EXCLUSIVE: Scene Interviews Oscar Winner Octavia Spencer

by Jordan McGuire on July 7, 2015


Octavia Spencer’s journey has been anything but overnight. Born in Montgomery, Alabama, the Academy Award winner saw her first film sets in her home state while working in production, first in extras casting and then as a production assistant. In 1995, she worked on the film that made Matthew McConaughey a star, A Time to Kill, which was shot in Mississippi. In it, she made her screen debut. Fifteen years later, Spencer returned to the Southern state to shoot The Help, the film that would earn her an Oscar.

In The Help, Spencer brings to life Minny, a maid in 1960s Mississippi. Outspoken and brash, Minny is the emotional center of the much lauded film, bringing a sense of mirth that balances out the painful truths portrayed.

Spencer has since appeared in Diablo Cody’s Paradise, Get on Up and Fruitvale Station, which she also executive produced. She starred in the television series Red Band Society and Mom. She appeared in the Bong Joon-Ho dystopian thriller Snowpiercer and also starred opposite Kevin Costner in the New Orleans shot drama Black or White, which opened the 2014 New Orleans Film Festival. In that film she co-starred with New Orleans native Anthony Mackie, whom she befriended during filming. And this year, she joined the cast of The Divergent Series, portraying Johanna in Divergent.

Now a personality widely beloved, Spencer is just hitting her stride on both the big and small screen, her best performances still to come.

Octavia spoke with me over the phone from Los Angeles.

MH: We’re based down in New Orleans. Anthony Mackie has been great to us. He was kind enough to do an interview with us right as The Hurt Locker was winning the Oscar as best picture and he’s just been a great supporter.
OS: Aw, he’s a great guy. A really great guy.

MH: And such a terrific actor. I have so enjoyed watching his career explode over the last five years.
OS: Yes, it really has. He’s pretty fantastic. I’ve known of him, but we have just really fermented a friendship when we worked together on Black or White.

MH: Let my pull my fancy questions.
OS: Alright. (laughs)

MH: They’re not that fancy.
OS: Well, the answers won’t be fancy either. (laughs)

MH: So first of all, you were absolutely hilarious at the Oscars this year. I thought that bit with the predictions was so funny.
OS: Well, thank you.

MH: Early in your career, you worked in production. Is that right?
OS: I did. I was an intern in the extras casting department, then became a PA in the casting department and then a set PA. That was pretty fun.

MH: Many actors never see that side of the filmmaking process. How did that pay dividends into your acting career? Did it help your process in any way?
OS: Honestly, I don’t know that it helped me as an actress. It definitely helped me as a person. And also how to conduct myself in this industry, because we all see movies as this glamorous thing. But it’s a business. It’s a job. It’s just like working at a bank. You wanna be on time. You wanna do your job. Whatever it is that you do – whatever field in the entertainment industry that you’re in – you just wanna conduct yourself professionally. It was great in that regard. It was also great meeting people and just kind of demystifying the whole movie conundrum for a person from Montgomery, Alabama.

I can’t say that it helped me as an actor, but it definitely gave me opportunities. The directors’ were always saying how animated I was and I’d hear, “You just have this personality.” They wanted me to read for stuff but I was ill prepared because I was not a person who had studied at that time.


MH: You’re a native of Montgomery, Alabama. Acting isn’t exactly a common professional there. What made you want to become an actor?
OS: I had always wanted to be an actor. From my earliest memory of seeing a Steven Spielberg movie, I though, “What is it that they’re doing?” I didn’t even know what it was called but they were in movies. My mom was a very practical woman, and so I didn’t think that pursuing acting was practical. She always wanted us to have jobs or careers where we could basically have fulfilling lives, but also be able to take care of ourselves. So, acting was always a dream that I had since I was a child.

MH: After you began your training as an actor, and began to embark upon your career, what was your biggest fear?
OS: I don’t know that I had any fears. I mean, I’m fearful and neurotic of bugs and things like that. But I wasn’t fearful in the way of thinking, “What’s life going to be as an actor?” I never really had any of that fear. You can’t take that kind of stuff on. I was always a very hopeful person and opportunities always seemed to present themselves.

