Lee Daniels is the anti-Pygmalion. He loves to knock a diva off her pedestal and bring her down to earth. Hand the filmmaker a gorgeous specimen like Halle Berry and he will strip away all evidence of airbrushed Hollywood artifice to reveal the talent that lies beneath. And, as in Berry's case when she played a dirt-poor widow of a death row convict in 2001's Monster's Ball, her efforts just might lead to an Oscar.
Daniels, who produced Ball, also assumes the mantle of director with Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, one of the year's most talked-about dramas even before it opens Friday.
And what are they talking about, besides how Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry have thrown their clout behind the festival-circuit favorite about a horribly abused Harlem teen, who is obese, illiterate and pregnant with her second child by her father, as she struggles to escape from her hellish life?
Mostly, it's the heartbreakingly honest performances by the film's four main actresses â€“ and that Daniels dared to give Mariah Carey a mustache.
As he says of his cast, "They gave me a miracle, they gave me my truth." Here is the truth behind how each actress defied expectations as a victimized daughter (Gabourey Sidibe), a monstrous mother (Mo'Nique), a selfless teacher (Paula Patton) and a weary social worker (Carey).
The superstar: Mariah Carey as Ms. Weiss
Lee Daniels says: "Mariah is a genius. She does Aretha Franklin, and I don't know a person alive who can talk, enunciate and do Aretha Franklin. She does an Obama that would knock you out. She jumps into these voices. They're like spooky."
Helen Mirren, who appeared in Daniels' Shadowboxer, was supposed to play the no-nonsense, plain-Jane social worker who gradually warms to Precious as she learns more about her horrific circumstances.
But, as Daniels explains, "She got a real job. So, at the last minute, Mariah came in. I think it's great Mariah did it. It would have been expected from Helen. This is not expected."
Indeed. There's the pop goddess, one of the biggest-selling musical artists of all time, bereft of all hints of her usual wham-bam glamour. Instead, Carey is virtually unrecognizable as an office drone done up in '80s frumpery.
"Somebody just said to me, 'You are so ugly in this movie.' Lee really wanted it. It was beyond ordinary. I can deal with a no-makeup look. But he went beyond. He did dark circles under the eyes and a prosthetic nose that made me break out."
Carey couldn't be more pleased that people don't know it's her in Precious.
"I really love it because I get a chance to escape. And that's not easy for me. Even vocally I took my voice to a different place. It was a more guttural type thing. I'm more speedy when I talk. She's very slow."
As for the mustache, Carey can't help but laugh. "They added some (expletive) to my face. I'm not even a hairy person," she says, showing off her barely downy arms. "Lee wanted an extreme look. He wanted ultra-real. I represent the audience pretty much. Mary or Precious might not see her as a welcome friend. But she really does have good intentions."
About Ms. Weiss' unfortunate wardrobe, "It was difficult for me. 'OK, I have to wear this?' Only because I'm so used to controlling my own stuff. But the great thing for me is to be not in control."
That she was helping turn one of her favorite books into a movie more than compensated for any sacrifices. "People assume they know what my life is, but people have no idea," says the Long Island native, 39, who is married to rapper/TV host Nick Cannon. "I have known people who have had very similar lives to Precious. Not necessarily physically, but deep stuff that I don't talk about because it's private. My personal choice is to be as positive as I can. I think that's what helps people."
Carey acknowledges that critics and the public at large still hold Glitter against her, the 2001 showbiz bomb Ã clef that featured the novice actress basically playing herself â€“ only very badly. "People kind of trash me forever for that. That was like eight years ago. Could we let it go now?"
She laughs again. "I did some other work, some independent films, and I really did learn, and stretch and grow. But they weren't this film. You kind of have to be in something this good for people to forget."
We'll soon see if Mimi gets her wish.