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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Lee Daniels, directed the new film "Precious." Set in Harlem in 1987, it's about a 350-pound, illiterate, 16-year-old African-American girl who is physically abused by her mother and pregnant by her father for the second time. Sounds pretty grim, but Daniels finds the strength in this girl, and he gets terrific dramatic performances from Mariah Carey, the comic Mo'Nique and newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Precious.

Daniels produced the movies "Monster's Ball," "The Woodsman" and "Tennessee." He's a producer of "Precious," in addition to being its director.

The move is based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire. "Precious" won three awards at the Sundance Film Festival, including the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for the dramatic category, and it won the People's Choice Award at the Sundance Film Festival - I mean, at the Toronto Film Festival.

Lynn Hirschberg, in the New York Times Magazine, described "Precious" as combining street-smart bravado with an art-house sensibility. Let's start with a scene. Precious is talking with her welfare caseworker, played by Mariah Carey. Here's Carey and Gabourey Sidibe.

Lee Daniels, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me agree with everybody who says that Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Precious, really does an extraordinary job, and she wasn't a professional actress. How did you put out the call? I mean, did you have a casting call for 350-pound teenagers? I mean, how did you find her?

Mr. LEE DANIELS (Director, Producer, "Precious"): I called an agent in Hollywood and said listen, can you help me? I'm looking for a 355-pound black girl, and he just - there was silence on the phone. And I realized at that point, okay, well, here we go. I've got to attack this from a completely different way than I ordinarily attack the casting process. So that meant - and that meant work, a lot of work.

But my brilliant casting director, Billy Hopkins, and my sister in Los Angeles, Leah Daniels-Butler, began a search for the girl. And they saw - if I saw 400 girls, over 400, they had to have seen at least a thousand girls. And we actually narrowed it down to, like, 20 girls. And these girls were in a Precious camp, where they were dancing, and that was really a great time. It was a different type of way of casting. I wish we had done footage on it or even, you know, a reality show, because each week, a girl would be dropped off. And these girls were�

GROSS: This is like a Precious training camp you're talking about.

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah, yeah. They were dancing. They were having acting lessons. Karen Giordano, brilliant acting coach, came in and was teaching them acting. I had a dance instructor. I had a vocal instructor. And it was so beautiful watching these girls, who I'd find at McDonald's or we flew in from, you know, a Radio Shack in Chicago, and�

GROSS: Wait, wait, wait, let's stop right there. So you'd go up to somebody in McDonald's and say, well, they look heavy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: They look fat and maybe talented. I will go up to them? I mean - yeah.

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah, they immediately - it was not as easy as you would think, you know. They were very guarded. They didn't know what to make. They - I thought nothing of it, but in hindsight, there was resistance, and there was a massage, and there was - it wasn't easy coasting these girls into - the two times that I did it, once was at a theater, the girl serving behind the counter, you know, the movie theater, and the other one was at a McDonald's. And it was not - you know, it was not easy.

But so, anyway, they did this, and then they put out open calls, which is really a good thing, too. They had a, you know, put posters out in schools and stuff around the country. And so anyway, we had these 20 girls narrowed down, and they were the real girls. These girls really were, you know, they had problems speaking, in their diction, and Gabby came in to Billy's office, Billy found her, and she auditioned. It was a great audition. And then when I went to meet her, she started talking like this white girl from the Valley, and I just thought my God, this is - who are you? And I realized at that moment if I had used one of the girls that was really Precious, that I would have been exploiting them, and it would not have been - I would have made a mockery of Precious.

So this girl is not Precious. And so she's, you know, she has a different life, and she's - though she's from Harlem, she's very worldly and really has a sense of self-confidence that either, I don't know, I've never seen anything like it before in my life. She is truly, you know, either in denial about her physicality, or she's on a higher plane. I know she's got several boyfriends. She's so secure with who she is that it's mind-blowing.

