By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Octavia Spencer took the stage of the Academy Awards ceremony this past Sunday with two of her “Hidden Figures” co-stars along with 98-year-old Katherine Johnson, one of the unsung NASA pioneers that helped put a man on the moon in 1969, depicted in that Oscar-nominated film. Spencer, 46, was up for an Academy Award for her supporting performance in that film. (She depicts Dorothy Vaughan, another African American scientist, whose overlooked contributions to space exploration also are presented in the film.) The Oscar statue went to Viola Davis, for her performance in “Fences.” Still, the moment in which the three African-American actresses and the retired scientist appeared together on stage was one of the highlights of the presentation, and drew a standing ovation from the audience of big-name Hollywood celebrities.
Spencer took home the Oscar in 2012 for her supporting performance in “The Help,” along with an armful of other industry awards that year.
She now plays the ultimate role in her new inspiring film “The Shack,” helping a grieving man come to terms with the sudden loss of his young daughter to a violent crime. With the exception of Whoopi Goldberg (It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas,” “A Little Bit of Heaven”) and Alanis Morissette (“Dogma”), few actresses in Hollywood have played God. Spencer, who hails from the heart of the Bible Belt (Montgomery, Ala.), joins that small, illustrious group.
The actress says it wasn’t simply the challenge of playing the role of the Supreme being that challenged her, but giving consideration to what it would actually mean to face the hope and scorn of believers and non-believers on a daily basis.
“When you have to prepare to play God … you realize just how tough god’s job is,” she explains during an interview. “I don’t want that job.”
“The Shack” is based on the bestseller of the same title by janitor-turned-novelist William P. Young. The book has sold more than 22 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 40 languages. The inspiring adapatation, which also stars Tim McGraw and Radha Mitchell, is directed by Stuart Hazeldine, from a screenplay by John Fusco, Andrew Lanham and Destin Daniel Cretton.
Spencer says she already was a fan of the book before she was offered the role of Papa.
Q: Are you drawn to roles that have spiritual elements?
Spencer: This is actually the first one. I’m drawn to material. It has to resonate with me on some level.
Q: Did you read the book or the script first?
Spencer: I read the book independently of any movie talk. I read the book a few years ago, so I am one of its legions of fans. When I heard Gil (Netter, producer) and Lani (Netter, producer) were making it, I went to them to try and convince them why I needed to be Papa (the God character).
Q: What was it about the role that appealed to you?
Spencer: It’s not the role; it’s the material as a whole. I love the message of the book. I love the fact that Paul (Young, the author) wrote this book where a regular man has a conversation with God and he asks him some very hard-hitting questions, and God answered him. I thought it was a very unique way to look at religion and for regular people, to look at their role in how they basically influence their environment.
Q: How did the book change your life?
Spencer: In reading the book, I learned something different from playing the role.
Q: Is the movie about trying to do something that nobody can do alone?
Spencer: I hate to tell people what they should think, because I really have an aversion when people tell me what to think. I like to present the material, and let you draw what you need from it. For those people who go to the film and realize perhaps that they can’t do it alone, then perhaps that’s the message that’s meant for them. I just know that the one thing that we all have in common is that we have challenges. No one lives a challenge-free life.
Mack (Phillips, played by Sam Worthington) is definitely an example of a person who experiences a lot of challenges. As a young boy, he is abused by the one person that he should be able to trust, his father. It’s a challenge. We can identify with that, and some of us can identify with. Some of us can identify with depression and guilt and I see how grief can be a paralytic. There (are) definitely some universal themes in it, but I also think there are challenges that make us unique and how we deal with them makes us unique. What I love about this film is that it puts the information out there based on your individual needs. There’s so many things that you can draw from.
Q: Did you have a good opportunity to get to know Sam better?
Spencer: No, we didn’t get to know each other that well. We were both coming from different sets so there wasn’t a lot of “getting to know you” time. I was a huge fan of Sam’s and one thing that we both believe in is finding the truth in a scene. We had a table read where he came in from Australia, and we exchanged emails and phone numbers to say, “Hey, if you want to chat or something, I’m around.” I don’t think either of us felt we needed that because I like to exist as much as I can in the truth of the character. He and I were estranged from each other, so there wasn’t a need for us to hang out and be buddies. It was about me winning his trust again, and I think just by hanging out with him on the set, seeing that he was a new dad, his beautiful young family and just hanging out in our downtime was enough.
Q: In the story, do you think your appearance to him is as someone he barely remembers from his childhood?
Spencer: It’s funny because I didn’t read the foreword the first time I read the book so I missed all of that information about him being abused and all of that, which is very important. So, reading it again, the second time with the foreword, gave me two different perspectives of things. Not reading the foreword I thought, “Oh this is an interesting way to present man’s struggle with himself and his identity as a Christian.”
In the foreword of the book, you realize that the one person to show him kindness was this woman. I feel like it’s definitely a part of the new narrative if a person is betrayed by a parent. Now had it been his mother that had been this abusive to him, I think God would have revealed himself as the conventional father but he had been let down by his own father. Then a man took his daughter from him. God decided that the best way for him to receive the message was to reveal himself as the one person who showed him kindness as a child, because that’s where he had to go back to in order to find that healing. It’s definitely a part of the narrative.
Q: You’ve received a lot of accolades for your performances in “The Help” and “Hidden Figures.” How has that affected you?
Spencer: To be recognized by the Golden Globes and SAG and now the Academy for this role is humbling. Again, I’m playing a woman who, in her lifetime, made these contributions to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and NASA, and went unheralded for it. So, for me, it’s coming full circle for her and her family, and I’m appreciative of that. I wanted to be part of that story because I thought it was time that the world knew what these women contributed to NASA. I also wanted to be part of the next generation of young girls in STEM, and changing their dreams and how they dream themselves.
Q: Have you been contacted by young girls who want to get involved in science and technology?
Spencer: We’ve had a tremendous outreach. It is so beautiful that the film is resonating with audiences and now the same type of thing is happening where people are buying theaters out around the world for young students to go and see. I excited. I’m very very excited for the next generation of young girls and STEM programs. I’ve been pretty clear that I’m not in any shape or form a mathematician so (the fans) don’t confuse me Dorothy (Vaughan, the NASA scientist). But I think we will be inextricably linked from here on out, though, and I have no problems with that.
Q: Do you have a dream project you’d like to do?
Spencer: I love looking for material. I call my agents just about every other week, when I read something to find out if the rights have been taken. I like doing puzzles and, to me, the job of a producer is a person who is puzzle-solving, bringing pieces together that should be congruent.
And that’s what I’m enjoying, is seeking those projects out. I just produced a film called “Small Time Crime,” which is going to SXSW. I play John Hawks’ sister. It stars John Hawks, Anthony Anderson, Robert Forster and Clifton Collins. And I am producing “Raven,” which is about the Jonestown Massacre, with Vince Gilligan and Michelle McLaren, who is directing it. And I am producing and starring in “The Madam C.J. Walker Story.” There are a few more things I’ve optioned and I’m writing with a couple of writers, but that’s what I’m really having fun doing is finding materials, finding new ways to tell stories and finding people who haven’t gotten their shot.