Oct. 30, 2009 -- In his quest for authenticity, filmmaker Lee Daniels has been known to strip his stars of their vanity, rendering them nearly unrecognizable.
In "Monster's Ball," which Daniels produced, Halle Berry's unglamorous turn as a widow who falls in love with the racist prison guard who executes her husband, earned her an Academy Award.
Watching Daniels' latest film, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," which opens next Friday, audiences will have a hard time recognizing some of the film's stars, comedian Mo'Nique, pop star Mariah Carey and rocker Lenny Kravitz, who play roles far removed from their glitzy Hollywood personas.
"Somebody who does makeup for me said this is a Mariah Carey nightmare. 'You have everything that you hate going on right now,'" Carey told reporters at the Toronto Film Festival. "But it was cool because a lot of people say they don't recognize me in the film. They don't know it's me and, to me, that was a great gift that (Daniels) gave me to be able to really go that far away from who I am."
Like Berry, Carey, Mo'Nique and Kravitz are winning kudos for their performances, and there's even talk of an Oscar nomination for Carey and Mo'Nique.
The real star of "Precious" is newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who plays the title role Claireece "Precious" Jones, an obese illiterate Harlem teen who is abused by her mother Mary (Mo'Nique) and raped by her father, who has impregnated her for the second time.
Precious has been "abused both by her mother and her father and kept down for most of her life. She's struggling to learn how to read. She's struggling to take control of her children and she's struggling to have a real life," Sidibe told Peter Travers, host of ABC News Now's "Popcorn."
Sidibe's own life -- born in Brooklyn, raised in Harlem by an R&B singing mother -- couldn't be farther from that of her character.
"When I was looking for Precious, I interviewed 400 girls," Daniels told Travers. "I saw Gabby's audition tape and she starts talking like this white girl from California."
Despite her nightmare existence, Precious fantasizes about a different life and is offered the chance at one when she meets alternative school teacher Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), a social worker (Carey) and delivery room nurse John (Kravitz).
In the end, the film is about "hope, a belief in yourself," Daniels explained to Travers. "If Precious can triumph over all these adversities then I can. We all have 'Precious' moments."
Precious, said Sidibe, "is not a Hollywood creature. She's a real person. We're all a part of her. I recognized her. I recognized her in my friend, in my family, in people we don't want to be friends with."
"I watched all the things that Precious, a 16-year-old girl in the film, went through. I watched her mother be unusually cruel to her and I realized at that moment that a large part of my childhood had just played out before my eyes," Perry, producer of such hit films as "Madea's Family Reunion," wrote on his Web site. "It hit me so hard, I sat there in tears realizing that somehow, by the grace of God, I made it through."
"When I finished watching that movie, I literally had to breathe," Winfrey told reporters at the Toronto Film Festival. "I didn't cry until the card came up with 'For Precious Girls Everywhere.' And that hit a nerve. And I recognized myself in that character. Most of all, I recognized that I have seen the Precious girls of the world and they have been invisible to me."
According to Perry's Web site, he and Winfrey are donating their profits from the film to charity.
Meanwhile, Perry and Winfrey, along with Daniels and the cast, hit the festival circuit, where they racked up several awards and spoke about the process of being transformed for this bleak and ultimately heartwarming drama.
Carey had to leave her pop diva persona at the door. "I brought in all my wigs for the character and (Daniels) was like, 'No, it's not happening,'" she told reporters at the Toronto film festival.
Makeup-less, her hair mousy brown and limp, with a faint mustache above her upper lip, Carey was nearly incognito as Ms. Weiss, a tough-love social worker. She even adopted a Long Island accent for the role.
Though she's in only a few scenes, Carey has one of the most intense moments, a meeting with Precious and her mother, in which she probes Mary about how she allowed the abuse to occur.
"My character is not really a likeable person, but she does bring this to the surface. I had to really stay strong as an actor and I had to thank Lee for giving me that chance and letting us really be free with that scene," Carey said in Toronto. "I feel like it was a great chance for me to exercise and me to work and I feel like we connected on such a level. We were crying between scenes. It was emotional for us."
Kravitz didn't have to work as hard to transform himself into John, the male delivery room nurse who befriends Precious. Without his rocker's edge, he's quite believable as John.
No stranger to casting musicians, Daniels, who calls Kravitz one of his best friends, plans to work with Kravitz again.
"He's going to be working with me on the next thing that I'm doing," Daniels told Rolling Stone about a musical he has in the works. "So I thought it was a way for him to see how it was that I worked.... And I think that this movie with Lenny will prepare me and him to work together better on the next movie."
"View" co-host Sherri Shepherd has a light moment with Kravitz's character in the film, but for the most part, the comedian plays it straight in this drama, though it was a stretch for her.
"Lee Daniels called, and I auditioned for that part," Shepherd recalled in a Los Angeles Times interview. "I came in and improvised my scene and made Lee laugh, like he was cracking up, but then he came over and said, 'I don't want anything funny. You are a woman in pain. People know you for all your teeth, and your smile and those boobs -- I don't want any of that.'"
"I said, 'Lee, I don't know how to do anything else!' But he pushed me, and thank God it worked."
Another funnywoman, Mo'Nique, known for her bawdy humor, turned brutal in her portrayal of Mary, Precious' mother.
The comedian recalled for a reporter at the Sundance film festival in January what Daniels said when he first called her about the role. "Mo'Nique, this could f*** up your career." I said, 'Sign me up,'" she said.
"He said, 'I need you to be a monster,' and that was it: 'Be a monster. I need people to hate that character,'" she continued.
"I remember when we first got the script and my husband looked at that. He said, 'This is what people get Oscars for,'" Monique added. "We laughed. Now here we are."
Mo'Nique has taken some lumps in the press for being a no-show at festivals since Sundance, reportedly because her demands to be paid by festival organizers have been rebuffed.
"When people say, 'You care more about money than winning an Oscar,' well, what does an Oscar mean? An Oscar means more work when you win it, and that means more money!" Mo'Nique told the New York Daily News in response to the allegations. "I couldn't eat that Oscar. Everybody needs money, baby. That's how we survive, right?"
Back on the set, tensions between Mo'Nique and Precious on film did not translate off screen.
"When he said cut, we were done," Sidibe explained to Peter Travers. "I know very well who Gabby is and who Precious is and those lines never got blurred."
When the camera stopped rolling, Sidibe and Mo'Nique would hug, sing and joke with each other. "We had to love each other. Every day was a party. We had fun," Sidibe said.
"We didn't take ourselves seriously making this film," Daniels elaborated to Travers. "I told my crew laugh at every given turn, make me laugh through this dark journey."
The cast grew close as a result.
"Mariah was putting on Gabby's make-up. Mo'Nique was at Crafts services. Lenny was helping with costumes," noted Daniels. "We really were a family because we understood the DNA of Precious."