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Gabourey Sidibe may be best known for playing the perpetually ignored and virtually invisible Precious in 'Precious,' but in real life the up-and-coming actress has a unique and undeniable personality that's second to none. She also knows how lucky she's been thus far. "I'm still in the weird sorta-honeymoon phase of my career, where nothing is really hard and a lot of the stuff I really want I usually get to do," she told Moviefone this week. What Sidibe wanted in this case was 'Tower Heist' (out now), something made easy since the role was written specifically for her.
The Oscar nominee co-stars in the heist comedy as Odessa, a Jamaican maid at the titular tower, and also an expert safe cracker. That skill comes in handy when Josh (Ben Stiller) recruits her to help steal $20 million from a Wall Street crook (Alan Alda) who swindled the building staff out of their pensions.
Sidibe rang up Moviefone to discuss 'Tower Heist,' its controversial director, Brett Ratner, and how some unscripted flirting with Eddie Murphy led to one of the film's most memorable moments.
This is your first big-studio production, so how did it come about. Did you have to harass Brett Ratner to get an audition or was he banging down your door?
They came to me with it. Brett kind of harassed me.
It was really nice. They apparently wrote in this role for me, which is really, really good. I'm the only person that read for it. Which is great. Apparently, they didn't want anyone else, which is always a plus. It was kind of a big deal -- it was really amazing.
Does that happen a lot -- people writing roles specifically for you?
Yeah, that's happened. [Laughs] I'm clearly at the beginning of my career, but yeah: a guy wrote a script for me and we're figuring out how to do that. So, yeah: it's happened before.
Precious is the type of role that actors wait a lifetime for, and it was your first one. Oscar nomination. Huge fame. But also potential type-casting. Did you run into any difficulties, post-'Precious,' finding roles you wanted that weren't written for you?
It's not particularly hard yet, but I'm also still in the weird sorta-honeymoon phase of my career, where nothing is really hard and a lot of the stuff I really want I usually get to do. But, I also have this mentality of if it's not meant to be, then it won't be. It's not for me. Which is -- y'know -- OK, too. I actually don't get a whole lot of scripts or do a whole lot of auditions anyway. I've done like six auditions in all. No, like seven auditions. And I've done five roles.
So, you've done 'SNL,' 'The Big C' and now 'Tower Heist.' Were you consciously trying to stay away from heavy dramas after 'Precious'?
No, I wasn't consciously looking for anything at all. The good thing about -- well, the best thing really -- about having been nominated for 'Precious' is that, being my first big thing, I got that part out of the way. Everyone can see that I'm capable of doing a drama. And, also, in all of my interviews, I try to be really, really, really funny, so people can see that I'm also capable of going completely left. That's the best part of it. I wasn't actively looking for a certain thing because I feel as though I'm able to do whatever I want. I only actively look for things that interest me. Whether they be comedy or drama.
You're kinda like Jon Hamm. Breakout role in this big drama, and then following it up with lots of comedy parts.
Yep, and he's the bomb on 'SNL' too.
So, Brett Ratner comes to you with 'Tower Heist.' Did he have to convince you do it?
I was pretty much onboard right away. I wasn't onboard with the Jamaican accent. I was really afraid to do that. I thought my Jamaican accent seemed a little 'SNL'-ish and not very serious, but he thought it was funny. So he convinced me to do it.
Brett Ratner has a reputation for being a very strong-willed director with lots of opinions. Which I guess makes him like any other director. But how did you find him onset?
Oh, he's awesome! Brett is such a sweet person, but the best thing about him is he's so enthusiastic and he's a huge fan of films. He's a huge, huge movie fan. So he's seen every movie ever and he's always really, really excited on the set. And that's really wonderful to have -- I kind of look at acting like I would an office job. He's my boss. He's the captain of the ship. So, when the captain is really excited -- even though it's 4 a.m., even though we've shot the performances a hundred times, he's still really excited and pepped and ready to go. That kinda feeds me, and I wanna be able to be on his level and please him. But at the same time, it's definitely a partnership; it's definitely a team sort of deal. He gives you that kind of feeling, but he feels very much the captain of the ship. But I'm always really happy to listen to him. Because he's happy about what he does.
