"People think I'm their aunt or something,” Octavia Spencer says. “Once, I was walking through the airport, and a person ran up behind me and grabbed my purse. I literally swung around ready to fight, and the lady was, like, ‘I’m so sorry — I just want to take a picture.’ It really is crazy.”
That’s what life has been like for Spencer since she won a best-supporting-actress Oscar in 2012 for playing Minny Jackson, the strong-willed, say-anything maid in The Help, and swapped her career as a little-known character actress for one as a marquee name. (In last year’s Hidden Figures, her performance as a NASA mathematician garnered her another Oscar nomination.)
On-screen, Spencer is a quiet storm — intense, poised, restrained. In person, she’s whip-smart, quick-witted, sophisticated but unfussy. “I’m more opinionated than any of my characters have ever been,” she says over a plate of salami at a cozy L.A. cafe. “I’ve never played a person who remotely resembles me.”
Spencer’s new fame comes with professional opportunities that most actresses can only dream of. As she prepares to do the most substantial and high-profile work of her life, she seems intent on not forgetting where she came from — and on not forgetting to enjoy the ride.
Sweet home Alabama
Spencer grew up the sixth of seven children raised by a single mother in Montgomery, Ala., a place that is still the center of her family’s life. Her mother died when she was just 18. Though Spencer is reticent about her siblings — “They are private people who love their anonymity, and I respect that,” she says — she admits that their company grounds her. “I’ve always spent Christmas with my family,” she notes. “Until I get married, I’ll always spend Christmas with my family in Alabama.”
As a child, Spencer was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disability that can make letters seem to jump around on the page. An astute educator helped her cope by introducing her to mystery novels. “My teacher told me, ‘You have to pay attention to everything because you don’t know what is a clue,’ ” Spencer recalls. That gave her the motivation to decode every word. “That’s how my brain processes information now,” she says. “I can always tell people, ‘This is what’s about to happen. Connect the dots.’ It’s not like I’m psychic or anything — it’s just all there in the details.” If Spencer hadn’t been an actress, she might have been a detective, she adds playfully: “Think about it. I have been a detective my entire life. I watch everything. I read all the books. I’m that person who could solve a cold case. I really could.”
Spencer has even published two children’s novels, as a way of helping others like her. “Kids with dyslexia need to know that they’re not stupid,” she says. “Some of the most creative people are dyslexic. Steven Spielberg, the producer Brian Grazer — I can’t lump myself in with them, but there are so many of us out there.”
You’ve got to have friends
Spencer entered the film world on the opposite side of the camera. She worked in casting, and then as a production assistant. When she was a teenage intern on the set of the movie The Long Walk Home, star Whoopi Goldberg took her aside and gave her advice straight out of Shakespeare: “To thine own self be true.” “At the time, I didn’t really understand what it meant,” Spencer remembers. “Now I understand: Make decisions based on how you feel, not in concert with other people because you’re the one who’s going to have to live with those decisions.”
A few years later, after graduating from Auburn University in Alabama and moving to Los Angeles, Spencer was a 20-something production assistant on Joel Schumacher’s courtroom drama A Time to Kill. She asked the director if she could audition for a small part. “I wanted to be a woman who started this riot with the Ku Klux Klan, but Schumacher said, ‘No, your face is too sweet for that. You can read for the nurse.’ So I read for the nurse, and I got it.” Her scene was with Sandra Bullock, a fellow Southerner who became a close friend. It was only one day’s work, but for Spencer it changed everything. “When I got that first job, that meant that I was a professional actress,” she says. “Then I just had to do the work to become good at it. But I was never afraid that it wouldn’t happen, because it had already happened.”
Yet making it in Hollywood was a long, slow process. For the next 15 years, she took on countless small parts; a look at her filmography reveals a string of unnamed roles such as “clerk,” “waitress,” “bus driver” and “woman in elevator.” She has portrayed nurses at least 17 times.
“I don’t want to mislead people into thinking I never got depressed,” she adds. “There was a group of us who would always audition together; you would always see the same women on auditions. Some days this woman got it, some days that woman got it, but we all had our moment to get parts. It would have broken my spirit had I never gotten any of those parts that we all went for.” But because the work kept coming, Spencer says, she was mostly optimistic.
She looks back fondly on the days when her friends were short on money yet long on time. One of her dearest pals from those years is the comic actress Melissa McCarthy, with whom Spencer appeared on a short-lived 1990s TV show starring Weird Al Yankovic. Friends such as Allison Janney and future The Help director Tate Taylor joined Spencer and other buddies on a number of adventures. “On my first trip to New Orleans, we were all broke,” Spencer recalls. “One of our friends was a successful writer — it was Steven Rogers, who recently wrote I, Tonya — and he kind of sponsored a writers retreat for us all because we were all writing things.” Another time, about 20 friends shared a house in Laguna Beach, Calif., where they wrote during the day and cooked dinner together at night. “It was wonderful,” Spencer says.
That same group now gathers for dinner whenever schedules permit. No longer short on money, they are now short on time. “We can’t really spend days or weeks together anymore,” she notes. “We just revel at the idea of getting to hang out for a night.” (Spencer doesn’t cook, but she does enjoy home cooking, especially Southern-style casseroles, “the kind you eat only around Thanksgiving because they’re not that good for you.” Luckily, she has friends who invite her over for dinners. “I take Tupperware,” she mentions.)
