The Root) — Gabourey Sidibe, who scored an Oscar nomination for her starring role in Precious two years ago, was happy to take on another role portraying a troubled teen in Yelling to the Sky. But she had one big problem with writer and first-time feature-film director Victoria Mahoney's script.
She wasn't really keen on the scene that had the film's star, Zoë Kravitz, kicking her butt.
"I was like, you guys gotta change this," Sidibe told The Root during a break from shooting White Bird in a Blizzard, a Gregg Araki film also starring Angela Bassett and Christopher Meloni. "And they were like, 'Gabby, it's all pretend.' And I was like, 'Still, you need to change this.' And then they calmed me down. We shot the scene, but I was angry, so I gave her one in the eye in the parking lot!"
Sidibe, of course, is joking, but the film's subject matter is no laughing matter. Yelling — which opened Dec. 14 in New York for one week and is available on demand via cable and digital outlets including YouTube, iTunes and Amazon — stars Jason Clarke as the abusive patriarch of a dysfunctional mixed-race family. He beats his African-American wife (Yolanda Ross), who eventually runs off and leaves her kids, and consistently berates his two daughters: Sweetness (Kravitz), who has taken up residence on Wrong-Turn Boulevard, and her older sister, Ola (Antonique Smith), a teen mother.
The film opens with Sweetness and a friend being bullied by a gang of kids that includes Sidibe's character, Latonya. Sidibe, who made this film right after Precious, doesn't get a lot of screen time, but she's on long enough for us to notice that Latonya isn't exactly how she appears.
"Latonya is the biggest and the loudest and the fanciest and the funniest and all these things," Sidibe said. "She's the cool [kid] in the school, but she is vulnerable. She is broken inside. I don't know any teenagers that have it all together. She's aggressive because she's actually really sensitive."
Conversely, Sweetness is just a girl who gets caught up because of her issues at home and problems fitting in at school. Sidibe can identify with that, too.
"I was an awkward teen, and now I'm an awkward adult playing awkward teens," she said with a chuckle. "I've just been awkward my entire life. I was, like, really cute from, like, age 3 months to, like, 11 months. Since then it's been full-on awkwardness!"
One of the coolest things about working on Yelling, however, was getting to know the Kravitzes. Sidibe had worked with Zoë's father, rocker-actor Lenny, on Precious. She described her co-star as "fun and cool" and said that her pop did stop by the set one day to check on his baby girl.
"I thought it was very sweet in a family way — that Zoë's dad came to check her out," she said. "It wasn't like, 'I'm a rock star!' He came to see his baby in her first starring role in a movie. It was sweet."
Yelling and Precious are similar in that they both focus on the complexities of being a troubled teen in the African-American community. Sidibe, however, thinks that there would be no reason to compare the films if there were more like them.
"Neither of the two have anything to do with each other, but sadly that's why there are so many comparisons between this girl and Precious," she said. "Victoria Mahoney hadn't even seen Precious when I met with her. So it's sad that the movies are being compared to each other, but what else is there to compare [them] to? If there were more, we wouldn't have this issue. We just need to make more and more and be represented in every age, in every genre."
Perhaps the critical acclaim embracing possible Oscar nominee Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) will change this trend. She's only 9, and if all goes well, she might break out of playing the troubled child. For Sidibe, however, her outward appearance may hinder her from breaking out of this box.
While her weight issue is hard for other people to ignore, Sidibe seems very comfortable in her skin. So much so that a recent Internet posting of her head Photoshopped onto the body of model Marquita Pring, claiming that she had lost 179 pounds, really didn't faze her.
"Oh, that," she said when I brought it up. "They do weird things to celebrities all the time. I'm no more offended than anyone else. It's like, whatever. My friends told me I should try and get it fixed, but I actually don't care. I'm actually a movie star, and I don't have time. [Laughs.] I'd sort of look foolish if I get all upset about a photo prank like that. I didn't even realize what you were talking about. I give it that much thought."
Nor was she upset when Joan Cusack advised her to give up her career because the industry was so "image-conscious." That essentially was Cusack's way of saying, f—k them. "She really meant it in a very sweet way," Sidibe explained. "She was really coming from a place of trying to be helpful and trying to spare me."
Sidibe was miffed, however, over the recent firing of TV meteorologist Rhonda S. Lee, who lost her job for responding to a racist rant by a viewer on Facebook. "It's just this business," she said. "There's no other business like this one. If you're a receptionist, the people you work with are not allowed to talk about your body or your skin color.
"I'm just Gabourey," she continued. "I'm not out in these streets talking about you in your face. This is who I've been my entire life. And the thing is, if I change, if I don't change, it literally has nothing to do with anyone."
Despite it all, there's really no denying her talent. Not many folks get nominated for an Oscar the first time out of the gate. Sidibe, who recently wrapped the final season of Showtime's The Big C, is open to working in whatever arena that welcomes her as she is.
"I'm having a very sad, emotional moment in my life," she said about the end of The Big C. "It was such a wonderful job. It was like my favorite job — well, certainly my longest. I would consider doing another series. I mean, I would love to say I'm just going to focus on movies like I'm Leonardo DiCaprio or somebody, but I actually don't see a huge difference between doing TV and doing film."
And even though she's playing yet another dysfunctional teen in White Bird — a character she described as someone who "wears many colors" — she couldn't be happier to be on that set. "I don't know what I can [say] about it because we're still filming," she said. "All I can say right now is that I am just freaking out that I'm working with Angela Bassett!"
Miki Turner is an award-winning photojournalist in Los Angeles.