GROSS: And as you say, it's a real performance. I mean, I've seen her interviewed, and she speaks really well, but in the movie, she has to be somebody who's very self-conscious, very self-protective and really mumbles, can hardly read. It's really a fine performance.

You also got a terrific performance out of Mo'Nique, who's best known as a comic and talk-show host. She plays the mother, the very emotionally and physically abusive mother. And before we talk about her performance, let me play a short scene. And this is a scene - Precious and the social worker are in the office. Precious has explained to the social worker, the Mariah Carey character, about the abuse that she suffered at the hands of her father and her mother, and the social worker has called in the mother because the mother insists that she wants Precious and Precious' new baby to move back in, and, of course, Precious doesn't want to do that.

So here's the scene where the social worker, played by Mariah Carey, and the mother, Mary, played by Mo'Nique, are talking with each other.

(Soundbite of movie, "Precious")

Ms. MARIAH CAREY (Singer, Actress): (As Mrs. Weiss) You've been calling this office, saying you want to be reunited with Precious and your grandchild. Now I really need to know what's going on in that home.

Ms. MO'NIQUE (Actress): (As Mary) Mrs. Weiss, I understand we need to discuss it, but I'm just telling you. You said I've been calling here, and I've been wanting to see Precious and my grandson. You're goddamn right I want to see them because they belong to me, okay? Now there was a time Precious had everything, and I done told her that, and me and Carl(ph), we love Precious, and you need to know that. We love Precious, and we had dreams. Precious was born around the same time Mrs. Weiss' son got killed, the summertime. She was born the summertime, remember? Remember that?

Ms. GABOUREY SIDIBE (Actor): (As Precious) I was born in November.

Ms. MO'NIQUE: (As Mary) November. Yeah. That's right.

GROSS: How did you know that Mo'Nique could pull that off?

Mr. DANIELS: We're very good friends, and I had already worked with her before on "Shadowboxer." And through that friendship, you know, "Precious" came along. And though in the book, Precious' mom, Mary, is actually bigger than Precious, and it's sort of the reverse in the film, I knew that Mo'Nique would tear it out. So it was just something intuitive. You know, my intuition has led me to where I'm at. I've rarely been wrong about an actor.

GROSS: Now, Mariah Carey, you cast as a social worker. You'd also worked with her on "Tennessee," which you produced, and she's really good in this role and she's very convincing. How did you prepare her for it?

Mr. DANIELS: I - again, she's a very good friend, and it starts with the walk. It starts with the hand movements. The actors - you know, the development of a character starts all in the walk. And with Mariah, you know, Mariah's had stiletto pumps on since she's been an embryo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: And she walks on her tippy toes, even out of her pumps. That's how trained her feet are to walk in stilettos. So for her homework assignment, she had to learn to walk on the palms of her - and heels of feet. So that was very hard for her. And then I had her open them up so that she was sort of walking like a duck, and that started a character. And we sort of, you know, went on from there. We went by deepening the voice, and I studied every - because I'm friends with her, so I know every Mariah thing that she does. And so everything that she does, we had to undo for this character.

GROSS: My guest is Lee Daniels. He directed the new film, "Precious." Here's the scene I intended for you to hear at the top of the interview. Precious, played by Gabourey Sidibe, is talking to her welfare caseworker, played by Mariah Carey.

(Soundbite of movie, "Precious")

Ms. SIDIBE: (As Precious) You don't even like me.

Ms. CAREY: (As Mrs. Weiss) Have we not been in this room together for, like, a year, discussing your life?

Ms. SIDIBE: (As Precious) Does that mean we like each other, because we discuss my life?

Ms. CAREY: (As Mrs. Weiss) I can't speak for you. I can only speak for me, and I do like you. I do.

Ms. SIDIBE: (As Precious) So are you Italian, or what color are you, anyway? Are you some type of black or Spanish?

