Actress Gabourey Sidibe

Oscar nominee discusses her role in Showtime’s The Big C and the career she thought she’d have before becoming an actress.

Her performance in '09's critically acclaimed film Precious was not only Gabourey Sidibe's acting debut, it also turned her into an overnight sensation and opened many doors for the then-fledgling actress. Since garnering multiple award nominations for the title role, including the Oscars and Golden Globes, she's hosted Saturday Night Live and appeared in Showtime's The Big C. Sidibe grew up in Harlem and attended community college and worked odd jobs before finding her niche. She's next up in Yelling to the Sky and has other projects in the works.


Tavis Smiley: Gabourey Sidibe is an Oscar-nominated actress, of course, for her role in “Precious.” You can now see her on the Showtime series, “The Big C,” which also stars our friend Laura Linney. The second season premiers this Monday night at 10:30, so here now a scene from “The Big C.”


Tavis: Gabby, nice to have you on the program.

Gabourey Sidibe: Thank you. Nice to be here.

Tavis: Every time I see you act, I kind of chuckle because, for somebody who didn’t want to do this, who fought doing it because your momma did it and you saw her struggles, for somebody who didn’t want to do it, you seem to be doing all right.

Sidibe: Yeah. It’s so funny. I wanted to be a psychologist. You know, I thought that’s what I’d be doing and it just goes to show you that, if you tell God your plans, He will laugh in your face.

Tavis: Are you enjoying it? Will you admit that now?

Sidibe: No, yeah. I love it. Like I’m really, really happy with what I do for a living. I mean, that’s what I consider work, like being on set, bringing a character to life and, you know, working with other actors and directors and stuff.

That’s what I consider to be work and it’s so much fun. I feel like all that other like weird fame stuff is not as fun and is what I do to get to the work, but that is what I do for a living and that’s what fulfills me.

Tavis: What drew you to this character on “The Big C?”

Sidibe: I just thought she was fun. You know, she’s around 17 years old and she’s young and she thinks she knows it all, yet knows nothing. I mean, weren’t you ever 17? Like weren’t you that person too? So that’s what draws me to her. You know, the familiarity I see in her to myself.

Tavis: How difficult was it, has it been for you, if at all, to navigate past all of the hype and the nomination, of course, that comes with a movie like “Precious?” How difficult when you come out in your first project that gets all that acclaim and you got to navigate a career beyond that?

Sidibe: I think I have a very different way of thinking and a lot of people have been like, oh, my God, is it gonna be hard for you? Are you scared? No. The best thing about having my very first audition lead me to an Oscar nomination means that I don’t have to struggle the rest of my career to be nominated for an Oscar, to prove that I’m a great actress, because I’ve already done it. Now I can do things that just make me happy.

I know so many actors and actresses that are just chasing this statue because they think that that’s going to make them, that’s when the world will realize that I’m a great actor. I’ve done that already.

Tavis: So in some ways, it was liberating to be nominated so early on.

Sidibe: Exactly, yeah. I mean, taking that role, I never thought I would be. You know, I didn’t know what it meant to be nominated for an Oscar. I mean, I’m so glad that I am and I’m so glad that I don’t have to worry about it.

Tavis: Just between the two of us, though, if it happened, you wouldn’t be mad about that.

Sidibe: Hell, no [laugh]. No.

Tavis: Okay, I was just asking.

Sidibe: I love being nominated for stuff [laugh].

Tavis: What’s fun for you about the acting part? What do you like about it? Again, I go back to the fact that you had misgivings about it initially, but what do you like about this acting thing?

Sidibe: I just think it’s really, really fun to take on a role of someone that reminds you of someone else. You know, when I did “Precious,” Precious reminded me of so many girls I grew up with. Andrea reminds me of myself and so many girls I grew up with. I just did an action directed by Brett Ratner and I play a maid. I know this character. I know her in like the mothers of my best friends and stuff.

I really like taking a character that I’ve seen in real life and wearing that suit and then fooling people into thinking that that’s who I am. With Precious alone, so many people think that I’m her and it makes me laugh. It really does. It’s like, ha, I fooled you. You think I’m that, but actually I’m this.

Tavis: So you find that confusion laughable as opposed to being offended by it?

Sidibe: No, I don’t think it’s offensive at all because it’s a tribute to this talent that I didn’t know I had, you know. Yeah, I fool a lot of people and I would get it all the time and people still that might have never seen me on a talk show or anything expect my voice to sound like Precious’s voice, expect me to be a little dumb and not so happy and they don’t expect me to smile.

