Tapestry of Color

Octavia Spencer on Hollywood and Race: The Film Roles I’m Offered Are Too Small

The ‘Get On Up’ actress on why TV is more diverse than film, and how life has changed since winning her Oscar for ‘The Help.’

Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty

It’s been just over two years since Octavia Spencer, in a shimmering Tadashi Shoji gown that took a team of ten 1,000 hours to produce, glided up to the stage at the Hollywood and Highland Center to accept her Best Supporting Actress Oscar. With tears streaming down, she exclaimed, “I’m sorry, I’m freakin’ out! Thank you, world!”

After winning the gold statuette for her deliciously sassy turn as Minny Jackson, the shit pie-servin’ maid in The Help, Spencer has popped up in supporting roles in the critically acclaimed indies Smashed, Fruitvale Station, and this year’s Snowpiercer, but hasn’t really been offered the juicy parts regularly afforded an actress of her Oscar-winning stature. So, she’s migrating to television, starring in this fall’s Fox series Red Band Society, which debuts Sept. 17. She’ll play Nurse Jackson, the overseer of a group of sick teenagers in a hospital’s pediatric ward—and is the outright lead.

She also stars in the James Brown biopic Get On Up. Reuniting with Tate Taylor, her longtime pal who directed her to that Oscar in The Help, she plays Aunt Honey—a brothel madam who takes in a young James Brown (eventually played by Chadwick Boseman) after he’s cast out by his family.

The Daily Beast sat down with Spencer for an enlightening discussion about Hollywood, race, and the opportunities afforded to actresses on television vs. film.

That last time we spoke was prior to your winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Help. How has life changed for you since then?

Life is exactly the same. Life is the same. I have to lead a very small life in terms of what people think “Hollywood” is. It’s a full life for me, but I’m not jetting across the world. But life is good. I’m doing a TV series for Steven Spielberg called Red Band Society, and it’s the best pilot script I’ve ever read.

What motivated you to go to television?

Well, the roles I’m being offered in film are too small to sink your teeth into, and I thought it was time to be able to live with a character at inception and travel with her to fruition, and allow myself to evolve as an actress. I don’t get that opportunity in movies, where they ask me, “Will you play the distraught mom of this boy?” I say, “Sure, but I’ve played it before.” I wanted to play against-type, and while people will say, “She’s playing a no-nonsense nurse,” there’s so much more to her than that. Why do you think the parts you’re being offered after winning an Oscar for your excellent performance The Help are, like you said, “too small to sink your teeth into?” This phenomenon seems to happen more to people of color who win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. It doesn’t happen to the Rachel Weiszs of the world, but to the Mo’Niques and Jennifer Hudsons and Octavia Spencers.

There are so few roles out there. And even if it is a film that could be led by a black actress, how many times is that film going to get funded? Let’s just be real. But it’s not just black people. It’s Asians, it’s Hispanic people if you’re not Salma Hayek. It’s hard. It’s hard to get films funded. It’s a business thing, and you have to change the mindset of people around here. The fact that Think Like A Man made so much money last year—over $100 million—but got very limited worldwide distribution is a problem. Will Smith would not be Worldwide Will Smith if he had not insisted on going worldwide and touring with his films. You have to build that audience for people and allow for it to happen.

I learned this at a Jeffrey Katzenberg party the night before the Oscars a few years ago, but there were all these people being escorted around and all they wanted to see were the people from television. So I thought, “Well, hello! In order for you to be known worldwide if you’re not getting the introduction through films, you need to be in television.” I don’t have a problem with the medium—film or television—because I’m an actor. I act. So if I’m able to get a part that helps me stretch myself and evolve as an actress? Wonderful. And if I get to be a part of something that will expand myself to a worldwide audience? Hell yeah. Sign me up.

I was talking with Patricia Arquette about film vs. television, and she mentioned how actresses of a certain age on film really seem to be given the cold shoulder, but there’s a home for them on TV and they’re able to play much richer parts.

I’m barely 44, but that’s still the pasture, I guess. Hollywood is strange in and of itself. People dress up and pretend to be other people, and you can either make millions of dollars, or no money. It’s odd. But what I love about it is thank God for television, because you wouldn’t have the diversity. Now, we’re seeing it a little more in blockbuster movies. Thor had a multicultural cast. So did Winter Soldier. The Amazing Spider-Man 2. To me, that’s what it should be. It baffles me that everything is so homogenized, because the world isn’t, and yet we continue to support things that are so incredibly milquetoast.

