Paula Patton offers ‘Precious’ performance, earns Aspen Film honor
ASPEN – Paula Patton understands that on the surface, “Precious, Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” can feel like an after-school special: tormented teenager overcomes her disadvantages with the help of kind teachers. And in this story, the obstacles are laid on especially thick. Sixteen-year-old Claireece “Precious” Jones – played by Gabourey Sidibie in director Lee Daniels’ screen adaptation – is obese, illiterate, pregnant for the second time, emotionally abused by her mother and surrounded by deprivation in her Harlem neighborhood.Patton, a 33-year-old beauty who plays the teacher Ms. Rain, knew from the outset that she needed to give her character complexity. Simply being the gentle soul guiding Precious toward the light would reinforce any made-for-TV quality in the story.”I didn’t know how to play her and not have it be a stereotypical TV movie,” said Patton from Los Angeles.Patton turned to an actual teacher for guidance. She shadowed Janet Jones, a New York teacher who had experience with severely disadvantaged students. What she learned was that such kids need not only kindness, but firmness as well.”What stuck out was her toughness with the kids,” Patton said. “You could show love but not be too saccharine sweet. That would have been dishonest: The kids know you love them, but it’s tough love. “I got so many nuances from her. When I have a lot of that to work with – the way she writes on the chalkboard, the way she talks to the kids – that makes the character much more real.”In a way, she was actually relearning what she knew about teachers. Patton’s first role model of what a teacher should be came from her mother, who taught for 32 years in Los Angeles Unified School District classrooms. But Joyce Patton was a different kind of teacher than Jones, or Ms. Rain. Joyce taught better-adjusted kids, and could afford to be more casual. “She had a way of talking to them, could talk to them about music and things. She knew what was going on,” Paula Patton said. “Janet Jones, she needed to teach in a different way. This was their last chance to get a high school diploma, and if not … . Not to have an education in America is not to have a future.”Patton added that she lifted her mother’s sense of commitment for her portrayal of Ms. Rain. “My mother was a great example of the many school teachers who go beyond their work hours, take an interest in a child,” she said. “My mom would bring kids home, help with their lives, pay for their books.”If Patton had any concerns about not being able to pull off her character, or of “Precious” itself turning out shallow, they have been dispelled. The film earned multiple awards at the Sundance Festival, including the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize, and more recently, the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is being tabbed as a strong contender for the Academy Award for best picture; if it took the Oscar, it would be the first Best Picture winner to feature a predominantly African-American cast.Patton gets her share of the honors Thursday, as she is the recipient of Aspen Film’s new Artist to Watch Award. Patton will participate in a Q&A following a screening of the film, before heading for New York, where “Precious” shows Friday as the New York Film Festival’s Centerpiece presentation. The film opens nationally in early November.While the character of Ms. Rain has her thinking back on her mother, “Precious” has Patton reflecting back on another aspect of her childhood: the neighborhood in which she grew up. She was raised in Los Angeles, within walking distance of the 20th Century Fox studio lot. (How she can be a Los Angeles product and still understand the concept of “walking distance” was left unexplained.) The proximity to Hollywood had an effect.”It was a symbol for what I wanted, the glamour and allure,” Patton said. “It was a place where make-believe happened, and my favorite game growing up was make-believe. The idea that there was this place so close by where adults played make-believe was fascinating. I still get excited looking at the lot. I still can’t believe it’s happening to me.”Patton stared out with a behind-the-scenes perspective, producing documentary segments for the cable show “Medical Diaries.” But after turning to acting, she quickly found a place, landing featured parts in the action film “Deja Vu,” opposite Denzel Washington, and “Swing Vote,” with Kevin Costner.”Precious” represents something of a turning point. Ms. Rain is unlike any character Patton has played, and the independent mode of filmmaking was new to her.”When we started making this film, we had no distributor. I didn’t know if anyone was going to see it,” she said. “Because it wasn’t a studio film we had time to try things. I felt like I was able to delve deeper than I’ve been able to go before, and had a director who allowed me to do that. I felt like I left the film better than I was before.”The subject matter of “Precious” can be difficult; the trailer features some harrowing scene of Precious being taunted by her own mother (played by Mo’Nique). But Patton cautions against labeling the film as difficult and believes that Daniels showed a deft touch at balancing emotions.”It deals with a difficult subject matter, but any time you feel you can’t take any more pain, he makes you laugh or cuts to a beautiful fantasy and keeps you on the ride,” Patton said. “Buying a ticket to this movie is like getting on a roller coaster. The end of the movie leaves you with so much hope. Your heart is bigger. You have to go to some dark places but there’s also so much light.” Still, Patton calls her next project, a comedy co-starring Queen Latifah and Common, a “nice change of pace.”Patton is pleased to see that audiences don’t seem to be placing “Precious” in the “black film” ghetto.”Even though it’s about a black girl, it’s beyond all race and gender and goes to human issues,” she said. “When we look in the mirror and don’t like what we see, it touches on that. Yet it speaks about taking responsibility for that, too. And it touches on how we walk right past people like Precious. It makes you realize everybody has a story behind them. So you see a pregnant teenage girl, maybe you have more compassion and less judgment.”email@example.com
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