In the powerful fact-based story, Spencer plays Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant III, who was shot in the back by a
Did you expect the film to receive the reaction it did, with awards at
Yes and no. I knew how I responded to it, but I didn't know how it would be embraced. To have Ryan win awards at all the festivals he's been part of — it's crazy and it's wonderful.
I have to credit Michael B. Jordan [who plays Oscar]. He is in every frame of the movie just about. He is so captivating, and really just immersed himself in that role, because he is so completely and utterly different from that character. It's a transformative role.
You're quite transformed here as well.
It was a gift to do something completely different from what I've ever done on screen, a quiet woman who's quietly suffering. She wants the best for her son, but there are certain things you can and can't do. You can't walk that path for them, you can only show it to them.
I'm so used to people wanting that very broad-strokes, out-there character, and Wanda Johnson is not that person. There's a regal quality that she has, she's very reserved and soft-spoken, but when she speaks, you know she's going to be heard because she's also a minister. There's a quiet grace. There are moments that I wanted to be bigger, bolder, and it wasn't the right choice, and Ryan would always bring me back. I love him for that.
Was it more challenging to play a real person than to originate a character?
Oh, man, definitely, because you are representing a person whose life extends beyond whatever you're creating. You just know there's a responsibility. There's a family that is grieving the loss of a real loved one. And at the end of the shoot I got to go home and go back to my life, but it stayed with me. Every aspect of this role stayed with me. Usually you wash your hands and move on. I can't do that with her, because I know she's still around and that she really did go through this and that she opened up her life to us, so that we could tell her son's story. I thought, "I have to do her justice. I have to make sure I keep my feet on the ground."
Was there something you latched on to, either externally or internally, to help get you into the role?
I'm an aunt and I have four nephews, and I know how I feel when they say they're going out. There's an immediate sharp pang [she touches her chest]. Well, they should be able to go out. I would love to keep them under lock and key, but that's not fair to them as young men. I had to go there. I had to put one of them as Oscar, and let me tell you, choosing which one was like "Sophie's Choice" for me.