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Improv a natural fit for actress Mo'Nique

The Baltimore Sun

Mo'Nique doesn't pull any punches.

Whether it's with her stand-up routine, in her previous on-screen roles or in a fight sequence between her character and Martin Lawrence's in the new film Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, it's evident that the Woodlawn native sometimes hits too close for comfort.

On the set of her new film, Lawrence had to warn her about her rampant punches. "I told him I was sorry!" she says.

"But I told them ... I ain't no stunt person!"

It was Mo'Nique's ability to play such abrasive and assertive roles in the past that made director Malcolm D. Lee write the role of Betty Jenkins - the sassy and promiscuous sister of the title character - specifically for her. But off the set and sitting in the WJZ-TV studios during a recent interview, Mo'Nique, 40, paints a very different picture of herself.

The mother of three is certainly comfortable in her own skin. But despite self-confidence, the comedic actress is still a little star-struck as she shares the screen with some of Hollywood's veterans, especially recent collaborators Lawrence, Margaret Avery and James Earl Jones.

"There were times where I had to keep pinching myself," she says. "James Earl Jones is history, he is legendary, and I was honored to be in his presence."

Mo'Nique says the on-screen chemistry between her and her co-stars was no fluke. She credits director Lee with having the foresight to let all the creative energy flow and allowing the cast (which also includes Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Clarke Duncan and Mike Epps) to really flex its improvisational muscles.

She says that holding the cast members - many of whom came from the world of stand-up - to the script would have been detrimental to the film, particularly during a shower scene with Epps.

Mo'Nique credits her spirituality and the everyday occurrences in life, on the set and off, with inspiring many of the improvised scenes.

"God puts things in my life," she says, "and I go, oh God, that's a tickler - I gotta use that! I say, 'God, you trippin' right now.'"

Born Monique Imes, she got her start in the early '90s in Baltimore comedy clubs before hitting Hollywood with a gig on the UPN sitcom The Parkers. But despite an almost eight-year acting career that has earned her two BET comedy award nominations, Mo'Nique is humble and self-effacing talking about her future in Hollywood.

To her, stand-up comedy is her one, true calling, and she's not exactly aiming for an Oscar nomination.

"I choose roles that are good for me, what makes me feel good," she says. "I am still in a place where I ask myself, 'Do they know I'm not an actress? I tell jokes!'"

Although most of her previous roles have accentuated her outspoken personality, Mo'Nique is slowly breaking from the bounds of comedy and taking more serious and challenging roles.

In 2005, she played in the crime-based thriller Shadowboxer under the direction of Lee Daniels (producer of Monster's Ball).

Taking another turn at the directing chair, Daniels personally chose Mo'Nique to play a villainous, unkempt, drug-abusing mother in the coming film Push, based on the 1997 novel of the same name, about an overweight illiterate teen who is admitted to an alternative school while pregnant with her second child.

According to Mo'Nique, Daniels had a lot of faith in her ability to play such a drastically different role.

"I looked at the book, and 10 pages in, I said to myself, 'What in the hell?'" she says. "Lee told me that it could change my career. I told him if he trusted me to do it, I trust him to guide me."

As for the future, Mo'Nique has a few aspirations. Working with particular actors matter more to her than focusing on certain subject matter.

"I would love to do a film with Don Cheadle," she says.

"I think God touched him real special. He is such a humanitarian, such a brilliant actor, I would love to be in the presence of that. I wouldn't care about the kind of film. We could be playing Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. If it's Don Cheadle, sign me up."

brad.schleicher@baltsun.com

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