Mo'Nique Generates Oscar Buzz With 'Precious' Role

Hilarious, heartbreaking, groundbreaking and brutal are a few words being used to describe the variety of characters embodied by entertainer Mo'Nique in the critically acclaimed film Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, where she plays an abusive mother. Mo'Nique explains why she took the role. She also explains her latest endeavor as late night talk show host for BET.

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a project reveals the traditions and sounds of Haiti through the voices its people. More on that in just a few minutes.

But first, hilarious, heartbreaking, operatic, brutal; those are a few of the words that have been used to describe the characters portrayed on screen by entertainer Mo'Nique. She became a household name as the leading lady in UPN's "The Parkers." She's had a successful standup career and two reality TV shows, including a beauty pageant for plus sized women.

Now she's in the headlines with two major projects. She hosts a new late-night talk show on BET and she's playing Mary, the amazingly abusive mother of the title character in the critically acclaimed film Precious - based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, which is already generating talk of an Oscar for Mo'Nique. And she joins us now.

Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

NIQUE: Thank you, sis. How you doing?

MARTIN: I'm okay. Well, not as sweet(ph) as you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NIQUE: I'm sure you are.

MARTIN: You know, on its face, "Precious" would not seem to be an easy sell. It is about an obese, illiterate, black teenage girl who is being horribly abused, sexually abused by both her parents. Not your typically Friday night date movie. But the movie just opened in 18 theaters across the country. It's grossed almost $2 million, which is on track to be among the top grossing independent films. What do you think is the film's appeal?

NIQUE: It's honesty. It's so honest that you know those people. You know Precious. You know Mary Jones. You may be those people. Every time I've watched it, it makes me go wow, this is so honest. And I really believe that's why it's so impactful.

MARTIN: Director Lee Daniels was quoted in an interview at the New York Times, saying he knew he wanted you for the part of Mary and when he called you he said I have a part for you that is going to quote, "mess up your career. You're going to lose your world, your audience, your standing in the BET community." And you are quoted as saying, you "did not hesitate." Why not?

NIQUE: Number one, the audience is very intelligent and they know the difference. And number two, I was so excited to be able to be a part of telling this amazing story. And a young lady said to me earlier today, she said you know Mo'Nique, the movie is so heartbreaking. And I said you're absolutely right, but it's also heart healing.

MARTIN: Well, let me just give people a little sense of what it is that we're talking about. You play Mary. As we said, she is the mother of Precious, and she abuses her child, not just verbally and physically, but also - and I'm not sure this is something that we've seen on film in this country before - she's a mother who sexually is abusing her daughter. And I just want to play a short clip.

In this scene you are being confronted by Mariah Carey, who plays Precious's social worker, and she's confronting you about why you allowed the husband to abuse Precious. And here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PRECIOUS")

MO: (As Mary) And I don't want you to sit here and judge me Ms. Weiss.

MARIAH CAREY: (As Ms. Weiss) You shut up and let him abuse your daughter.

MO: (As Mary) I did not want him to abuse my daughter.

CAREY: (As Ms. Weiss) But you allowed him to hurt her.

MO: (As Mary) I did not want him to hurt her. I didn't want him to do nothing to her.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRYING)

MO: (As Mary) But, those... those things she told you I did to her? Who... who... who else was going to love me? Who is going to make me feel good?

MARTIN: How did you get into the mind of Mary?

MO: You know, Mary Jones was mentally ill, and she wasn't the type of mental illness that you see in a straightjacket in an institution. She was mentally ill and being your next door neighbor. And I knew Mary Jones. That character for me was my brother, my oldest brother Gerald(ph). So, when Mr. Daniels said action, that's who I became.

MARTIN: I was going to mention that and you have disclosed that you also were a victim of sexual abuse growing up, by your brother. But I still want to ask if that was hard for you, to transition from being the victim to the victimizer, you had to get into that mindset.

MO: You know what Michel, I am always very careful when I answer this question, because I never want to sound vain. But no, it wasn't hard, because we're entertainers. So, when Mr. Daniels told me who this character was that's why I had to become every time he said action. Then the moment he said cut, I was Mo'Nique. My husband and I talked before we started filming, and he said, mama, leave it on the floor. Every time he says cut, leave it right there, and that's what we did.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and I am visiting with Mo'Nique. We're talking about a film performance that has already won a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival. And we're going to talk about her new late night talk show. Just one more question about the movie before we go.

Precious is very, very big. I mean, she's - she's obese, it's part of the character. And you've been very outspoken about representing for large women, about size acceptance, about all those things. And I'm just wondering how did you square up your - are you kind of re-positioning yourself on this issue, what is it? What do you want to say about that?

MO: As we can see, we see eating that food all the time can be very damaging. So for me, as a big person, and at one time at 262 pounds and now I'm down to 217 pounds. What I do say is, be smart.

MARTIN: On a very different note, you have a new talk show?

MO: Yeah.

MARTIN: On BET? Let's play a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MO'NIQUE SHOW")

MO: Because this is Black Entertainment Television.

BET: BET.

MO: Okay, come on.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

MO: We get an opportunity to talk to us.

And where's my camera to America, where's - I want to talk directly to my brothers and sisters in America. If you are a beautician, listen to me clearly. If you do hair - my sisters or my brothers - your hair should always be done.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Break it down.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Preach on. I'm going to bear that in mind. So, don't go to a beautician who's wearing a hat.

MO: Don't do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So tell me why you wanted to do this show? And are you having fun so far? You just started.

MO: I am having the time of my life. And just for me, as a person who watches television, I want to watch something that makes me feel good. I want to watch something where they have a great time, they laugh, they dance, they party, they uplift, they love. That's what I want to watch.

MARTIN: Any guests that you want to tell us about?

MO: You know what, because everybody keeps saying to me, Mo'Nique, who's your dream guest? Everybody that's sat on that sofa has been my dream guest, because I am in the midst of my dream.

MARTIN: Mo'Nique's new talk show airs on BET, weeknights at 11 PM. You want to check your local listings, of course. Her new movie "Precious," is open in select theaters nationwide and she joined us by phone, I think, from your studio. Where you're taping your...

MO: Atlanta. Uh huh.

MARTIN: Your studio, where you're taping your program. Thank you so much for joining us.

MO: Thank you, sister.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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