Ms. CAREY: (As Mrs. Weiss) What color do you think I am? No, I'd like to know. What color do you think I am?

Ms. SIDIBE: (As Precious) My throat is dry.

Ms. CAREY: (As Mrs. Weiss) Your throat is dry?

Ms. SIDIBE: (As Precious) It's really hot in here.

Ms. CAREY: (As Mrs. Weiss) It is kind of hot in here. I'm going to go get a soda.

GROSS: We'll talk more with the director of "Precious," Lee Daniels, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Lee Daniels. He directed the new film, "Precious," about an obese, 16-year-old girl in Harlem who's physically and sexually abused and illiterate. Daniels also produced "Monster's Ball," "The Woodsman" and "Tennessee."

Now among the producers of your film, you have Tyler Perry and Oprah, and they've both said that they've been abused. Mo'Nique, who's one of the stars of your film, says she was abused, and you've talked in an article about how you were beaten by your father. There just seems to be, like, a whole culture of abuse.

Mr. DANIELS: Well, I don't think that - come on, do you really think that Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey and Mo'Nique were abused? Come on. No, I'm just kidding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: No, I have to laugh about it, because, you know, it's such a tragic�

GROSS: Well, that's the thing. It's so tragic and so horrifying.

Mr. DANIELS: It's really, it's so - yeah, it really is. And look at the people that they've become.

GROSS: Remarkably, yeah. Mm-hmm.

Mr. DANIELS: You know, I mean, look at every one of those people that you just mentioned. They can actually laugh about it and chuckle inside, and�

GROSS: You must ask yourself, like, why is this?

Mr. DANIELS: I think that you have - well, if you cry about it, where is that going to get you, you know? I think that that's what makes them icons in their own�

GROSS: No, but I mean, why does it happen in the first place? Why?

Mr. DANIELS: Why?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. DANIELS: I don't know. I think it's hereditary. You know, the physical - I have not been sexually abused, so I don't know about that, but I think that - hmm, okay, let me ponder this for a moment. I think that maybe, this is in black culture, I think. Okay, I don't know about white culture, but I think that in black culture, it stems from slavery.

I think that, you know, they were beaten. They knew nothing but to beat. I think that my father was probably - I know - beaten worse than me, and I know that his grandfather was tied to a tree and horsewhipped, and so on and so on and so on. I think that that is what - and, you know, the genius of "Precious" is that she will not - the cycle's broken. When she walks out of there with her kids, you know from the way she says to her mother, I never want to see you again.

Now, if that were me, I'd jump over and strangle her after everything that she's done, but you know that the cycle is broken. Look, I was abused physically. It's a struggle when I look at my kids screaming at me at 13, I have twins. It takes everything I have not to jump across the room and strangle them, you know? And it's - because that's what's been brought up in me. That's what I know to do. But, you know, I know that the cycle has to stop, and that's the beauty of "Precious."

GROSS: So with your father, who you said beat you, he didn't sexually abuse you, just to make sure that's clear.

Mr. DANIELS: No, never. Uh-uh.

GROSS: But he did hit you. So was it possible to, like, really love him at the same time? Were you able to�

Mr. DANIELS: No.

GROSS: No.

Mr. DANIELS: Not at all, not at all. And it wasn't until late in life that I - you know, I also feel bad about talking about him like this, because he's no longer here.

GROSS: Like he can't defend himself?

Mr. DANIELS: And I - yeah, yeah. And, you know, I have another uncle - I can't even talk about that. It's too personal. Here's the thing. I feel bad about talking about him because I've grown so much to love him, you know, and understand him as I become a man - and as I become a man, rather - in that he - it's hard to break the cycle, you know? And I think that when you see your kid walking down the stairs in his wife's high-heeled, patent-leather red pumps while you're having a card game down with the guys who are in the - you know, you're a cop with your fellow cops, what do you do? What do you do when that's, you know, what you've been taught?

GROSS: That was you walking down the stairs in the pumps?

