Comedian Mo'Nique takes on tough role in the movie 'Precious' with Mariah Carey

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Mo'Nique is recalling the toughest days on the set of "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire." In the film, a searing drama about a teenager overcoming extreme physical and emotional abuse, Mo'Nique stars as the protagonist's toxically cruel mother, who subjects her daughter to incest, violence and constant psychological torment. "Listen, sugar," Mo'Nique says, responding to the inevitable question of how an award-winning comedienne immersed herself so completely in the mind of a monster, "the moment I heard 'Cut' I said, 'Where is the butter for the crabs legs and where is the house music?' " she recalls. "We partied and we played!"

Somehow, partying and playing aren't the words that come to mind when thinking about the many excruciating passages in "Precious," which was directed by Lee Daniels and co-stars newcomer Gabourey Sidibe in the title role of Claireece "Precious" Jones. (Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz have cameo roles.) The film, which opens Friday, has earned a clutch of awards since making its debut at Sundance in January, and it's considered a sure thing for Oscar nominations -- including for Mo'Nique herself, who thoroughly submerges her tart, sarcastic persona as one of stand-up's most gifted and beloved comediennes and delivers an uncompromising performance as a woman of venomous rage and spite.

When "Precious" screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May, Daniels, who produced the 2001 drama "Monster's Ball," recalls telling Mo'Nique the same thing before a particularly gruesome scene -- when her character throws a baby on the floor -- that he told Halle Berry before she filmed an encounter with Sean Combs before his character was sent to the electric chair. "I said, 'You're gonna win an Oscar for this,' " he remembers telling both women. "I told Mo'Nique, 'People are really going to be blown away by this moment.' And she said to me, 'Lee, my Oscar is that I made you happy and that you had M&M's on the set for me.' "

Later, speaking on the phone from the Toronto International Film Festival (where "Precious" won an audience award), Daniels amends his previous comment. "Give her her Asti spumante!" he says, musically drawing out each syllable. "Mo'Nique wants her Asti, she wants her M&M's and she wants her crab legs. Her husband ordered some crabs from Baltimore and, from that point on, we had them shipped in twice a week.

"Mariah was just asking me last night where we got those crab legs from," Daniels adds wistfully.

"Ocean Pride, baby!" Mo'Nique exclaims with a giggle. She's calling from Atlanta, where she's taping "The Mo'Nique Show," her new late-night program on BET. "Girl, they're the best! Not only did we have the crab legs, we had the whole damn crab!"

Mo'Nique, 41, comes by her culinary preferences honestly: She grew up as Monique Imes in suburban Baltimore, where she first performed at a downtown comedy club on a dare from her brother. "You know what, I haven't been back to Baltimore," she says, answering a question about how often she gets back to her home town. "Because I've only got two childhood friends from there, and we always meet somewhere mutual when we get together."

No doubt, even Mo'Nique's best friends will do a double take when they see her in "Precious," in which her character, Mary, is most often seen watching television in her cramped Harlem apartment, smoking and berating her teenage daughter. Her hair hidden beneath a kerchief, her face devoid of makeup and distorted into a malevolent mask, Mary bears no resemblance to the Mo'Nique fans have come to love, whether the voluptuous funny lady of the stand-up circuit or the fiercely loving mother Nikki Parker on "The Parkers," the UPN sitcom that first brought Mo'Nique to national attention. (She has also written a best-selling book, "Skinny Women Are Evil," and was a fixture on Washington's WHUR radio station in 2001 and 2002 until she left to pursue her screen career.)

Daniels, who first worked with Mo'Nique in his 2005 crime drama "Shadowboxer," says that he cast her in "Precious" not despite, but because, she's a comedian. "What makes her brilliant is her sense of comic timing," he says. "She has a third eye that most actors don't have, that comedic something. Richard Pryor had it in 'Lady Sings the Blues.' That's why some of the most brilliant dramatic actors are comedians."

The only trepidation Daniels had about casting Mo'Nique as Mary, he says, was it might alienate her fans. "I told her, 'I'm a little nervous about you a doing this role,' " he says. " 'You're loved and adored by those BET people. You are the project version of Oprah.' But she had no problem at all."

Or, as Mo'Nique describes it: "Lee Daniels called me up on a Sunday night at 10:30 and said, 'I've got something that might [expletive] up your career.' And I said, 'Sign me up, sugar!' "

It's difficult to see "Precious" as being anything but good for Mo'Nique's career, showcasing as it does her astonishing dramatic range and control. In one pivotal scene, when Mary and Precious meet with a social worker played by Carey, she turns briefly away from the camera at one point to brush a tear off her cheek. The moment, Carey explains in Cannes, was completely spontaneous, Daniels having pointedly directed her not to show any emotion. "That was Mo'Nique," Carey says simply.

So, are the studios lining up with the juicy roles? "No," Mo'Nique says flatly. "None of 'em. What the hell is that about? I'm not going to lie to you, sugar. But the offers I've gotten make me chuckle. 'We would like for Mo'Nique to come in and read.' Like, for me to come in and audition. Or, 'We want a general meeting with you and we'll give you a bag of swag.' I'm like, 'Are you serious? Guys, I can't play that way.' "

With Oscar buzz building, the guys should see soon enough that it's in their own interests to play Mo'Nique's way. But even more than Hollywood offers and a new BET show, more than the Asti and M&M's and those Baltimore crabs legs, she cares most about "Precious" being seen. "I'm so excited about this story being told," Mo'Nique says before signing off. "Because this story's going to save somebody's life. It'll save the life of the person who is the molester, and it will save the life of the person being molested. It's going to do so much."

Look for Ann Hornaday's review of "Precious" in Friday's Style section.

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