After many years of paying her dues as a supporting player, Octavia Spencer was given the opportunity of a lifetime when she was chosen too play Minnie Jackson in The Help.
For that glowing performance, she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and since then she’s become a fixture of hugely acclaimed movies including Hidden Figures, Fruitvale Station, and Black And White.
The 45-year-old was again nominated for an Oscar for her invaluable work in The Shape Of Water this year, becoming the first African American actress to receive back-to-back nominations; last year she was nominated for Hidden Figures.
In person it’s hard to think of any actress as unassuming and lovable as Spencer. Her glowing warmth lights up a room. Asked about the stereotyping of African American women in Hollywood movies, she has a surprising answer.
“I don’t have a problem playing a woman who is a maid or a woman who is a janitor if it’s a character that is completely fleshed out,” she replies.
“What I love about Zelda (in The Shape Of Water) is that she’s completely fleshed out. Guillermo (del Toro, director) created all these characters and we get to see them in their own little worlds. I mean, if you were to take Zelda’s scenes out, you could have a mini movie that’s just about Zelda.
“So, I don’t have a problem with what the person does for a living as long as the character is fleshed out. Now that doesn’t mean I want to be offered every janitor role and every maid role written (laughs), but they have to be well written.”
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Well, you know, my mum was very religious, and so I was very conscientious about not making mistakes that would make her unhappy. I lost her at a very young age. She died when I was 18; so in preserving her memory and legacy, I didn’t want to make mistakes.
But in not wanting to make mistakes, it made me fearful of things. So, I would say you don’t have to be so cautious. Life lived is better than not trying something at all; make a lot of mistakes and learn from them.
Are you the only actor in your family?
Oh, they’re all actors, they’re just not paid actors. I’m the only one (but) I have a nephew who is an aspiring actor. But the funny thing is each of my siblings separately thinks that they’ve influenced my acting career. I say they have in terms of mannerisms and little things, but I won’t tell them which.
Are you the youngest?
Next to the youngest. There are seven of us. My mum always had what she called a knee baby: A baby who stood at her knee and a baby who she held in her arms. Mostly we were two years apart, and I was the last baby who stood at her knee.
What was it like growing up in a large family?
We didn’t have the resources to go to shows and family vacations, so my mother was very smart in that she told us we could go anywhere in the world we wanted to through books. And that’s what I did! I’ve always been an avid reader, I enjoy it to this day – if I need to unwind, if I need to relax, you’ll find me in my bed with the air conditioner on very, very low with the covers pulled up with a good book.
When did you first realise you wanted to be an actress?
I think I’ve always known that. My mother was very supportive of any of our dreams but not necessarily acting; she wanted me to have a job that I would make a living at. I secretly wanted to be an actor but I think my goals were probably to be a producer more than an actress. But the universe had other plans for me – thank you God – so I got to explore what it was like being an actress.
If you don’t get a role, how do you react?
I cry and I slide down the wall like a person in a horror film and then I pick myself up and I say it wasn’t meant for me. We all have goals for ourselves but sometimes life gives you disappointments. So, I learn from those moments. I mean, I’ve been rejected a lot but it only affected me as much as I allowed it to. Didn’t stop me, but I did cry a lot.
How has fame affected your life?
Truthfully, my life hasn’t changed. I still have the same group of friends. I still have my tiny little cottage, and I love that I have a choice in the projects that I get to do.
What has been your one indulgence?
I gave myself a home that is my sanctuary. It’s a quiet, peaceful little place.
Do you remember your first pay cheque and what did you do with it?
This is one of those stories that’s kind of bittersweet for me. My mother always worked hard to give us everything that we needed and even some of the things that we wanted.
I remember when I turned 14, she said you know it’s time for you to pick out your own clothes, and we went to a discount store. I was a little alarmed because at the time, I was all about appearances.
“I can’t show up in these discount clothes,” I told her. She said: “Honey, you’re right. You should not have to wear discount clothes.” And that year I didn’t get any new clothes.
So, when I got my first job, she made me take that first pay cheque and buy my own clothes. That’s when I bought my first pair of designer jeans. And I’ve never looked back.