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah, yeah. I didn't know. What do I know? I'm seven years old, putting on my mother's pumps. I think they're sort of sexy. I'm walking down - you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: I'm walking down with my hands on my hips, and my dad's playing cards with his cop friends, and here I come. And then it continued, and it continued, and I think that - I know that he loved me. You know, I used to think that - I wanted to think that he loved me, but I know that he loved me, you know? And I think that he did the best he could.

I remember someone calling him the N-word in front of me, one of his bosses or something. And we got in the car, and I said why did you let him do that to you? And I was 11. It was right before he died. And slapped me. That was the last time he slapped me, hard, and I think that, you know, he took his frustration out�

GROSS: Why did he slap you for that, do you think?

Mr. DANIELS: I think because I was talking back to him, that that was his way of dealing with the frustration and the pain that he felt and the embarrassment that he felt and the castration that he felt.

GROSS: You know�

Mr. DANIELS: You know, I think that's what it is, and I love him for it. I love him for it, you know? I love him so much for the wonderful things that he did to me, you know, the wonderful things. You know, he really forced literature and reading on me, and he was a great poet and stuff, and I never talk about that. People just want to hear about the abuse, you know?

GROSS: How did he force the literature on you?

Mr. DANIELS: He made - he loved reading. He was just - gosh, he was a brilliant writer, and anything artistic that I got, I got from him.

GROSS: What kind of writing did he do, and how did you get to read it?

Mr. DANIELS: He wrote poetry. I think he knew he was going to die, and he wrote about his death, his preeminent death, which is really spooky. And then he just would write stories, short stories, and they were fascinating, you know, and I found them, read one recently. It holds its own through time, and I - you know, I don't know.

And here's the tricky part. The tricky part is is that what I did learn was that what he did to me was worse than anyone could ever do to me. So nothing that's been thrown at me, I can't deal with. Does that justify abuse? I don't know, but what it does do, it made me a strong man, because I can deal with anything now, anything.

GROSS: Now, your father was a cop, and, you know, it's interesting. He probably could have arrested people or maybe did arrest people for beating their children. And yet�

Mr. DANIELS: He didn't at that time. I don't think - at that time, it was a different party, you know? It was a different world. I don't think that the laws were enforced.

I remember when I was 11 years old, there was a girl that lived at the top of our block - we lived in row homes - and we played with her. And she - it was 3 o'clock in the afternoon. And this is another reason why, by the way, I did "Precious."

It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and she opened the door. She was completely naked. It was the most bizarre, surreal, I didn't know what to make. She tried to cup - she was a little pudgy girl, and so she tried her best to cover her - she knew to cover her breasts and her vagina, and she was drenched in blood. She was beaten with an extension cord, and she looked at me with absolute desperation, and she said: My mother's going to kill me.

Over my shoulder, there was my mother, and for - I had never seen fear in my mom's eyes, and I remember feeling nauseous, embarrassed for her, anger, sadness - I can't describe one word that describes how I felt. That feeling was how I felt when I read "Precious," that feeling, and I wanted to never feel that way again. And I hope to heal myself and to heal others that have either been, you know, seen that or had been a part of that. But what was that having to do with anything that you had to say?

GROSS: Well, you know, you had said that your father wouldn't - you don't think he arrested people for beating their children.

Mr. DANIELS: No, because I knew my mother - I think this is - the fear in my mother's eyes, because once she took the peroxide, I mean, the hydrogen peroxide and cleaned her wounds and we immediately put a sheet on her, I recall, as we - because she was heavy, and we didn't have any clothes to fit her. We - once we had to do all that and nurse her and everything, we knew that we had to send her back to her mother.

There wasn't a place - you know, unless you wanted your child just put away in a social-service home, which was something that we didn't do that would have been - and also, it was a secret. You know, this stuff was secret. You know, what went on behind closed doors was secret.

