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'Empire's' Gabourey Sidibe talks up Becky, 'the smartest person in the room'

'Empire's' Gabourey Sidibe talks up Becky, 'the smartest person in the room'
Gabourey Sidibe plays assistant-turned-A&R-executive Becky in "Empire" and is working on a book. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Gabourey Sidibe has proof that blonds have more fun. As Becky on the hip-hop family drama "Empire," the naturally dark-haired New Yorker gets the chance to take the blond life for a spin.

"You cannot tell me I'm not shooting the cover of W Magazine or Vogue," she said about donning her character's wigs. "I would never choose to be blond myself, but I dig the fact that Becky does. I'm serving like Marilyn Monroe."

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Sidibe's iteration of the famous '50s sex kitten returns Wednesday with the Season 2 premiere of Fox's huge hit "Empire," this time as a season regular. The former assistant to Terrence Howard's Lucious Lyon has been promoted to vice president of A&R by Lucious' successor, his son Jamal (Jussie Smollett). She's become a fan favorite on the top-rated series not only for her golden locks, but her less-quotable and often stinging one-liners.

FULL COVERAGE: All things 'Empire'

"I like to think that Becky is really smart," said the Brooklyn-born, Harlem-raised 32-year-old actress. "She has a few degrees and worked her way up to be Lucious' assistant, but like most assistants, she's probably too smart to be an assistant. All of her quips come from her being literally the smartest person in the room."

For show runner and executive producer Ilene Chaiken, Becky represents more than just herself in the "Empire" story line.

"It's about opportunity," said Chaiken, referencing Viola Davis' Emmy acceptance speech about women of color in Hollywood. "It's about the notion that people like Becky don't fulfill their potential because the opportunity isn't there. Lucious gave her that opportunity."

The role, originally slated for a boyish, petite white girl, became a perfect fit for Sidibe, Chaiken said.

"We had high expectations," she said. "But I think the audience will find unexpected the degree of intellect and insight and nuance she brings to the character and to her relationships inside the show."

Sidibe became famous almost overnight for her mesmerizing performance in 2009's "Precious." It was her first film role, and it earned her an Oscar nomination for lead actress. In the critically acclaimed film directed by "Empire" co-creator Lee Daniels, Sidibe played Claireece Precious Jones, an illiterate inner-city teen mother, pregnant for a second time by her own father.

"I was kind of like a fish out of water," she said. "People kept telling me [the film] was going to be a big deal, but I don't think I was ready for how big of a deal it actually was. I can't imagine how I got through it all."

The rocketing level of attention caught her off guard. For many months after the film's release, she admitted, she was petrified by the massive amounts of publicity.

"I faked my way through it very well," she said with a laugh. "Thank God I was 25 and not 15. That would've been insane."

Her success though has given her a platform to push for change in a largely homogeneous Hollywood, particularly when it comes to casting.

"I don't see enough of [the girl like me] on television and in movies," she said. "I think there is something interesting in being a different person in terms of race, body image, age and thought process. I've always been kind of the odd person out, the one that is different.... I feel like my story hasn't been told."

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The actress said she hopes her high-profile roles enhance a feeling of self-acceptance in others.

"I enjoy the fact that out there is some little girl that is exactly like I was and she doesn't see herself on TV," Sidibe said. "She sees herself in me on 'Empire.' If it has to start with me, why not?"

Her breakout film role led to a welcome series of film and TV roles in projects including "Tower Heist," "The Big C," "American Horror Story: Coven" and Hulu's "Difficult People." She has loved the work, but still isn't used to some of the rituals of fame.

"Red carpets are terrible," she said, "and anxiety-provoking. It's so hard because I put so much thought into the perfect dress, shoes, jewelry. Then I show up and I'm sweating because I'm nervous and it's usually hot. All of the planning I put into looking presentable is wiped away because I'm all wet."

But with more red carpets unfurling beneath, she's learning.

"I lean in," she added. "I turn into the fear. I know everything's going wrong and I kind of make a joke of it."

She takes the same attitude when going to set for "Empire," which films in Chicago. Styled like "a young Oprah," Becky is responsible for much of the show's wit.

In the second season, Becky gets a love interest named J-Poppa (Mo McRae). Though the character is only slated to be in three episodes, Sidibe promised viewers will finally get a sense of what her character is like out of the office.

"You will get to see her …" she said, pausing before bursting into laughter, "after hours."

Chaiken is pumped about ramping up the character's presence on the series.

"We're really excited to be telling Becky's story since we felt like she was an integral presence in Season 1, but there was so much story there we didn't begin to tell," said Chaiken. "We are now able to start telling her story and exploring her personal life more, which is very real and substantive."

In addition to her blossoming film and TV career, Sidibe is writing a book, which is due in 2017. Though only "maybe a quarter" of the memoir is complete, readers will get the chance to know more about the daughter of a singer and a Senegalese cab driver.

"Expect my truth about a lot of different subjects," she said. "I talk about things I wouldn't normally be asked in interviews and things I wouldn't answer in an interview. But it's going to be a funny book."

Twitter: @TrevellAnderson

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