NEW YORK - Lee Daniels had so much faith in Mariah Carey's acting that when the director's first choice to play a dowdy, no-nonsense social worker - Oscar-winner Helen Mirren - backed out, he quickly asked Carey to step in.
But Daniels was well aware that in hiring Mariah Carey, the actress, he was also likely to get Mariah Carey, the diva - a high-maintenance sideshow that would include an entourage of makeup artists, assistants, publicists and other hangers-on, running counter to the energy he wanted the superstar to exude in his searing drama "Precious." He had cast her as the lead in last year's film "Tennessee."
So, as he gave her the role, he also issued a warning: Leave the diva act at home.
"If you come with a strip of makeup on," he recalls telling her, "I will have a backup (actress)."
"I knew that she would be out of her safety zone, and I knew that there would be no one for her to rely on, to say, 'Get me this, get me that,"' he said. "I could see in her eyes-'What is Lee doing to me?' But I knew that she trusted me."
By putting her faith in Daniels, Carey - who famously flopped in her movie debut "Glitter" in 2001 - may have finally proven to critics that formidable talent extends to more than just her voice. She's garnered high praise for her turn in the film, which is being released nationwide on Nov. 6.
But more importantly for Carey, the role helped her shed some of the insecurities that not only hindered her in acting, but in her real life.
"That was such a freeing experience for me," Carey says during a recent interview. "By making me look so bad he brought out the ability to never be self-conscious again, and that was a gift that he gave me."
After years of striving to reach an ideal - from her personal life to her music career - Carey, 39, is embracing life's imperfections, an attitude summed up by the title of her latest album, "Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel."
Producer Tricky, responsible for hits like Rihanna's Grammy-winning "Umbrella," was one of the main writers and producers of the "Memoirs of an Imperfect," along with Carey and The-Dream. Tricky says Carey is "is kind of letting people know, I'm not this perfect angel."
"She has sexual songs and stuff like that that allude to stuff that she's never really touched on before."
But Carey herself points to a something else that shows her new outlook - the fact that she's dropped of one of her most infamous diva demands, that she only be photographed on her right side.
"I don't feel like, 'Oh, I have to be on this side, or I have to be on this side - I really had specific things that someone told me when I was 19 starting in the business and I listened to them. ... I don't care anymore," she says, laughing.
"Sometimes I like that side - and Nick likes that side better anyway," she adds.
Nick, of course, is her husband of almost a year and a half - the actor and producer Nick Cannon. The pair married after dating a little over a month: It was a union few took seriously at first.
That's in part because of the 12-year age gap between them (Cannon is 27), but also because they seemed to come from two different worlds. Cannon was seen as a teen star thanks to his Nickelodeon vehicles; Carey is a Grammy-winning superstar and one of the industry's most profitable artists.
"I didn't know what to make of the marriage," said Daniels, a good friend of Carey's, though now he proclaims their bond to be genuine.
"You see her in a place of complete and utter bliss. I want to throw up; I roll my eyes," he says, laughing, before adding with a serious note: "I've seen a changed woman in front of my eyes - you see what love does to someone."
Sitting on a couch while wearing snakeskin Gucci stilettos and sporting curly locks reminiscent of her "Vision of Love" days, Carey talks about how Cannon has changed her life, as he naps in the bed behind her.
"Nick is just a really supportive, very unique man who no matter what the differences are between us, he has been just such, like, a helping hand for me as a human being and a husband," she says. "I feel like I'm not by myself anymore, and no matter who I was with I always felt alone."
Carey took her union to Cannon so seriously that she lowered her profile right after they got married, even though she had just started to promote "EMC2," the follow-up to her multiplatinum, Grammy-winning triumph "The Emancipation of Mimi."
While "EMC2" had the hit "Touch My Body," it seemed to fade after she wed.
"I took a slight break because we just wanted to be together," she says. "(With) 'Mimi,' that's all I was focused on."'
Carey says today, "everything is different, I'm in a different place in my life. I really enjoyed being in the studio and coming home and playing songs for Nick and talking about them."
"We have a lot of conversations about music and just listening and dissecting the songs. It's sort of a new thing for me so I really, really enjoyed it."
Cannon may have had input on the album, but he's nowhere on the credits. While they have no musical project in the works, there's been rampant speculation that there might be another Carey-Cannon production in the making - a baby.
On those rumours, Carey says coyly: "Well, we enjoy practising."
But after a good laugh, she says now would "not be the right time" because of the pair's busy lives.
As far as working on something else together, like a movie, Carey doesn't rule it out.
"We have to make sure the movie was a stone winner otherwise they would kill us," Carey says.
"It'd have to be a comedy," interjects Cannon.
"It'd definitely have to be - our life is a comedy anyway," she says, as they laugh together.
On the Net: http://www.mariahcarey.com
- PHOTOS: Blues dump Bruins to win Stanley Cup after agonizing 52-year wait40 Pictures
- PHOTOS: This Pakistani waiter looks just like Peter Dinklage8 Pictures