The Contenders: Octavia Spencer gets real in ‘Fruitvale Station’

Octavia Spencer says her role in "Fruitvale Station" was "a gift to do something completely different from what I've ever done on screen, a quiet woman who's quietly suffering."
Octavia Spencer says her role in “Fruitvale Station” was “a gift to do something completely different from what I’ve ever done on screen, a quiet woman who’s quietly suffering.”
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
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Octavia Spencer worked as an actress for 15 years before becoming an overnight success. Her performance as the forceful maid Minny in Tate Taylor’s “The Help” won her the Academy Award for supporting actress in 2012, along with just about every other accolade out there. She’s been busy ever since, with roles in several movies, including Taylor’s James Brown biopic, “Get On Up.” She has also written the first in a series of children’s novels, “Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit,” which she first started working on a decade ago; it came out in October. She’s set to star in NBC’s reboot of “Murder, She Wrote,” fulfilling a dream to play a sleuth. But with all that, she calls her supporting role in the little indie film “Fruitvale Station” “bigger than anything I’ve ever done.”

In the powerful fact-based story, Spencer plays Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant III, who was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer while detained and handcuffed, facedown, at the Fruitvale train station in Oakland. Writer-director Ryan Coogler’s film follows Grant on his final day, which happened to be his mother’s birthday.

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Did you expect the film to receive the reaction it did, with awards at Sundance and Cannes?

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.”

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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.