She has been nominated for an Oscar, hosted Saturday Night Live and shared a stage with Oprah Winfrey.
But when it came time to trade barbs with Laura Linney in Showtime's latest twisted suburbanite dramedy, The Big C, Gabourey Sidibe found herself in an unusual position: playing the student.
"I never got the chance to go to acting class and so every scene that I'm in with her, I just watch her like a total freak," said Sidibe, noting Linney's status as an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actress. "I try to be as good as people say I am and … I know it's weird, but I try to be good for her, you know? Because she's, like, an amazing actress and I don't want to mess up her scene."
Sidibe needn't worry. Turns out her character, acerbic high school student Andrea, gives the show's first episode one of its best scenes — pushing Linney's exasperated high school teacher Cathy Jamison into delivering the most devastating put down any instructor ever laid on a wayward pupil.
"You can't be fat and mean," Linney's Jamison snaps after one too many insults from Sidibe's Andrea, an overweight teen who admits trying every diet known to mankind (later, the teacher will offer her student $100 for every pound she loses). "Fat people are jolly for a reason. Fat repels people, but joy attracts them. So you can either be fat and jolly or a skinny b----; it's up to you."
Only the viewer knows the real reason why Linney's character is so free with sharp opinions; Jamison's been told by her doctor that she has an advanced skin cancer and less than two years left to live.
But instead of telling anyone in her life, Jamison begins reinventing her life — kicking an immature husband out of their house, forcing her bratty son to spend more time with her and trying to bond with a homeless, green-activist brother.
"She's someone who has been functioning very well, but hasn't really been living," Linney says of her character, an overly repressed mother and wife straining to reinvent her life on a serious deadline. "We all have a limited amount (of time) and it's a privilege to grow old. That's something I think a lot of people have forgotten in this very fast-paced world where youth is overly celebrated."
The Big C continues Showtime's tradition of casting actors of a certain age in bold dramedies featuring supremely dysfunctional families; from Mary-Louise Parker's drug-dealing suburban mom in Weeds to Toni Collette's multiple personality mom in The United States of Tara and Edie Falco's pill-popping, unfaithful mom in Nurse Jackie.
But the biggest danger in such highwire acts is that the characters may seem so selfish, self-centered and grasping, that viewers don't really care what happens to them. And that, in a short sentence, is what ails early episodes of The Big C.
Everyone in Jamison's life is a disappointment, including the husband who never listens, the summer school students who don't care and the rebellious, foulmouthed son.
Still, Linney's character holds her ailment close to the vest like a winning poker hand, fully aware that she could burst her family's self-obsessed bubbles by revealing the great tragedy facing them all. She almost seems to savor the secret power her unknown ailment provides; a silent I-told-you-so to all the indignities they unknowingly heap on the woman they'll probably only value after she's gone.
Fans distracted by this can still focus on the performances, including scenery-chewing turns by Oliver Platt as Jamison's husband and guest appearances by Liam Neeson as a holistic doctor and Cynthia Nixon as an old, wild child friend. And, of course, Sidibe turns heads, defying showbiz expectations by landing another unique role less than a year after electrifying audiences in the gritty drama Precious.
"I think the idea of what I would do was kinda split between 'she'll never work again,' or 'she'll only do roles like Precious' or 'she'll have the world at her feet,' " said Sidibe. "But I don't think about what's Oscar-worthy or Emmy-worthy. I just think about what makes me happy."
The Big C debuts at 10:30 p.m. Monday on Showtime. See The Feed blog for a link to the show's first episode: tampabay.com/blogs/media.