You'd be forgiven for not recognizing Mariah Carey in her role as a dowdy welfare caseworker in the urban drama "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."
The legendarily high-maintenance pop diva underwent a soup-to-nuts physical transformation, checking her glossy celebrity patina at the door in order to convincingly portray the film's Ms. Weiss: a drab but deeply empathetic soul helping a troubled teenager in 1980s Harlem. Far from the image Carey has cultivated for years, the character is no oil painting of music-video pulchritude, with her lank hair, a wardrobe of rayon sweater-coats and, yes, even a sparse mustache creeping across her upper lip.
"I had to lose all vanity," Carey said. "I had to change my demeanor, my inside, layers of who I am, to become that woman."
Turns out the alto with a five-octave range wasn't director-producer Lee Daniels' first choice. He had considered Jane Fonda for the role and cast Carey only when Oscar-winning British actress Helen Mirren dropped out at the 11th hour.
Before this part, Carey had seemed to be just another one-trick songbird unable to transfer her talents to the big screen. Since "Precious" premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, however, critics have been singing a different tune. A reviewer for Variety called Carey's performance "pitch-perfect" while the New Yorker's Anthony Lane asked: "Hold on: a stern, song-free, compassionate piece of acting from Mariah Carey? ... It's for real."
Nonetheless, Carey finds her appearance in "Precious" painful.
"Hideosity!" she exclaimed, raising her hands in mock horror. Carey was seated on the patio of the Polo Lounge wearing a plunging black gown, exhausted from a whistle-stop tour through Korea, Japan and Brazil in support of her latest album "Confessions of an Imperfect Angel" (which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart earlier this year) but still impressively blinged-out in diamonds. The divide between her luxe life and latest movie role could not have been more vividly illustrated, but Carey left their disconnect unmentioned. "I am glad people are telling me they don't recognize me," she continued. "But when it comes to my scenes, I get like, 'Oh, I don't know if I can look.' "
Based on the acclaimed 1996 novel, "Precious" took both the Grand Jury Prize and the audience award at Sundance and hit Baltimore theaters last week. The film - executive-produced by media heavyweights Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry - follows Claireece "Precious" Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe), a 16-year-old Harlem girl whose hard-knock life provides a taxonomy of urban poverty's worst ills. She's illiterate, on welfare, morbidly overweight and pregnant with a second child by her own father. After enrolling in a literacy program, Precious is reluctantly assigned to visit a social worker: Carey's Ms. Weiss.
"She still doesn't have a first name," the singer said with a laugh, popping a blini with a glinting mound of caviar into her mouth. In her few but unforgettable scenes, the character plays a pivotal role in helping Precious pull out of her downward spiral.
"I wanted to tap into what people don't see in her," said Daniels. "She steps into that Mariah world of makeup and pumps, she becomes something. It's a machine that has made her an enormous amount of money. But I wanted to show the person I know she is when we're alone: one of the smartest, most intuitive women I've ever met."
Carey, 40, cleared her schedule and traveled to the "Precious" set in northernmost Harlem by taxi, forbidden from arriving with entourage in tow. With only days to prepare, the performer says she based her characterization on a therapist she knew but also on what she cryptically describes as firsthand knowledge of the social welfare system.
Asked what those experiences might be, Carey - a Long Island native of Afro-Venezuelan/Irish-American descent who was raised by her opera singer mother - declined to specify.
"When people say, 'I didn't know she had it in her,' they don't know my life," said Carey.