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Right. But television seems to be light-years ahead of movies when it comes to diversity. Look at what Shonda Rhimes is doing, what Orange Is the New Black is doing.

It is light-years ahead. I think diversity is something that should be celebrated because it’s who we are as a world, and little kids need to be able to turn on the TV and see real-world representations of themselves. It’s very important. You need that representation. With Obama, the glass ceiling has been broken with what men can aspire to, and now we need to do the same for women and what women can aspire to. But that being said, I’m all about not having race as a factor. To me, it should just be about the best actor for the part. Who cares if the lead is an Asian male? If this is the best actor for that role, why does the role have to be indicative of a person’s ethnicity?

Simon Kinberg told me they cast your Fruitvale co-star Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in The Fantastic Four because he was just the best guy who read for the part.

Exactly. It’s wonderful that we’re making strides. That’s what I love about Red Band Society—we have Latin, Asian, black, gay, straight, and Indian cast members. Think about it: The hospital is the most diverse place ever. I am thrilled because the subject matter is rich, but I like that it is a tapestry of color, which is very much needed. I play a nurse in a pediatric hospital. She’s sort of like the principal in The Breakfast Club. My character is pretty strict, and it’s not sentimental or sad; it’s more life-affirming, and you watch children who are sick, some with terminal illnesses, go through the rigors of getting better while also being kids.

With Get On Up, what is the protocol with Tate now? You two go way back. I read that you starred in a short film of his, Chicken Party, back in 2003?

Honey, I’ve done everything that he has ever, ever done—and he’s done a lot of stuff that people don’t know about. If I tell you, then I may have to kill you. It’s gonna hurt my feelings one day when there’s not a part for me in one of his films! This is how it went: Ring-Ring! Tate, are you doing James Brown!? Well you better find something for me in it! Okay? I love you, bye. We go way back. We met on A Time to Kill. We were both PAs.

But I heard that you ended up talking Joel Schumacher into giving you a speaking part on that.

He did, too! He was Matthew McConaughey’s butt double. That scene where Sandra Bullock gives Matthew the shot in his butt? That’s Tate Taylor’s butt—that big, gorgeous thigh with a lil’ butt cheek on top.

Did you have to intern and PA on a lot of films before breaking through?

I had been working behind-the-scenes since I was out of college. I interned on the Whoopi Goldberg movie The Long Walk Home, and went around the South working as a casting associate. I’d work with the extras, and my boss would work on the one-line parts. When we’d have our director-sessions, all the directors would say, “You’re really animated and have a great personality. You should read for us!” But I was terrified. Joel Schumacher was the first director to not say that to me, so I was like, “What’s wrong with you!? Everybody else wants me to read for them!” so I finally asked him, “Can I read for you?” If I hadn’t asked him, I don’t know if I’d be doing this today.

Why were you so terrified to read for those other directors?

Oh, I have terrible stage fright. I still do. I don’t think that ever goes away. On film, you’re not there to entertain the massive audience—you’re there, and people’s job on set isn’t to be entertained, just to do whatever their job is. Stage is different, because you know people are there for you to entertain them. Oof!

Do you have any favorite James Brown tunes?

Well, I love “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” and “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” I love his music. There isn’t a song of his that I don’t like.

I was hoping for a warts-and-all portrayal of James Brown, and they do show scenes of him rolling up an Angel Dust joint and hitting his wives. Do you feel they did an ample job of portraying his troubled later years—in particular, the violence towards women?

Well, here’s what I’ll say: We all have our vices. There are certain things that you have to keep in mind: He has a family and lots of kids that are still alive, and they still know his life. There are some things that don’t need to be immortalized as long as they’re addressed. To me, what’s more interesting is the story that we don’t know—the stuff about his childhood. The other stuff is all out there, and if they were going to re-create that, they wouldn’t have needed to make a movie. So, it depends on the viewer. There will be some people who think, “I wish they touched on it more,” and some people where it will suffice. But I can tell you it’s not a paint-by-numbers biopic, and I’m excited about that.

I’ve got to ask you about Never Been Kissed, which is a Stern family favorite. Do you have any cherished memories from shooting that way back when?

Oh my God, I haven’t seen it in years! It’s basically me, John C. Reilly, and Molly Shannon watching the TV and eating popcorn. I remember eating a lot of popcorn!