We all have the fear of “Am I going to be able to make enough money to take care of myself?” But I don’t know that I was ever worried that it wouldn’t happen. That I wouldn’t get to act.

Success is measured in different ways. For some people, it’s being on covers of magazines. And for other people, it’s, “Hey I’m working at a dinner theater making good money, supporting myself and doing great plays.” Do you know what I mean? Getting to do what you love is measured differently.

MH: Your success hasn’t been overnight. You’ve built it brick by brick. Did you have a low point? Did you ever consider giving up on acting?
OS: No, no, no! I had a wonderful support group of friends and we were all starting out at the same time. We just kept each other motivated and when jobs weren’t happening all the time, you just did what you needed to do to pick up the slack until you got that next audition. Or you borrowed $500. My group of friends borrowed and repaid the same $500 to each other several times over. I’m not even kidding!

MH: I’ve been there! I don’t think you’ve really worked in the film industry unless you have that story to tell.
OS: No. Unless you’re a child born with silver spoon in hand, not understanding the opportunity that’s being given. But I just had a very wonderful, ambitious group of friends and we were all there. There are low points where you’re thinking, “Ugh, when’s the next job gonna come?” But quitting was never an option. It was never even anything I thought about.

MH: What were you doing right before the audition that really changed your life?
OS: I worked at a market research company because there had been a writers’ strike. Jobs were coming back online. The studios and everyone were getting back to work after the writers’ strike but it was slow. So I did several things. But the one that I did most regularly was, I worked at a market research company.


MH: And what was that audition?
OS: It was The Help.

MH: What a great film. One I revisit frequently. You are wonderful in it!
OS: Thank you!

MH: I was fortunate to meet director Tate Taylor when he premiered Get On Up in Jackson, Mississippi. He was such a sweetheart.
OS: He is indeed. He loves Mississippi and he always takes whatever projects he’s working on to bring economic growth to the state. I think that’s really beautiful for a favorite son of the state. That’s really great of him. He’s pretty fantastic.

MH: Your performance in The Help just looks so effortless. In fact, many of your performances just seem so naturally effortless! I know they’re not, but that’s my impression.
OS: (big laugh) Well, thank you! That makes me smile because, whew, that’s the job. You have to make it seem as if you’re not searching for it. Thank you, I appreciate that.

MH: You really do that. Even watching a drama like Black or White, You look so comfortable in your own skin. Are you really comfortable on set? How do you do that?!
OS: (laughs) By being the most neurotic person on the planet! Honestly, it comes from all of the preparation that you do, trusting in your process and the director and other filmmakers’ process. But definitely the director: you are in a partnership. And then your scene partner. But for me…I just don’t know! I’m really neurotic. If they don’t ever say, “We have it,” then we’ll keep going until I feel like they have it.

You can ask me, “What do you think of your performance in this?” And I’m going to say, “I could have done better. I could have done something different.” I’m always wanting to keep exploring the path of whatever character I’m playing. You only know yourself. When you’re trying to bring another person to life – to give them authenticity and find their humanity – it takes a lot of detective work. Sometimes you solve the mystery and sometimes you don’t. One thing that you must do is make people feel that they know you. That they identify your character as a real human being. So when you say, “Oh, you make it look easy. You make it look effortless,” that is a huge compliment. Thank you! Because that’s one of the things that it’s our job to do.

MH: You are welcome and it’s a well-deserved compliment. I’ve heard that, long prior to working with him on Black or White, you were a huge Kevin Costner fan.
OS: I am, indeed.


MH: How do you prepare to work with someone like that? Someone who has been a part of film for so long and that you have watched for so long?OS: With someone like Kevin, you have to do your homework. You have to be prepared. You have to be ready because he is. Knowing that he paid for this movie out of his pocket, you just want to do your due diligence and you just have to be prepared. And I loved working with him. He’s just a joy.

MH: He’s amazing. I can’t wait to watch this phase of his career.
OS: Yeah, I know.

MH: So some of my favorite scenes in Black or White are with you and Andre Holland, who is an extraordinary talent.
OS: Yes!