You know, I watched my uncle - he'd just come back from Vietnam when I was five - beat my little cousin. My cousin had to be two. He in a high chair, and he wouldn't eat his rice. And he beat him, 46 and Parish, you know, in the kitchen. I'll never forget it. Blood was inside of the kid's rice on his high chair. I think he had been - I think he'd lost it over in Vietnam. And I remember his mother singing and humming a prayer in the corner and my mother screaming and attacking my aunt, screaming and attacking my other aunt, my uncle, but my father saying this is private.

People looked at things differently then. This is a private matter. Leave it in the house. Keep stepping.

GROSS: Lee Daniels will be back in the second half of the show. He directed the new film "Precious" and he produced the films "Monster's Ball," "The Woodsman" and "Tennessee." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Lee Daniels, the director of the new film �Precious,� about a 350-pound, 16-year-old girl in Harlem who is physically abused by her mother and sexually abused by her father. When we left off, we were talking about abuse in Daniels' own family. His father used to beat him. But Daniels feels he owes a lot to his father, who loved to write and pushed Daniels toward reading literature and writing.

You mentioned that your father wrote a poem about his dying and it must have been some kind of premonition or something, �cause he - he was murdered. It's not like he had a terminal illness or something but he was murdered in the course of a robbery, is what I read.

Mr. DANIELS: That's correct. He was a hero. He was a hero. It was - I don't know, it was December the 16th. I was 12. It was snowing. He left the house. He was - he was so - you know, he was Muhammad Ali's bodyguard. So that's how fierce he was. Six-foot-four�

GROSS: Seriously?

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah. At one point he did some bodyguarding for him while in Philadelphia. And he came to the house once. I'll never forget my mother - my mother came down in rollers. My father went ballistic. He said, Muhammad Ali is here, why are you in rollers?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: Why is your hair in rollers? My mother's unimpressed with celebrity. But - so he was really this macho, machismo, towering of a figure. He never used his gun, didn't have to. He fought these kids on the street with his hands. And I think that I was completely the opposite. He bought me boxing gloves. I threw them on the floor and go play with my sister's, you know, doll babies and stuff�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: And I think - that's what I love about my dad. You know, he knew that he couldn't beat out - the spirit out of me. And I was like, you know, next - next assignment to embarrass you, dad. But it was snowing and it was, we - he left his gun on the table. My mother said, why are you leaving the house with your gun - without your gun? Ah, it's nothing. Don't worry about it.

I'm across the street listening to Jackson 5 Christmas carols in the basement. I could hear my mother's piercing voice through the snow across the street. I knew that my dad had died. I knew. I'd never heard a more guttural screaming of my name - from her. And we - it was a very, yeah - hard time for all of us. And we, you know, and we sort of spiraled from there.

GROSS: So what happened with father? There was a robbery?

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah. He, he - the guys, they were kids, you know? Kids. Kids -teenagers. And they were with guns and they came into the bar and there was a -they were holding up the bar and I think drugs were involved, I think. And he said, Kid, put the gun down, and they shot him in the leg and he kept walking. He said, Kid, put the gun down. They shot him in the right shoulder. He kept walking. And then they came up to his head and they shot him in his head.

And I lived this through, you know, the whole thing with the courts and it's like - it's really hard. It was a really, I'm sure that's had a profound affect in my storytelling too. I think that - you don't know it. You know, you really don't know where you are until much later. I don't know.

GROSS: In a lot of movies and novels there's a kind of before and after. There's a turning point in somebody's life that changes their life and like you actually had that with your father.

Mr. DANIELS: I did. I did. And - I did. And I wish I, you know, I'm angry at him right now. I'm angry at him for not taking his gun, because I know, look, men - I've seen it happen. I have an uncle now. I wasn't going to talk about it before, but I have an uncle now. But you know, he was hard when I was a young guy, and he's so mellow now, man. He's so chilled. He's so proud of me, and I so wish he were - my dad were here, because he'd be so proud of me, you know? I know it. I just know that he would embrace my homosexuality with gusto. Times have changed so radically and it just breaks my heart that he's not here with me, you know?

