Comic actress Mo’Nique gets a breakout dramatic role in ‘Precious’

[3 November 2009]

By Roger Moore

The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)

The reviews are so gushy that they’d have to go straight to your head. For the comic actress Mo’Nique, “Precious,” opening in theaters across the country in November, has become the classic “big break,” that once-in-a-lifetime star turn that changes a career.

As Mary, the monstrous mother of the obese, abused and pregnant teen Precious, Mo’Nique is “Medusa-like,” giving “tremendous life to this dead soul,” Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker.

She is “cruelty incarnate. It’s an astonishingly powerful performance,” Duane Byrge raved in The Hollywood Reporter.

It’s “an electrifying, positively Oscar-worthy performance,” Rex Reed declared in The New York Observer.

And the phone is ringing for the big, black, sassy-and-proud actress born Monique Imes, who became so singular a talent that she’s been able to go by Mo’Nique for her entire professional career. But is she happy about all this? She wouldn’t be Mo’Nique if it was all icing on the cake.

“My phone IS ringing, but you know what? They’re not calling me to offer me parts. They’re calling me for AUDITIONS! Me! ‘Come in for a meeting! Come in and audition! Would you READ for us?’ What is up with that? Don’t they believe that’s me up there?”

She laughs.

“I guess I surprised them too much.”

At 41, after years of stand-up comedy, making her name for plus-sized laughs on stage, on TV and in books (“Skinny Women Are Evil”) and stealing scenes out from under the likes of Martin Lawrence (“Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins”) and Keira Knightley (“Domino”), the always-scary Mo’Nique has moved front and center by delivering a horror movie-worthy performance in the middle of an intimate tragedy of poverty and lovelessness.

“Wait a minute. Do I SCARE you baby? My comedies are supposed to be funny! Which ones have you come out of scared? Ain’t nobody supposed to be scared of me except for skinny women!”

Mo’Nique started her working life as a phone sex operator, drifted into comedy, and has never looked back. She’d worked with “Precious” director Lee Daniels, coincidentally playing a character named “Precious,” in his earlier flop “Shadowboxer.” But when he called this time, “I jumped. Didn’t have to think for a second, because this woman? I know her. And Lee Daniels, he didn’t make me audition!”

Her research?

“I didn’t have to do research. I was abused by my older brother and my parents didn’t really believe me, either, just like in this movie. I don’t know why. Why would I lie about that? (Essence Magazine reported that this brother was later sent to prison for 15 years for sex crimes with another girl). That was all the research I needed. I lived it.

“So I know Mary. She’s seen what’s going on, or she’s aware of it. She’s not turning a blind eye. She’s mentally ill. She blames the victim. You see, that’s why I think she’s scary. You’re used to people like this being put in an institution. When you’re poor, people like that can be your next door neighbors.”

“Precious,” an indie film that Oprah and Tyler Perry have joined as producers to ensure that the public sees it, that the nation’s critics are embracing, is important, Mo’Nique says. “Because of what it makes us see. Poverty is UGLY. If people respond to this movie, it’s because of what we haven’t let ourselves see this the past few years. People like this are out there among us. These are two overweight, poor black women in Harlem. Would YOU have given them a thought if they weren’t in a movie? Nuh-uh.

“This movie is about how long we’ve gone without looking at poverty. This happens in America, baby, and poor people don’t go away just because you pretend you don’t see them.”

Days on this heavy, heavy set in between takes were lightened, she says, with music and dancing and “crab legs and partying. It had to be that way. No way we could live with these characters after work.”

She left “Precious” behind and went back to TV and film comedy, practicing the art she’s mastered, of being comically scary. But being truly frightening? It’s all an act, right?

“If I’m scary, baby, it means I got my way, doesn’t it?”

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