Before she was Oscar nominated for her turn as an abused teenager in Precious, Gabourey Sidibe was cast as the tell-it-like-it-is high schooler Andrea on Showtime’s cancer dramedy The Big C. The show, now in its second season, while inherently depressing — it follows a schoolteacher mom (Laura Linney) who is dying of stage-four melanoma — is also hopeful and funny, and some of its most charming moments have come when Sidibe and Linney go sass-for-sass. We spoke with Sidibe, whose first episode of the season airs this Monday, about what’s next for her character, boundary issues, and why she can’t just enjoy a party.
Your first scene of the season, you walk into a classroom with a blue streak in your hair, and it is sort of a reminder: You’re playing a high schooler. Is that weird, since you’re 28?
It’s fun to play high school. It’s actually just really fun to play this character because she reminds me a lot of myself in high school, where she’s really sassy, she’ll say pretty much anything, and she doesn’t really care about anyone else’s feelings unless she’s really thinking about it.
So that’s what you were like in high school?
[Laughs.] A little bit. I was much less tactful than I am now. But I’d eventually feel bad because I was always putting my foot in my mouth and saying things I shouldn’t have, and then I would feel bad about it about a day or two later.
Did you have a teacher you connected with, the way Andrea connects with Laura Linney’s character, Cathy?
Yeah, a few. Although Andrea gets really close to Cathy and I never would have. I’m so weird about boundaries; I always thought it was really awkward whenever I would see a teacher outside of school, like in the train station or something.
How has it been working on TV compared with movies? Were you surprised by anything?
The only difference between film and TV is my level of patience, because when you do a movie, you get the script from beginning to end and you know what happens to your character; you can understand your character from start to finish. But with TV we get two new episodes every two weeks, so I don’t know what the end of my character’s journey is. I got a love interest in this season and I didn’t see it coming until I read that episode. And then I’m like, So where is this going? I would kind of ask the writers but they wouldn’t tell me — as they shouldn’t.
Do you go in while they’re eating lunch and try to milk them for information?
[Laughs.] Kind of, although I really don’t like to be spoiled myself. I really believe in secrets. And so I’ll kind of ask them, but then I’ll say, “No, no, no, no. Don’t tell me.” But this season, you’ll see what Andrea is like when she’s in a relationship and possibly in love.
Does she turn to Cathy for advice?
Yeah, definitely, on dating and boys and how she should dress. Cathy doesn’t have a daughter. All she has is [her son] Adam, and he’s very much a boy. Like, you saw in the first episode he was aggressively farting everywhere. So I think Cathy enjoys the kind of girl moments that she gets to share with Andrea.
And what have you learned from working with Laura Linney?
She’s such an amazing person and actress. And so she’s always really warm and good for recognizing when I’ve done something right and when I’ve done something that is maybe weird. Nothing weird, really, but whenever I’m having a bad day or I don’t think that I got a scene right or I don’t think I’ve done something good enough, she maybe she picks up on it. She watches the episodes because she’s also a producer of the show, and so she’ll come to me like the next day and say, “You were really, really great in this scene. It was fantastic.” It always makes me feel very special; it makes me feel kind of like I’m in the business that I was meant to be and that I’m doing it correctly. Because it’s very hard for me to be on this show with these acting heavyweights like Laura and Oliver Platt and John Benjamin Hickey and Cynthia Nixon. I always feel like a little kid because I just got here. And sometimes I’m really nervous about acting choices I make, and Laura is really good at assuring me that I am an actress and that I am supposed to be doing this.
One of the plot points early in the show was that Cathy was going to pay you to lose weight and in Precious, you were obviously picked on for your weight. Does that ever get to you as an actress, like, “Okay, enough with that plot point”?
I think any plot point that is repetitive would get to me. Like I just did a film [Tower Heist] where I had a Jamaican accent. More than likely in my next film, I won’t do a Jamaican accent. I tend to get bored.
You also did Yelling to the Sky with Zoe Kravitz, which is interesting because you were in Precious with her dad.
Hollywood, that whole industry, is a lot like a really small town. You bump into the same people all the time. I think “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” can be played with anyone and everyone in Hollywood.
But you live in New York —
Yes. And also The Big C and Tower Heights were shot here, so I have very little reason to go to L.A. if not for promotion.
What about the promotional events we see you out and about at around here? Do you like going out in the city?
Well, it’s not like I can just go to a party or a club or whatever. I used to do that when I was a little younger and that used to be fun, but now every party that I go to is like a walking job interview, answering questions about what I do for a living.
And do you ever find the whole photo-shoot side of the industry off-putting?
I don’t think it’s off-putting at all. It’s a very necessary part — it’s all promotion and I’m always really proud of being in magazines and on covers. I did a photo shoot yesterday for a Bobbi Brown book. I’m actually good at it. I’m good at having my picture taken and being in front of cameras.