LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - At 10 o'clock one night, Mo'Nique got a call at home from director Lee Daniels.
"I have something for you that might f--- up your career," the filmmaker told her. "I said, 'Sign me up, sugar!'" the actress recalls, hooting with laughter. "'Sign me up!' "
Given the buzz that now surrounds her performance in "Precious," Mo'Nique made the right decision. But her enthusiasm for the role of Mary Jones, the abusive mother of an overweight New York teenager, was tempered by the need to draw on traumatic events from her private life.
"Lee Daniels said to me, 'Bitch, how do you make me hate you and feel sorry for you at the same time?' " she remembers. The answer lay in her own experiences growing up in Baltimore County, Md.
"I was molested," she says, referring to a family member. "I won't say I'm a victim, because to me that means I'm carrying it with me. But it happened in my life, and I don't wish that on anybody. It started when I was about 7 years old and went on for a few years."
Mo'Nique draws on a reservoir of emotion that might surprise those who know her best as the flamboyant comedienne who has starred on TV series like "The Parkers."
But when she came to shoot, she didn't dwell on it. "When it's done, it's done," she says. "We never looked at dailies, we never went back over it. Everybody asked, 'How do you know what to do?' Well, I trust Lee Daniels and he trusts his actors. Some people, you'd be like, 'Wait a minute, sugar!' Not one time did I ever say, 'Wait a minute, Lee, I don't see this character like that.'"
She adds of characters like Mary, "You see them as monsters. You want to judge them and walk away saying, 'I hated that person.' But I don't hate Mary Jones. I'm sad for Mary Jones. Mary Jones is mentally ill, has spent her life being sick, but nobody ever paid attention -- including Mary Jones."
In her own life, Mo'Nique has found love with her husband of three years, Sidney Hicks, whom she has known since adolescence. Twice divorced before that, she is also the mother of young twins.
She still finds time for a career in comedy, having delivered her first public performance during an open mike night at Baltimore's Comedy Factory in 1991. She was able to leave work -- including a job as supervisor at a phone-sex company -- and pursue her craft full time.
Appearances on "Showtime at the Apollo" and HBO's "Def Comedy Jam" followed. Mo'Nique also opened an eponymous comedy club in Baltimore and played the Montreal Comedy Festival.
Then came a five-year, award-winning run on UPN's "The Parkers" and appearances in such movies as "Phat Girlz" and "Soul Plane."
Did she worry about alienating her comedy audience when she did "Precious"? "No," she says. "I trust that they recognize this is entertainment, this is acting. They won't say, 'Oh, we can't imagine Mo'Nique doing anything that doesn't make me laugh.' "
Daniels had previously cast Mo'Nique in his debut movie, "Shadowboxer," as the drug-addicted girlfriend of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, so he was confident of her acting abilities.
Now she intends to continue pursuing dramatic roles. "They keep telling me I'm an actress; I keep telling them I'm a stand-up comedian; they keep giving me these parts. I'm like, 'For real? OK!'"
One project has particular personal resonance. "I own the rights to (Oscar-winning "Gone with the Wind" co-star) Hattie McDaniel's life story, and I can't wait to tell that story, because that woman was absolutely amazing. She had to stand up to the adversity of black and white (society) at a time when we really weren't accepted. Mr. Lee Daniels is going to direct it, of course, and I'm going to be Miss Hattie McDaniel. I really hope I can do that woman justice."
Comedy remains Mo'Nique's professional priority, and she recently started a late-night talk show for BET.
"I love to get on that stage, honey, and make you laugh until you pee on yourself," she exclaims. "That's my baby. I will never stop stand-up. I will be 97 years old, with two teeth and maybe a bit of hair, and I will be on that stage hoping they're having as much (fun) as I'm having."