So when I do smile, they’re kind of set back. It’s really funny to see that reaction. I mean, it changed their minds and lets them realize that I’m an actress and that people are more than just one-dimensional.

Tavis: You said something a moment ago, Gabby, that got my attention. I want to go back and ask you to unpack it for me because I think there’s something there. That is this notion that many of us have talents that we are unaware of. We have gifts that we don’t even know reside inside our very beings.

How did you discover that you were gifted at this? And what do you say to people who may be watching this right now who do in fact have talents that they don’t even know are there?

Sidibe: I don’t know. I just think it’s, okay, so I grew up with my mom as a singer and my dad. My dad’s a cab driver, but I didn’t realize that he was an amazing artist until I was 21 or so. I saw him draw a picture and it was fantastic.

It turns out that he always wanted to be an architect, and he can play the guitar because he’s got perfect pitch and he plays by ear. I had no idea, but that’s also nothing that he ever shared with me and also nothing that he really thought was important.

All we need to do is pay attention to ourselves and pay attention when somebody gives you a compliment based on something that you do naturally. Then that lets you know that that’s your talent. I mean, talents come in so many different sizes, so many different colors, so many different ways.

Like doing that, that’s a talent. But if people make a career just snapping and make bands, but I can’t snap [laugh]. Other people can, but I just think any little bit of talent that you find in yourself, you must nurture it. Even if only means something to you, it’s special.

Tavis: So you and I got a couple things in common. We both love Chick-Fil-A and you can’t snap and I can’t whistle.

Sidibe: I can’t whistle either!

Tavis: Okay. I’ve been trying to whistle for 45 years. I ain’t got it figured out yet. It’s just something I cannot do no matter how hard I try. What was it initially that attracted you to psychology? I’ve always been curious as to why you were interested in psychology.

Sidibe: The dumbest story. You’ll definitely be able to tell that I was raised by a television. “Growing Pains,” the show in the ’80s. The father on the show played by Alan Thicke was a psychologist and had an office in his house downstairs.

I thought how awesome would it be if I could have people come to my house and just talk to me and then they pay me to listen? I thought that was amazing. It’s like why aren’t more people doing this [laugh]?

I stated that I wanted to be a psychologist and I have a cousin who is an actress and she listened to me and she gave me psychology books at a very young age. So I started to read and I think the read the book, “Sybil,” for the first time when I was eight years old. It’s about, you know, multiple personality disorder and I thought –

Tavis: – that’s a heavy book for an eight-year-old.

Sidibe: Well, my mom’s a teacher, so I started reading by three. You know, when those Disney movies would come out, my mom wouldn’t let me go unless I read the novel first.

Tavis: Oh, cool.

Sidibe: Which is good, you know what I mean? Which is probably something I’ll do with my own kids. So I have a love for reading that, you know, most kids didn’t have. In reading this one person who spreads into 15-something different characters and she does it without knowing, I thought it was so fascinating. So I read more and more and more psychology books. You know, I’ve always been interested in it.

Tavis: Wow. I’m just laughing on the inside thinking that the way to make Alan Thicke known to an audience in 2011 is to say that he Robin Thicke daddy. Now you know who he is.

I’m curious. What does your cousin who is an actress who turned you on to these books think of your acting now and all the acclaim that’s come so early on?

Sidibe: She’s really, really, really proud of me. She’s like 18 years older than me, so I’ve always kind of been her baby and she’s always my favorite cousin. She’s so artistic and she can do anything. She’s a jazz singer, she’s a seamstress, she’s a designer. She does so many things.

Any little bit of talent that she saw in me and any interest in me, she wanted to nurture it. She’s really, really, really proud of me, which is a blessing because sometimes when you hit in a certain way, the people that had your back and want it seem to disappear once you got it. So she’s a blessing.

Tavis: That’s a beautiful thing. Gabourey Sidibe – can I say Gabby?

Sidibe: Yes, you can. I’m impressed you said Gabourey [laugh].

Tavis: Well, I practiced that [laugh].

Sidibe: You got a suit on [laugh].

Tavis: And a tie to go with it. Gabby Sidibe stars alongside our friend Laura Linney in the show called “The Big C.” It’s a great show. I love it. It’s on Showtime. Gabby, good to have you on the program.

Sidibe: Thank you so much.

Tavis: My pleasure.

[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]

Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.

And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 24, 2011 at 5:20 pm