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Octavia Spencer Talks Illusory Post-Oscar Career Bump + Creating Her Own Projects

by Tambay A. Obenson
September 17, 2012 7:06 PM
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A feature I'm planning for to post during Oscar season is a look at if/how winning (and even being nominated for) an Oscar has affected the careers of black actors and actresses.

I probably won't get to that for a few months, but THIS Vulture interview with Octavia Spencer (posted this afternoon) as she does press for Smashed (a movie she's co-starring in, which screened at TIFF last week, and will be released in USA theaters on October 12), helps answer that question for one of the few actresses on my list.

Of course, Spencer won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in last year's polarizing period drama, and box office smash, The Help, and after that win, some of the conversation that followed wondered what impact, if any, it would have on her career as a black actress, in an industry where work for black actresses isn't exactly overflowing.

Since her Oscar win, she's been a busy bee it seems, from a starring role in Diablo Cody’s still-untitled directing debut, to a project I'm really looking forward to, Joon-ho Bong's thriller Snowpiercer (he directed the awesome South Korean creature feature The Host), to the Forest Whitaker-producer Oscar Grant project, Fruitvale, as well as the feature film adaptation of David E. Talbert's Baggage Claim, and the adaptation of Del Shores’ 2003 critically-acclaimed, award-winning play titled The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, titled Blues For Willadean.

BUT, as Spencer notes in the Vulture interview, when asked about her career receiving an Oscar bump, she reveals that she was cast in most of these projects before she won the Oscar for The Help; in fact, for at least one of them, Smashed, she says she booked the role before The Help was even released, even though the film doesn't hit theaters for another month.

No, the reality for me was that I thought my phone would be ringing a lot, and it wasn't. And this project came along, and it was a great film, and it was [prior to] the success of The Help. Now, looking back, they get huge kudos from me. So no, because my phone wasn't ringing off the hook, I didn't feel like anything was changing.

As for the other projects, here's what she said:

Well, the funny is thing is that I got the Diablo Cody movie and I got Snow Piercer before I got any nominations, so I knew I had both of those projects in November.

Blues For Willadean is based on a 2003 play that she co-starred in, so this was years before I think most of us knew who Octavia Spencer was, and most of the play's starring cast, played the same roles in the film, and she was one of them.

The last 2 projects, Baggage Claim and Fruitvale, were both post-Oscar gets.

However, Spencer does say that the Oscar win was "a needle-mover" - specifically, it gets her meetings that she wouldn't have been invited to if she didn't win the Oscar. But she notes that, at this point, it hasn't quite translated to job offers, and that her phone hasn't exactly been ringing off the hook.

To that, she adds...

I don't want to sound as if [I'm complaining]. The reality is that there are so few roles out there for women and for women of color, and I'm a character actor, this I know. And I'm getting to see more of the roles that are out there, but there aren't many. And zilch have been studio movies. Zilch.

I'm not sure if she's referring to the roles that are "out there," when she says "zilch have been studio movies," or if she's referring to the roles that she's booked thus far, since The Help. Baggage Claim is a Fox Searchlight-backed project, so that's definitely a studio movie. Unless she booked that before her Oscar as well; but I have no information to confirm that. She doesn't include it when she talks about movies she booked before The Help, or before Oscar.

But I understand the overall point she's making about the absence of roles for women of color, especially at the studio level. And to combat that, she added this:

So my challenge and my opportunity now is to take the opportunity to create my own work. I'm fine with that.

Music to my ears. This is what many of us continue to encourage - creating your own work. Easier said than done, obviously, but she's in a good position right now, with some steam behind her, and notoriety that she can take advantage of - just like Viola Davis formed her own production company, and has been developing projects for herself to star in. 

I'm looking forward to reading about projects Spencer is developing for herself.

You can check out the full Vulture interview HERE.

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  • Eric | September 19, 2012 7:54 PMReply

    I believe Octavia will do alright if she stays in the lane she seems to be headed. Halle Berry made a mistake by passing on the lead female role in "Wanted' a role that was clearly written/based on her as Catwoman. And people we have to remember everybody isn't meant to be the lead no matter race or looks.

  • Orville | September 18, 2012 7:21 PMReply

    I looked at IMDB Octavia is doing alright I think she's working and that's the most important thing. Like Octavia said she's a black woman in Hollywood let's face it even though she's won the Oscar it is still tough. I just want to say that Octavia is trying her best and I wish she did get a leading lady role one day.

    I know Octavia didn't mention it, but Hollywood is also very sexist and it relates to body image. Let's face it, if Octavia looked like Gabrielle Union or Paula Patton or Halle Berry I bet she would be getting higher profile roles.

  • Donella | September 18, 2012 1:20 PMReply

    Monique had the same issues post-Oscar.

  • K | September 17, 2012 10:53 PMReply

    I mean I think this is it, you know. We can't keep waiting to get cast. We have to make things happen. I cannot understand how Hollywood can fight so hard for gay rights yet be so indifferent when it comes to racial equality. Yet people try to tell me to be liberal is to not be racist. Yeah right. Green is the color that people are most worried about. And since they see black people, or people who aren't American(or English, Canadian) as aliens they can't fathom creating stories for them. SO THAT'S WHAT WE NEED TO DO. WE NEED TO CREATE OUR OWN STORIES! We need to write, produce, direct, star, edit our own films. Films about nothing, and anything. Oh to be black, a woman, not thin, and a character actor in Hollywood. Lol. I sound very woe is me. But I just hope she takes the film world by storm whether she's behind the camera or in front of it.

  • T | September 17, 2012 10:47 PMReply

    :(. So sad but true...the only person it benefitted was Halle and we all know why

  • K | September 18, 2012 11:25 AM

    Even Halle hasn't had a career worth talking about. Perhaps she was never really great. She had a real shot of doing marketable movies, and good ones yet they did not do well and were panned. Halle does have it easier because she is a leading lady. Character actresses-basically actors who don't look like the flock of actresses that tend to get all the roles-will continue to work, but may not be able to really flourish. The good thing about being a character actress though is that you'll always get work. You just may not ever really be a star. Not unless they make it happen I guess.

  • Akimbo | September 18, 2012 11:00 AM

    I wouldn't lump the three women together; Viola and Melissa are middle-aged powerhouses while Octavia is a bit player with limited range who lucked up in every possible way with The Help. Her struggle is a little different because she can't really do anything else. As talented "older" women, Viola and Melissa will continue to get supporting work in big movies and the occasional lead in smaller ones (advantage Melissa because she's white). As the "quirky Sherri Shepard," it's going to be harder and murkier for Octavia. She's priced/prestiged herself out of the small roles she used to play and now no one really knows what to do with her. I wouldn't count on her to carry a movie...unless it was something super indie and quirky like Stranger Than Fiction or anything Todd Solondz.

  • turner | September 18, 2012 10:32 AM

    @T...Cause she's beautiful, slender and marketable? I feel for Ms Spencer, Melissa Leo and Viola Davis; women whose ordinary looks are regulated to be "character" actors when ordinary looking men like Jeremy Renner, Samuel Jackson et al are treated differently.

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