MH: He is so good. I had just finished watching The Knick, Soderberg’s new Cinemax show, and he is incredible.
OS: I haven’t seen it yet, but he is a brilliant actor. He’s a force of nature. He’s very grounded and authentic. There’s this depth that he always has with every character. He’s just very deep as an actor. I love him.

MH: In the scene where you, as Rowena, catch Reggie (Andre Holland) smoking, why do you think she slaps him more than once?
OS: I think she does because it’s the disbelief that she had been blinded that entire time. Sometimes love is blind. That someone would chance throwing everything away for that fleeing moment of instant gratification. Nobody wants to see anyone throw their life away or an opportunity away.

It was also for the granddaughter. She gives that whole monologue about how precious each and everyone is. She feels like he had to do his part because it’s not his decision to make, now that he has a child. He has someone else that he has to be responsible for. When you have someone else that’s a minor depending on you, then you gotta man up. It was all of those things combined, I think.

MH: Interesting. I found Rowena very sympathetic until, I would say, the third slap. The first and second, she’s obviously doing the best she can to protect her babies. But with the third slap, I was suspicious that she may have been mildly abusive with Reggie as a child.
OS: She’s not an abusive person. She honestly was upset. It’s a disappointment and how dare he throw his opportunity away? Rather than going to court to fight for this child, he is getting high? So no, she wasn’t an abusive parent. Not at all. She was too much of a doting parent, in my opinion.

MH: That answer makes my day. You also appeared recently in Snowpiercer and I was so delighted to see that you were in it. In fact, I have been able to convince several people to watch it because you are in it.
OS: Oh boy! That’s interesting.

MH: I think you are a great piece of the casting puzzle. Captain American himself Chris Evans will certainly bring some people to the theater. And Bong Joon-Ho has a following for his Korean films. But because you are in it, I can recommend it to anyone who’s a fan of The Help.
OS: That’s great!

Snowpiercer-1-webMH: What was that set like? It looks absolutely uninhabitable.
OS: It was. We filmed in Prague at one of their studios. It was all on stage so it was a very controlled environment. It was really one the most diverse groups of people I’d worked with. We had a Korean crew and we also had the Czech crew and the English speaking crew. The English speaking crew were pretty much the Americans and the Brits. Director Bong is really a cinophile and he loves American movies but he has his own unique voice. It was just wonderful working with him because you could tell when he delighted in a take. He was just diffusive with the way he said “Cut!”

It was also very different in the way he worked. We were all given a little book with the storyboards. That was our script. We had a regular script but we all had a storyboard book. It was a little comic book. What I learned very early on is that if it wasn’t in the story board, then it wasn’t going to be shot. He showed us exactly how he was shooting the movie. With an American movie, at least in the way I’ve worked with American directors, they shoot a scene and then they cover it. Bong knew exactly what pieces he wanted covered from the scene. So, there was not always a master and then coverage. There might have only been the master and might have only been coverage from different angles so it was very unique experience. I really enjoyed working with Director Bong.

MH: Were you familiar with his work beforehand?
OS: Oh yes. I’d seen The Host and two other of his movies. They were amazing.

MH: Snowpiercer was great. And you know what else was great about that movie? The fact that it actually did well in theaters!
OS: Yeah, it did huge all over the world but they never reported that over on our side. It had already made like $80 million before it was released here. I think in its first couple of months, Snowpiercer made so much money. It made its budget back. It was great. And Chris Evans is amazing in it. I love him as the anti-hero. It was a great cast and a great project to be a part of.

MH: I worked on a movie with Chris about five or six years ago and one of my memories of him was just how studied he was. He was very devoted to the sides and took it seriously, like a stage actor.
OS: Well, you can’t come to work ill prepared. Chris is the constant professional and you want your number one leading man to be ready to work. To be ready to be in scenes with you. You want to be able to do your part and that definitely is Chris Evans. It was such an enjoyable experience because he was always ready to work. But watching him do stunts so effortlessly was amazing, too.

MH: Thank you for speaking with me, Octavia. It is been an honor.
OS: Thank you honey!