Describing how her character brutalizes her daughter in "Precious" and at one point endangers the life of her infant granddaughter, Mo'Nique says, "That was rough for me. But the moment the director says 'cut,' you leave it right on the floor."
In this break-out year for the popular Baltimore County-born comedian and instant BET talk-show star, Mo'Nique's fearlessness in the movie, as well as her professional equilibrium, should make her a sought-after dramatic actress - and maybe an Academy Award nominee, along with her surprising co-stars, pop diva Mariah Carey (as a social worker) and a newcomer named Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe (as daughter Precious).
"It was exciting, fun," says Mo'Nique. "We were in a moment in time: That is what it was, baby. Not a lot of rehearsal. You have to come from the heart."
Mo'Nique has been "coming from the heart" her whole career. The Woodlawn native and Milford Mill Academy graduate first tried stand-up on a dare, in 1991, and killed at a local club. While holding down her job as a customer sales representative for MCI, she became a regular at area comedy clubs and then a repeat performer on TV's "Showtime at the Apollo," and "Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam." She soon had her own Baltimore showcase and restaurant, Mo'Nique's, as well as a slot co-hosting a morning radio show on WWIN (95.9 FM). By 1999, she won a part in the UPN sitcom "The Parkers." She followed that with a slew of broad, popular big-screen comedies.
When most crowd-pleasing comedians get raw, they go in for purple hijinks. Mo'Nique does something completely opposite in "Precious": She dips into a primal ooze of malformed emotions and delivers it to viewers without dilution.
Mo'Nique had already worked for director Lee Daniels, playing a character coincidentally named Precious on Daniels' hit-woman movie, "Shadowboxer" (which starred Helen Mirren). Mo'Nique had no qualms about accepting the role of Mary Jones in "Precious.'.
"I was honored that Mr. Daniels would trust me with that," she says. "I was honored that he was courageous enough to go against the grain [of my comic image]. And I was honored to tell the story in its truth."
Daniels says it's hard for him to remember when he first heard Mo'Nique deliver the horrifying, heartbreaking lines, "Who was going to love me? Who was going to make me feel good?" They're not in the book; he's sure they're in the script. But Mo'Nique delivers them as if they're improvised.
She says Daniels asked her to play a "monster," and she wasn't going to blunt the character's selfishness.
Usually, a filmmaker looking for hidden dimensions in a drama won't stick a character with a label as limiting as "monster."
"But as far as I'm concerned," Daniels explains, "Mo'Nique loves me and makes me feel good as a person. And she trusts me and makes me feel good as a director and not insecure as a talent. And with that comes my bravado in giving her unequivocal truth. She calls me Mr. Daniels. She makes me feel important. And gives me the utmost respect. I never worked with anyone more respectful in my life. And with that comes the ability for me to be very, very truthful with her and for her to see and reveal ... so much."
Daniels is an ebullient fellow, but tears start streaming down his face as he says, "I can't describe the trust I have for her. She makes me feel very important, and it shows on screen. We become one."
She has not only earned the devotion of her director but the respect of her more conventionally trained co-stars. Paula Patton, who brings a limpid ray of beauty to the film as Precious' savior-teacher, Blu Rain, had to focus on her own world in the movie. It was only afterward, seeing the picture as a whole, that Patton could say, "Wow, she was phenomenal."
Mo'Nique credits Daniels' candor for her performance. His description of Mary clicked with her immediately. "When he told me, 'I want you to be a monster,' I knew I could do that, because I knew a monster. The monster was my oldest brother. My brother was a molester, so when Mr. Daniels told me to be a monster, I knew what a monster was. When he said, 'Action,' that was it."
But she didn't take the specifics of her characterization from her sibling horror stories. Her performance is a genuine feat of acting imagination. She gives Mary Jones a hyper-awareness around her daughter that's skin-crawling in its intimacy.
"That's the character and the mental illness of who she was," says Mo'Nique. "As angry as I was with Mary Jones, I still felt sorry for her. That's a life of misery, and she's lived that life for a long time. Because if you listen to the movie, it tells you what her childhood was like. She didn't know better; it was inside her." Mo'Nique plays down any soul-searching she did for her acting preparation.
"I came from a place of being molested, but it was the brilliance of the direction - that's how we became these people. Mr. Daniels told the truth. I didn't have to go to this place of misery and darkness. We did it, and we started playing it." As for that climactic scene, "It's disturbing because you can't believe you feel sorry for this woman. You just want to judge her to be this horrible, cruel person. But when you hear this story, you feel, 'What she did was wrong, but I feel bad.' "
Mo'Nique's experiences growing up in Baltimore fueled her understanding of the subject matter of "Precious" and the artistry required to bring it to the screen.
"My situation was different than Precious. I didn't feel like I was a prisoner in my own home. I always thought tomorrow would be better. Even as a kid. Tomorrow would be better. I didn't dwell on that. And people shouldn't dwell on that. You did nothing wrong, why let it consume your life?"
Precious puts herself into princess-y pop fantasies to escape her horrid circumstances. Mo'Nique said she had "another place to go: being an actress. That's what I think is maybe a surprise to some people. Oftentimes they put you in a box. You can only be funny. When you guys see the film, you think you didn't know I could do this, because before this you didn't get the opportunity to find out."
Mo'Nique had a Baltimore role model in mind all these years: "Remember the show 'People Are Talking'? Her name was Oprah Winfrey. Before the world knew her, we did, in Baltimore. She was black and bushy-haired and had a wide back and big feet and had fun with it all. And I thought, 'My God, I can do that.' When she left Baltimore, we stuck with her the whole way. We followed her in 'The Color Purple,' in everything. I felt I was a product of her influence." (Winfrey, and Tyler Perry, too, have put their considerable media influence behind "Precious.")
But Mo'Nique has another heroine, one she's hoping to make a movie about: Hattie McDaniel, the Mammy of us all in "Gone With the Wind." Mo'Nique speaks for many audiences when she says, "She's the reason that movie was what it was; in my humble opinion, she was the most intelligent character in it." What makes McDaniel's story amazing goes beyond her standing as the first African-American to win an Academy Award. "She took heat from both sides," says Mo'Nique. "The black community called her a sell-out to Hollywood. But those mammies were real - they were very real, and they took care of those white families. And Hattie did that role so well that white people couldn't separate it from the actress playing her. Amazing."
In her research, Mo'Nique latched on to a key McDaniel line: " 'I would rather play a maid than be a maid.' That says something."
Daniels says he recently looked back at a clip of him directing Mo'Nique and was amazed at her receptiveness. "I'm directing her and I'm grunting, and she understands every primal grunt that I'm speaking. ... And yet I'm also telling her step for step what she does. I'll go, beat, four ... you take a beat, what, uuhh, what? Mmmmmph mphhh mphh mphhhhhh. And the beats became a dance. ... She executed my vision like a dance. People keep asking her, 'How did you, and where did you, and how did you, and what did you?' And she's like, 'Baby, I was just listening and following direction.' And she does! Beat for beat! Simple as that, but it's hard when you don't want to, when you just want to go 'I want what I want to bring with it.' Mo'Nique listens."
That's one reason she's winning fans as a late-night host. Of her talk-show, Mo'Nique says, "Today I'm having a good time; who knows about tomorrow?"
She has higher aspirations for her movie. "I hope this movie will save somebody. There will be a lot of Preciouses watching the movie, a lot of Mary Joneses watching the movie. I hope it will save peoples' lives."