Was it kind of a culture shock to go from a small production like 'Precious' to this giant movie with Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller?
It's a little bit of a difference. I actually did one -- OK, so: 'Precious' was indie, but it still had some money behind it. Not like we were all eating lobster at the craft table, or anything like that. It was also fancy to me because I had never been on a movie set. So, the entire time, anything I wanted, no matter what time of day, I could say to someone, 'I kinda want this,' and it would show up. Then I did a super, real independent movie. We only had 18 days of shooting -- called 'Yelling at the Sky.' It was so budget. So low budget. I'm pretty sure we, like, stole a building or something like that. Without permits. That was seriously low budget. And it was always cold. And I was only there for five days.
Doing this big studio film -- it wasn't a huge difference between that and 'The Big C' either. I would just kind of count and be like, "We're spending a lot of money." Because there was a lot of green screen stuff. Like, "Wow, that's really expensive."
That's a producer's mentality. Would you want to produce in the future?
You know what I do? I kind of take interest and take stock in everyone's job. So I'm always counting and asking producers what they do. I also ask writers what they do, other than write. I ask what their process is. Same with hair and makeup. I think everyone's job is interesting.
One of my favorite scenes in 'Tower Heist' is when your character is teaching Eddie Murphy's character how to crack a safe, especially because -- unlike the rest of the film -- Eddie's forced to be the straight man. Walk me through that scene -- did you guys do a lot of prep beforehand?
That scene in particular, where I'm teaching him how to crack the safe, was completely improvised. At the time, I didn't even realize it was supposed to have words in it. I thought it would be part of a montage or something. Then Brett whispers in my ear, "Flirt with him." Eddie had no idea that it was gonna happen. I was like, "All right!" So, I start flirting with him, and I think he was caught off-guard for just a little bit, and then he started flirting back. It's a really fun scene and we did it a few times and it was really long. At some point it got kind of gross. It was a lot of fun. But that was completely improvised.
You might be too young to be an Eddie Murphy superfan...
No, I am! people think I'm younger than I am, but I was born in 1983. I used to watch 'Coming to America' every day after school. I have full-on long-running inside jokes with friends and family about different scenes in that movie alone. Also, my brother and I loved 'The Golden Child,' so, yeah: I was a huge fan of Eddie Murphy growing up.
OK, so: what was it like when you found out you were going to work with him? Was he involved when you were cast?
No! No, they were still auditioning for that role. Well, Eddie was the producer, but I didn't realize Eddie was the producer when I met with Brett for the first time. So, I was hired and then they released the rest of the cast. It was like, "What?!"
One of the things I like about your character, Odessa, is that she isn't really the butt of many jokes. She's got a confidence to her that reminded me of Melissa McCarthy in 'Bridesmaids.' Was that in the script or did you bring that to the role?
OK, so my best friend's mother is full-on Jamaican. My best friend is Jamaican too, but her mother was born in Jamaica. She's very sassy and I've never met a weak Jamaican woman. They're always really quick and sassy and smart and able to give as much as they get. So, that was kind of my take on it. It was in the script a little bit, but that was also my take on a Jamaican woman as well. She is confident and she is all these things, but it is kind of an homage to my best friend's mother.
It's only two years ago, but what did you take away from being an Oscar nominee?
Well, I'm certainly glad that I was nominated for an Oscar. There is certainly a respect that comes with that nod. Also, a compliment that comes with it too. Not that I really know what I'm doing. In a lot of ways I feel like some child on set, or like a kid that snuck in the back door. But, to get the nod, kinda proves that I'm not. I'm not just a dumb kid. I'm not just some girl who's like, "Oops. Just got lucky!" I'm more than that. But even in that, what does it really mean? It just means that I happen to be a person with some sort of talent that can be utilized in a good way. No matter what I look like, you can't take that away from me.
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