GROSS: Yeah. Now, the two twins - your two twins, from what I read, the twins were your brother's children and...

Mr. DANIELS: They are my brother's biological...

GROSS: Biologically.

Mr. DANIELS: ...children.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. DANIELS: Yes. And I've had them since they've been three days old. And they are my babies and my brother had to be sent away, and his wife, you know, left them on my mom's doorstep, and I've had them since that day. And...

GROSS: So he was in prison?

Mr. DANIELS: He went to prison for a moment. Yes. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: After they were born.

Mr. DANIELS: Before they were born. He knew...

GROSS: Oh, I see. I understand. Okay.

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah. He told me that - he said he didn't think that his girlfriend wanted the kids. He called me. I was in L.A. He said I don't think my girlfriend's going to want these kids and I got to do a little bit of time and can you take them? I said I have no intention on taking these kids, so never. You know, I'm in my - look I'm in, you know, I'm doing my thing out in Palm Springs with the boys, you know what I mean? I'm having fun, you know?

GROSS: How old were you?

Mr. DANIELS: I was - so if I'm 49 now, that was 13 years ago. So - but they changed my life. And my mother - so the mother left them on my mother's doorstep and my mother called me. I remember the call as if it were yesterday. She says, I've raised five kids. I have raised, I don't know - 10, 12 grandkids. I have no intention on raising any more kids. And I'm calling social services. Ma, you can't call social services. You cannot. I knew she meant it.

And I got on a plane and there you go. The rest is history. My partner at the time, Billy Hopkins, who casts all my movies, we raised them. We adopted them and we raised them and we've had them sense.

GROSS: My guest is Lee Daniels. He directed the new film "Precious" and produced "Monster's Ball." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Lee Daniels. He directed the new film "Precious."

In your new movie, "Precious," Lenny Kravitz plays a nurse's aide...

Mr. DANIELS: Yes.

GROSS: ...and you had a nursing agency, I think, before you got into casting and producing and directing. Am I right about that?

Mr. DANIELS: I did.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. DANIELS: I did.

GROSS: So the girls in "Precious" are surprised to see a male nurse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Was anyone surprised to see you, a male nurse, in - was this the �80s?

Mr. DANIELS: I wasn't a nurse. I knew nothing of nursing at all. Let me just set the record straight.

GROSS: You were more management?

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah. What happened was, was that I started as a receptionist at a nursing agency when I first came to Hollywood with the intentions on being a writer. And what happened then was, was - I started out as a receptionist and then I started sales and then they - I became a manager of the company, and I said, ah, what the heck. You know, why am I doing this? You know, why can't I open my own little agency? So I did from my home in Hollywood. And I started with five nurses. It led to 500 nurses.

GROSS: Hmm.

Mr. DANIELS: I made an incredible amount of money. I knew at that time nothing of taxes - something called taxes, because...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: ...I didn't know. And oh, it was crazy and also...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. DANIELS: And that and then no one knew that I was 22 years old and taking -and I knew nothing of nursing, and yet I had these nurses working for me. And a producer who had worked with Prince, he would come in every Saturday, he'd slide his check under the door. And he - I happened to be there doing some accounting work on Saturday and he freaked out that I was as young as I was taking care of his grandmother, who was ill.

And he looked at the agency. He said, what - and he was fascinating by it. He goes, what do you want to do ultimately? I said write and direct. And he said, well, a good way of doing that would be to, you know, work as a PA and, you know, I'm doing this, you know, this movie. And I said sure. And you know what? Just like that, I sold the nursing agency.

I put two million dollars in my pocket. I sold it to a bigger company and I would've made a lot more if I had no taxes on it, and I had to pay off the tax man. But you know, I look back on that like it was nothing. I mean that is a very incredible feat for a 22-year-old.

