Octavia Spencer has the breakout role of her lifetime as Minny Jackson in The Help. She talked about the film and how important it is for women to support women's films. I have to say that even though this was a phone interview, Spencer was so real and honest and I found the conversation very enjoyable.
Women and Hollywood: You were known as more of a comedic actress so I’m wondering if this is a deprature for you?
Octavia Spencer: I think it’s actually a misperception that I am a comedic actress. I do more drama than comedy but very little of it has been seen. When you are in big funny movies and they do well and your little part in it kind of explodes people perceive you as a comedian. I love doing both and I think it stretches you but doing comedy is perhaps the hardest thing to do.
WaH: Was your first experience on a film set as a Production Assistant?
OS: Yes it was. I was an intern on a film called The Long Walk Home.
WaH: This film is so unique because it is about something important and it is highly entertaining. Any comment on why that doesn't happen more.
OS: that doesn't happen more because the film industry is a business first and foremost and certain types of movies garner more money at the box office. So there is a formula that develops and while the decision makers may want to make art, they really want to make money, so they don’t make event films like they used to in the 80s and 90s. I wish that were the case. I am glad that our film is one of those that hopefully will start that trend again.
WaH: In the materials it says you were friends with the Kathryn Stockett, book author and the screenwriter/director Tate Taylor. Talk about your relationship to the creatives and your thoughts on what this film might mean for your career?
OS: At the time was extremely close with Tate Taylor the writer/director of the film and Brunson Green the producer of the film as well as Allison Janney who plays Emma Stone’s mom in the movie. But I didn’t really know Kathryn (the book author) that well. Tate brought us together on a vacation and we spent six hours together and she told me she was writing a book and we didn’t discuss what it was about.
Let’s just say that I have a tendency if I am uncomfortable in a situation to speak my mind. I was 100 pounds heavier and I hate being hot and uncomfortable and Tate decided we should take a walking tour of New Orleans in 100 degree heat. I was on a diet and I hadn’t had breakfast and let's just say we bickered a lot. And I think Kathryn knew that the voice of Aibileen would be loosely based on her childhood caregiver Demitri but she felt that she needed a stark contrast with Minny. So in seeing my physicality and my personality on that unique and extreme day she formulated this really beautiful and complex character Minny.
WaH: And then you were able to play her.
OS: And then I was able to play her. I have to applaud both studios - Participant and Dreamworks because you have Queen Latifah, and Monique had just won an Oscar and Jennifer Hudson had won an Oscar, but I went out there and auditioned and Tate and Bruson and Kitty were pulling for me to get the part. The studio said, well let’s meet her. And I read for them and they decided to back Tate’s decision to have me in the role.
WaH: What about this part is so special?
OS: I think it's not just my part but the story itself. It is taking something that we have always heard and seen regarding the civil rights era and presenting it in a new light. We get to hear from these unsung heroes that we have never heard from before. The story is told from the perspective of these black maids and I think that is a very important story to tell.
WaH: I was thinking about other civil rights films and recalling that they are mostly about the guys.
OS: It is mostly the about guys, and guys who are lawyers or those who are aspiring to be educated. And they are moving forward in a way that these women can't because they have families and obligations. So it’s from this portion of society, from low income women who people had low expectations of. It’s by their working with women from culturally disparate backgrounds that they were able to do something special. And that to me, more than my character Minny, is the most important thing in this film.
WaH: One of the things I write about is how films with male leads are the norm and films with female leads are the "other." I walked out of The Help feeling that is was as important as educational piece as for example Mississippi Burning but I always pause and think that it’s not going to get taken as seriously because it’s populated by female characters.
OS: I hope you are wrong. But here’s the reason why that’s perpetuated. We as women have a voice and we are decision makers in what film to see. We always support our boyfriends and husbands by going to see the male dominated films, but we don’t compel them to see films with female casts. And I think that has to change because there is power in numbers and if we don’t change then we won’t continue to see these types of movies. So I say be a decision maker, be a part of the solution. I think its important to have a voice.
WaH: Do you think that a movie can change people’s minds?
OS: Yes. This book changed my mind. This movie changed my mind. I think it can certainly help one to think. We need to be having these conversations because race issues lead us to talking about women’s issues and sexual orientation issues and ageism. It begins with that conversation and sometimes conversations come from literature and from art. So I do think that it can certainly aid in bringing about change.
WaH: Did you know Viola Davis before you worked together on this film?
OS: We had worked together a few years ago on City of Angels but we didn’t have any scenes together. We met in passing. We didn’t get to know each other until this film and now we are inseparable.
WaH: What was your favorite part about making this movie?
OS: I got to work with people who I love. Tate and Allison and Brunson and Kitty and then I’ve made new friends and formed new opinions of myself of what I am capable of and incapable of and I see how beautifully symbiotic a movie can be. We had such an amazing time that I want to experience more of it. And of course paying homage to the countless women who are unsung heroes because of their station in life. It is giving a voice to the voiceless and I think that’s important.
WaH: We’re at a crossroads in our country with the debt crisis which has highlighted class issues and race issues and gender issues and then there is this movie which allows you to have these hard conversations. We have come really far with a black president but there is still so much word to do especially in Hollywood for African Americans.
OS: Here’s what I will say but I don’t want to politicize the publicity for this film. The way to bring about change is to be proactive and active. What I said about having a voice, having women being a part of the solution and making their dollars count by telling their husbands to support this film or we are not going to go to that film. People are going to say and do what they will and some people are going to be willing to bend and change and some won’t. But the only way that you the individual can be a part of the process is to make sure that you vote. The reason why things are what they are in this country is because people didn’t show up at the polls when they were supposed to. And we can’t allow that to happen. We just can’t be passive because passive means you are a part of the problem and I think the best way to promote things and to propel things forward is to be a part of the solution.
And that means to do your civic duty and vote, and doing your consumer duty and buy your tickets. Whatever it is you do you have to be active. You can’t say that there aren’t movie with African American actors and actresses and then when there are movies that have more diverse casts and you don’t support them...then why would they continue to make those films because remember this is a business.
WaH: What’s next for you?
OS: I have Done a couple of independent films. Now I want to see what’s out there because this was one of the best roles I have ever gotten to play and now I’m a little greedy. I’m reading a lot of scripts and if they don’t measure up I’m going to wait for that next great thing.