You'd be forgiven for not recognizing Mariah Carey in her role as a dowdy welfare caseworker in the urban drama "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire."
The legendarily high-maintenance pop diva underwent a soup-to-nuts physical transformation, checking her glossy celebrity patina at the door in order to convincingly portray the film's Ms. Weiss: a drab but deeply empathetic soul helping a troubled teenager in '80s Harlem. Far from the image Carey has cultivated for years, the character is no oil painting of music-video pulchritude, with her lank hair, a wardrobe of rayon sweater-coats and, yes, even a sparse mustache creeping across her upper lip.
"I had to lose all vanity," Carey said. "I had to change my demeanor, my inside, layers of who I am, to become that woman."
How R&B's most unabashedly glamorous chanteuse came to sport facial hair how Carey came to defy all expectations by delivering what some are describing as an Oscar-worthy performance in "Precious" at all is one of those quirky sagas upon which indie film-world dreams are made.
Turns out the alto with a five-octave range wasn't director-producer Lee Daniels' first choice. He had considered Jane Fonda for the role and cast Carey only when Oscar-winning British actress Helen Mirren dropped out at the 11th hour.
Daniels, who became chummy with the singer after casting her in his indie drama "Tennessee," implemented Carey's deglamorization process as a means to two ends to ensure that audiences wouldn't be "taken out of the picture by seeing Mariah Carey." But also to antagonize the singer for her own good by making her look homely in the extreme.
"It wasn't just the director in me," Daniels explained earlier this week, "but the big brother torturing his sister. This was just to irritate her. At what point would she start screaming and run up out of this chair?"
To put a fine point on how sheerly unlikely all of this is, one need look no further than Carey's 2001 star vehicle "Glitter." A semi-autobiographical musical romance, the movie was trounced by critics, fizzled at the box office and netted the performer a Razzie Award for worst actress.
Carey seemed to be just another one-trick songbird (Madonna, Britney and Jessica Simpson, please stand up) unable to transfer her talents to the big screen. Since "Precious" premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival, however, critics have been singing a different tune. A reviewer for Variety called Carey's performance "pitch-perfect" while the New Yorker's Anthony Lane asks, "Hold on: a stern, song-free, compassionate piece of acting from Mariah Carey? . . . It's for real."
Nonetheless, Carey finds her appearance in "Precious" painful.
"Hideosity!" she exclaimed, raising her hands in mock horror. Carey was seated on the patio of the Polo Lounge wearing a plunging black gown, exhausted from a whistle-stop tour through Korea, Japan and Brazil in support of her latest album "Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel" (which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart earlier this year) but still impressively blinged-out in diamonds. The divide between her luxe life and latest movie role could not have been more vividly illustrated, but Carey left their disconnect unmentioned. "I am glad people are telling me they don't recognize me," she continued. "But when it comes to my scenes, I get like, 'Oh, I don't know if I can look.'"
Based on the acclaimed 1996 novel "Push," "Precious" took both the Grand Jury Prize and the audience award at Sundance and hits theaters in limited release Friday. The film executive produced by media heavyweights Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry follows Claireece "Precious" Jones (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe), a 16-year-old Harlem girl whose hard-knock life provides a taxonomy of urban poverty's worst ills. She's illiterate, on welfare, morbidly overweight and pregnant with a second child by her own father. After enrolling in a literacy program, Precious is reluctantly assigned to visit a social worker: Carey's Ms. Weiss.
"She still doesn't have a first name," the singer laughed, popping a blini with a glinting mound of caviar into her mouth. In her few but unforgettable scenes, the character plays a pivotal role in helping Precious pull out of her downward spiral.
Movie history is studded with A-list actors who subverted their prescribed images in a bid for greater respect and awards season glory. A few recent examples: Nicole Kidman's golden statue-grabbing turn (courtesy of a prosthetic schnoz) in "The Hours," or Charlize Theron's uglying up as a serial killer for her Oscar-winning portrayal in "Monster."
Unlike some other performers, though, ego-driven careerism was hardly the deciding factor in Carey's transformation. When Mirren, who had previously worked with Daniels on his 2005 directorial debut "Shadowboxer," dropped out of "Precious" just days before she was scheduled on-set, the director had to scramble; there wasn't time to audition replacement actresses. Cue phone call from Carey.
"Mariah calls me, 'Come over dah-ling.' I said, 'I'm not in the mood. I gotta cast this movie,'" Daniels recalled." 'What movie dah-ling?'"
The two had had forged what they describe as a brother-sister level of closeness working on "Tennessee," a little-seen road drama Daniels produced that had a brief theatrical run this summer. In that film, Carey first spread her wings as a dramatic actress portraying a small-town waitress with ambitions of singing stardom.
"I said, 'I'm doing "Push." ' She had read the book. A light bulb went on over my head," Daniels said.
With Mirren's blessing, he hired Carey. "I wanted to tap into what people don't see in her," said Daniels. "She steps into that Mariah world of makeup and pumps, she becomes something. It's a machine that has made her an enormous amount of money. But I wanted to show the person I know she is when we're alone. One of the smartest, most intuitive women I've ever met."
Carey, 40, cleared her schedule and traveled to the "Precious" set in northern-most Harlem by taxi, forbidden from arriving with entourage in tow. With only days to prepare, the performer says she based her characterization on a therapist she knew but also on what she cryptically describes as first-hand knowledge of the social welfare system.
Asked what those experiences might be, Carey a Long Island native of Afro-Venezuelan/Irish American decent who was raised by her opera singer mother declined to specify.
"When people say, 'I didn't know she had it in her,' they don't know my life," said Carey. "They don't know my childhood and what I went through except for a very basic story because I don't choose to tell the world."
Transcending simple stunt casting, the performance strikes a unique dramatic tone, balancing a lived-in physical presence with world-weary empathy. As well, there's a tinge of impatience, the whole effect leavened by Carey's deepening her natural speaking voice. It's all a far cry from the sequined bustiers and high-frequency melismas on which her reputation as a songstress rests.
"I went, 'What does this woman feel every day with people coming at her, wanting something from her?' And there may be people who are slightly disingenuous. Because I know a little of what goes on, believe it or not."
An out gay man and opinionated aesthete, Daniels personally saw to uglying her up.
"We created Ms. Weiss on the spot," he said. "We started with the bags under the eyes. Then I said, 'I'm going to put a mustache on you.' Bound her boobs down, put this gray makeup on her, found this cheesy rayon material, put it on her. I could see her hands shaking. I was nervous for her, but I felt it was good for her to be out of her bubble."
The pop diva said she hopes to continue in independent films but has no plans to give up music any time soon. But before leaving the topic of facial hair, she wanted to get something clear. "Do I look like I have a mustache?" Carey asked.
She craned her neck forward and thrust her upper lip in a visitor's direction. Nope, no 'stache. "I'm not very hairy," Carey continued, displaying her forearm on which not a single hair could be seen. "I've never had that issue."