.
My dad’s from Senegal, and my mom’s from Georgia. But oddly, her roots trace back to Senegal, too. I was born in Bed-Stuy, and I lived there until right before I turned 8. That’s when we moved to Harlem.
What interested you in auditioning for the role of Precious?
I’m not sure I had a serious interest. To be honest, my mom had told me to go audition for the part. In a weird way, I think I just kind of ended up there. Just the thought that I could be in the film was really, really interesting. I guess that’s part of the reason why I auditioned. But I auditioned with the absolute belief that I wasn’t going to get it.
[Director] Lee told me that he had to audition over 400 actresses before he found you, and that the role of Precious was the most challenging one to fill. What do you think sold him on you?
He said that he saw a lot of girls who were just like Precious, and that the difference with me was that I wasn’t anything like her, and that I was obviously acting. He didn’t want to be seen as possibly exploiting a girl similar to Precious, so I think that played a part in his decision, along with my giving a really good audition.
What was it like acting opposite big stars like Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz?
It was amazing! I felt very fortunate to get to work around people that I idolized.
Did they live up to your expectations?
As it turned out, every one of them was so much more awesome than I expected.
And how’d you like being directed by Lee?
Lee is just adorable, cute and so much fun! He’s a disarming genius with a very creative mind.
Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
No one’s ever asked if I like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Okay, do you like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?
The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
[Chuckles] Yeah, I’m afraid of a lot of stuff, although I’m not really the nervous type. Like, I want to see the movie Paranormal Activity, but I’m afraid to go because I’ll believe it’s real. [Laughs]
The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
“Addicted” by Zane.
The music maven Heather Covington question: What music are you listening to nowadays?
At the moment, I’m listening to a lot of RandB. I really like Trey Songz. I also like Lady GaGa a lot. She certainly helps on car rides when I’m on my way to an interview or a photo shoot. I listen to a lot of what’s on the radio. I’m afraid I don’t stray away from the popular.
The Flex Alexander question: How do you get through the tough times?
By counting my blessings.
When did it hit you that Precious was really taking off?
I try to not let it become real to me. Because whatever state I’m in right now, is the best feeling ever. It doesn’t feel real to me. What does feel real is when people who’ve seen the film, like at the premiere the other day, come up to me and thank me. I don’t feel like I’ve done a service, but I appreciate that they think I’ve given them something. And then I’ll see Will Smith walk by and it becomes unreal again.
How do you think this sudden success will influence your future?
I don’t know. I hope positively. I hope I can continue to act. I hope that I’ve shown Hollywood that even though I’m not blonde or a size 2, I’m still worthy of carrying a film.
Children’s book author Irene Smalls was curious about what kind of internal emotional resources came into play when you created the character of Precious?
Compassion. I had a lot of compassion for the character.
Bernadette asks if you think your studying psychology impacted your performance.
I hope so. I hope I got something out of those four years I spent in college. I had read some books about the anatomy of a victim, and I certainly tried to carry that knowledge into Precious.
What is your long-term career goal?
[Laughs] My goal is just to have a career. I hope to be able to do a lot of different types of films. To do a comedy, to play a romantic lead, and to do a lot of other different things.
Marcia also asks whether you were emotionally affected by the role.
No, what I felt most was a responsibility to tell this girl’s story the best way I could.
How do you feel about all the Oscar buzz Precious has been getting?
It’s scary, and a tad premature. I’ve never been here before, so I don’t really know what it’s like to be in an Oscar-worthy film. It’s unnerving, but I’m also so grateful that anyone would consider associating our film with an Oscar or any other award.