Octavia Spencer, bigger than the Beatles
“The Help’s” Octavia Spencer was still acclimating herself to the A-list experience, catching her breath as she cataloged the luxuries of her two-week European press tour. Red carpets on the tarmac, a motorcade of sleek sedans, strangers waiting in the rain for autographs.
“It was like the Beatles had come to town!” she said during a recent break at Mo’s restaurant in Burbank. Spencer threw her hands in the air, sending her white silk blouse into a cascade of ripples.
In the last six months, the veteran actress has gone from relative anonymity — or “crickets,” as she put it — to life-changing “overdrive” after “The Help’s” blockbuster success. Her poignant and comic performance as fiery housekeeper Minny Jackson — a housekeeper who makes a really mean chocolate pie — has made her this week’s shoo-in for a supporting actress Oscar nod.
For her part, Spencer is sticking to the advice of her “Help” costar Viola Davis: Have no expectations and enjoy the process. But she can’t help being a touch self-conscious about all the attention, eager to ground herself in reality, or comedy, whichever suits her at the time.
On that European trip, for instance, Spencer refused to let anyone carry her bags, “because when this is all over, nobody’s going to be carrying my bags. And that’s easy to get used to.”
Not long after she visited the White House as a guest of the first lady, Spencer gamely volunteered to a reporter that she had stripped to her underwear and run down her street after President Obama was elected. (She had lost a bet to a good friend, “The Help’s” writer-director, Tate Taylor, over whether America would elect a black president.)
At Mo’s, Spencer is disarming and candid, staving off jet lag with a soda and her own bubbling charisma. She’s no stranger to Hollywood, having worked steadily for 15 years, with a noted role on NBC’s hit comedy “Ugly Betty” and scene-stealing performances in such high-profile films as “Seven Pounds.” Even before “The Help,” Spencer, 39, got recognized in the grocery aisles.
Yet she still considers herself “extremely star-struck,” reduced to giggles at a pre-show Emmy Awards party when she spotted Edie Falco and Steve Buscemi. Her Facebook posts read like one girlfriend talking to another, cataloging her sore muscles after Elle magazine’s Women in Hollywood event.
“I’m Cinderella at the ball,” Spencer said over her soda. “But my coach turns into a pumpkin. Nightly.”
When asked to recount how she’d first met “The Help” novelist Kathryn Stockett back in 2003, Spencer spared nothing, even the unflattering bits. It was 108 degrees in August in New Orleans. Spencer was 100 pounds overweight and dieting, touring the gastronomic paradise, arguing with their mutual friend Taylor as he pointed out his favorite eateries.
“Suffice to say, Kathryn met me on a very amped-up, very irritable day,” Spencer said. “Talk about a bad impression.”
Actually, Stockett said she was so moved by Spencer and “how natural she felt in her own skin,” that she became the inspiration for the blunt and outspoken Minny. When the book was published in 2009, Stockett asked Spencer to read the African American parts on the author’s national tour. Even before Taylor was done writing the film adaptation, he assumed Spencer would play Minny.
“By the time she set foot on that set in Mississippi, she had already played Minny in bookstores across America, on the audiobook [and] on BBC radio,” said Stockett.
In the film, set in the South on the eve of the civil rights movement, Spencer worked hard to cultivate the simmering restraint that gives Minny such presence and power despite her desperate life as an abused wife and mother of five working for a vindictive bigot. For Spencer, the key to Minny was “dealing with how to have all this emotion and anger, then dial it back.”
“The degree of dedication and work she did on Minny to give her the layers was just phenomenal,” said Taylor in a call from Qatar, where he was screening “The Help” for a film festival. (The book was recently translated into Arabic.)
Spencer is an Alabama native, one of seven children raised by a single mother. Yet she knew virtually nothing of the civil rights era until adolescence, when her mother showed her the 1987 PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize.” While filming “The Help,” Spencer found conjuring Minny’s rage and despair to be so stressful that she deliberately shared a house with her white costar and friend Ahna O’Reilly. “I needed to have somebody from my life, from the real world,” she said.
The part was hard-won. Even though Spencer was the inspiration for the character, was Taylor’s friend and producer Brunson Green’s next-door neighbor, she still had to prove herself to DreamWorks executives. Her “severe” stage fright was so intense, she had to stop and collect herself five times during the audition.
“I was just a nervous wreck,” she said. “There was a lot of pressure to do it well.”
Now Spencer is managing nerves of a different kind, trying to keep steady while stoking this career momentum. She’s writing a mystery screenplay for kids, refining a pitch for “Bridesmaids” stars Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson, and filming “Smashed,” an indie remake of a Blake Edwards classic. In February, she starts Diablo Cody’s directorial debut, “Lamb of God,” playing a karaoke-singing Vegas dealer opposite Russell Brand and Julianne Hough.
“All I can do is hope for the best,” Spencer said. As for all the Oscar talk, “I don’t pay attention to any of that.”
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