Oscar-winning actress, Octavia Spencer is celebrated for her portrayal of Minny Jackson in The Help and she’s been nominated for another best-supporting-actress Academy Award for her Hidden Figures performance as mathematician Dorothy Vaughan. In addition to dramas, Spencer’s long and versatile resume includes roles in dark comedies like Bad Santa and the television series Red Band Society as well as voice-over work in the animated film Zootopia and the science fiction action film Insurgent. Most recently, Spencer can be seen in The Gifted.
In this SAG-AFTRA Foundation interview, Spencer describes how she went from being an aspiring actress to actually getting her foot in the industry’s doors.
Growing up in Alabama with six siblings, Spencer started performing in high school plays. But she didn’t major in theater in college because she didn’t want to take the required course that taught behind-the-scenes skills. “We were basically like scrubbing the stage down and painting and getting ready for the next play. And I’m like, ‘I will never in my life be painting a stage. I’m an actor!” In retrospect, she wishes she’d applied herself to these supportive theater skills so she could have learned abilities like how to sew and understand the core elements of lighting a show.
Her mother was a maid and taught Octavia to be practical in her mindset and approach to life. Although she had a deep desire to be an actress, the thought of working in Hollywood seemed like a far-fetched dream. “I just didn’t realize they made movies outside of Hollywood,” Octavia says. But when a Whoopi Goldberg movie, The Long Walk Home was being filmed in her own town, the fresh-out-of-high school Spencer set her eyes on getting involved one way or another. She persistently called the production each day, even disguising her voice, asking for various departments until she found out where the production office was located. Thus empowered, the determined young woman repeatedly showed up at the office until they relented and allowed her to intern.
Spencer says performing is in her DNA, so she was thrilled to be on a set in any capacity. Whoopi was particularly encouraging to the aspiring actress; indeed, Spencer refers to Goldberg as her “guardian angel.” Spencer would come to work in the casting department; she reveals how she was told that “Hollywood was not for girls that looked like me–it was for the beautiful people.” With this in mind, and considering herself to be a practical person who needed to have consistent work, Spencer passed on opportunities to audition that were offered to her. Now Spencer triumphantly smiles about her undeniable success and insists, “There’s nothing easy about what we do.”
But there was one director with whom she worked who did not offer her a chance to audition. It was Joel Schumacher during the production of A Time to Kill. This sparked something within Octavia. As a result, she asked him if she could read for a part in the production. “By asking him, I was not passive. And it made me not want to be turned down. It made me want to do it,” she says. Ultimately, she was given a role as a nurse. When she saw her name posted on the trailer door, Spencer beams, “It was the best dreamer’s dream come true that day.”
After that experience, Octavia moved to Los Angeles and purposefully found regular work outside of the entertainment industry so that when she would go to auditions, she’d be viewed as acting talent only–not dismissed as someone behind the scenes. But regarding her job experience in casting, she advises: “There is nothing better in demystifying the whole casting director-actor relationship. It’s the best if you just intern a few hours a week. Because then you learn how to own your auditions…I say when you get to a point where you can actually flub a line, and you see what actors do when they flub a line in an audition, it just totally makes everything like, ‘Oh, I messed that up. Okay, let me take it back.’ But before, you would do that you’d just be terrified: ‘I skipped a line!'”
Her next role was in The Sixth Man, but unfortunately, she was completely cut from the film. That’s when she realized, “I probably need acting classes. Because everything was like really important–and every word.” Learning the craft of acting opened the doors to many more auditions in both film and television. With a steady flow of acting work, Spencer feels blessed to have been given so many opportunities over the years.