GROSS: So you've had - before you started producing and now directing...

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you had experience, okay, running a nursing agency, but you also had experience, you did casting.

Mr. DANIELS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You did, you had a management company. Correct me if I'm wrong...

Mr. DANIELS: I did and...

GROSS: ...managing actors.

Mr. DANIELS: Managing actors.

GROSS: So what are some of the things you learned about acting and casting from working in the field of casting and management, because I'm sure you saw a lot people who you felt weren't really getting roles that - in other words, I'm sure you thought a lot of people weren't getting the roles that they deserved that would really stretch them creatively.

Mr. DANIELS: Yes. A woman that was very inspirational to me getting in the business, a woman name Paula Kelly, who's a dancer who was in - an actor, a singer. She was in a movie called "Sweet Charity." And I was casting some bad movie of the week - really bad - and there was a prison movie or something and there was a prison - this women that was the warden of a prison.

And Paula Kelly, who should never have come in to audition for the role, she should've been offered the role, she came in, which was degrading enough, because I would've offered her the job, but the producers didn't know who she was. And so she gave - and I tell you, I'd pay a hundred bucks to see it again today - probably the most brilliant audition ever. And they ended up giving it to this blond bimbet who played this prison warden - go figure.

And I said never again. That's it. It's a wrap. I'm going to find people like that work, brilliant actor's work. And I didn't know the struggle. I didn't know that it was going to be such a struggle to find African-Americans work, and during that time, because there was none. I could not get Hollywood to accept that they couldn't be drug dealers or cops - if we were lucky. You know, it was just - it was laughable and I got tired of telling brilliant actors no.

GROSS: Okay. So finally, tell me. You've done casting, managing, producing and directing.

Mr. DANIELS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And your latest work is directing "Precious."

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah.

GROSS: You've taken - among other things - you've cast Mo'Nique, the actress and talk show host, you've cast Mariah Carey in this film, you cast a young obese woman in the starring role as Precious - you know, a lot of really unlikely choices that all really work.

So to sum up, since you've done so many different things within the movie business, what do you think is the job of the director? What does the director, when it comes to acting, what does the director do to actually get a performance out of somebody that is, you know, the best performance that they can give?

Mr. DANIELS: I don't know what other directors do. I can only tell you what I do. I don't believe in a rehearsal process at all. It's more of a therapy session. They need to understand me, you know, so my rehearsal period is really me talking about my insecurities, my fears, my hopes, my dreams, sex, food, literature, gossip, music...

GROSS: How is that helpful to your actors, hearing about your insecurities?

Mr. DANIELS: They know me. They know everything about me. There's nothing I hide with my actor.

GROSS: But how is that helpful for them giving their performance?

Mr. DANIELS: Because they know what I want to see, and then they sort of strip down. Like I don't know how it helps. I just tell you how it's worked for me and how I've gotten performances out of actors. We don't talk about the work until we're on set, and we don't have rehearsals and we just sort of walk through it.

I'm literally - I'm grunting and talking in tongue and using my hands and waving when I'm directing, because they - I don't yell action until we're not on the same paragraph or sentence or word, but syllable. We are one before I yell action. We - I'm moving my hands. I'm telling them this is what I - move your head this way, bat your eyes this way, lift your arms now. Uh, uh. You know, and so it's - uhh - I don't know how to explain it, but it's my process.

GROSS: So if the process is so kind of therapy-oriented in a way, with you uncovering who you are and them uncovering that they are - was "Precious" a therapeutic experience for you in the end?

Mr. DANIELS: Yeah. Yeah. I learned to love myself more because that's what she does. She's learned to love herself. And I learned never to look this girl in the face again and ignore her, like, I will never not see her again.

GROSS: Lee Daniels, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. DANIELS: You're welcome.

GROSS: Lee Daniels directed the new film, �Precious.�

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