The actress advises young people to make time for travel with friends while they can. “If you’re constantly chasing success, then you’re not really living in the moment,” she says. “Save money, and go places. Do things. The journey is what’s fun. Trust me, I love working and getting to do what I do, but I had a lot more fun on the way up.”
Playing through the ages
Because she is African American and has never been slim, Spencer has tended to get cast as older characters. “When I was 26, they were trying to give me 50-year-old parts,” she says with a laugh. “As a woman of certain physical attributes, people would like to see you in only a couple of archetypes, like the nurturer nanny or the sassy woman.” Although casting directors might have tried to prematurely age her, Spencer says her career affords her a way of holding on to childlike wonder. “What drew me to acting is my love of movies, my love of being a character,” she says. “It’s basically playing dress up and putting on someone else’s skin, someone else’s problems. It’s the magic of moviemaking. And that comes from having an overly animated imagination.”
Still, Spencer seems to feel a sense of liberation when she talks about how she has matured. “When you are 20, you still care about what people think and how you’re perceived. When you turn 30, you start to get an ownership of self. By the time you turn 40, you start to care less about how you’re perceived, and you own your mistakes.” At 47, Spencer is well on her way to discovering what the next decade has in store.
The great street-style photographer Bill Cunningham once said, “He who seeks beauty will find it,” and it may be that Octavia Spencer radiates beauty partly because she is always looking for it. She shares this story: “When I was in Ireland, I saw all these women with platinum silver hair. And there was something about them — they were all so beautiful. My friend said, ‘It’s because they haven’t done anything to their faces. They look like a real 50-year-old or 60-year-old. They don’t look plastic.’ I say, you’ve earned that crease. If you’ve got a laugh line, you’ve earned it. It means you’re really happy. I’m fine with creases.”
The actress did once go to a dermatologist for facial fillers, but the visit did not go well. “It burned,” she reveals. “It looked weird. I said, ‘Never again.’ I won’t ever touch my face.” She prefers the mysterious attitude of a beloved older cousin who was like a grandmother to Spencer. “She had white hair, and her skin was baby smooth. The only way you could tell she was in her 70s was the creeping around her neck,” Spencer explains. “And I asked her, ‘What do you do?’ and she gave me a look and said, ‘I’m not giving it away.’ ”
Point of departure
Spencer has a dark sense of humor, she admits: “I laugh at people falling down, as long as I know they are OK. I’m that person.” No wonder that when asked whom she would most like to work with, her answer is Jackie Chan. “I’ve always been a fan of his, and I love his martial arts movies,” she says.
That slightly offbeat sensibility is what drew her to her latest film, The Shape of Water, a romantic fairy tale in which she plays a close friend of a woman who falls in love with a sea monster. The movie, directed by Guillermo del Toro, is already receiving Oscar buzz. “I knew I wanted to do it the minute my agent told me I would be meeting with Guillermo,” Spencer says. “I’ve been a fan of his for years. He is like the godfather of the horror genre, and I’m a huge horror fan.”
Though the film is set in 1960s America in a mainly white workplace, Spencer’s race is not mentioned — a departure for an actress who has repeatedly played people of that era struggling to assert their civil rights. “As crazy as this will sound, that was quite refreshing for me, to not have to talk about my race,” she says.
Spencer has also begun producing her own projects. She’s working with LeBron James on a limited television series about the life of Madam C.J. Walker, a hair-care titan who in the early 1900s became America’s first self-made female millionaire. Spencer smiles when she talks about the Walker production, for which she will also play the title role. In a career composed mainly of supporting parts, she sees this as her chance to break out. Portraying Walker will also allow her to unleash a level of glamour and drama that has been markedly absent from her previous roles.
The meaning of life
Success has brought freedom in more personal ways, as well. During our chat, a fan stops by the table to compliment Spencer on her outfit: a dark peplum suit with a beautiful ivory silk blouse. Spencer is quick to mention that the outfit is something she designed. She feels a little heavier than usual, she confesses, so she ordered a custom piece that she knew would be flattering. It’s a side benefit of the Oscar: She says she couldn’t have afforded that 10 years ago.
Still, Spencer is frustrated by the off-the-rack clothing for curvier women. She’s a fan of Tadashi Shoji. “Tadashi is smart in that he makes clothes that we all feel comfortable wearing,” she says. “A lot of designers don’t cater to women over size 8. They’re missing out on a large amount of money.”
Despite Spencer’s improved financial situation, many of her pleasures are simple. With her frenetic schedule, time alone at home feels like a gift. “My biggest indulgence is quiet time in front of the TV with a fire,” she says. “And I recently discovered sangria. It’s cheap wine with a lot of sweeteners.”
Spencer can’t be cajoled into discussing her love life. “I don’t really like to talk about dating,” she notes. “It’s not easy dating anywhere, but definitely not easy dating in Hollywood. I don’t know whether I’d call it fun. It’s very interesting — let’s just say that.”
While she may get married someday, she knows that she has already found her tribe: the friends she came up with, the family she goes home to. “When I see people who are happy and joyful and of a certain age, I know it’s because they know the meaning of life,” she says. “It’s about how you spend your time. It’s not about chasing things on life’s treadmill. For me, it’s about the people who are sitting around my table — my family, my nieces and nephews, my friends.”
One surprising benefit of later-life success is that she knows for certain who her true friends are. “There are those people who love you stripes and all, and there are people who love only the idea of you,” she points out. “The ones who love the idea of you are there for you when you’re successful. The people who love you stripes and all know that there are peaks and valleys to life. And they’re going to be with you in the peaks and in the valleys.”