By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Oscar winner Octavia Spencer is starting to feel stuck. In 1962. And she wants out.
“This is my third time,” she says during an interview, referring to playing a character of that segregated era. In Guillermo del Toro’s much buzzed about fantasy romance “The Shape of Water,” she plays a night janitor at a top-secret government research facility regularly subjected to the verbal abuse of its cruel administrator.
The Alabama-born actress and children’s book author previously played a put-upon maid in 2011’s southern drama “The Help” in which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, and was subsequently nominated in the same category for her depiction of a brilliant but underestimated mathematician in last year’s moonshot drama, “Hidden Figures.”
Make no mistake, Spencer is pleased to have had the opportunity to work with the Mexico-born autuer, but she also says she wants to play more characters that aren’t victims of racial discrimination and abuse.
As Zelda Fuller in “The Shape of Water,” she cleans the hallways and bathrooms in the white, male-dominated government facility, alongside Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), who is mute. Brutish administrator Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is probing a mysterious aquatic creature (a costumed and made up Doug Jones of “Pan’s Labyrinth””and “Star Trek: Discovery” fame) captured from a South American river. He wants to dissect it, destroy it and keep it secret from the Russians. Shy, sensitive Elisa falls in love with the tortured creature and eventually plots to free him from captivity. Zelda reluctantly helps her co-worker, aware they both could be fired or face worse consequences if their daring rescue mission goes awry.
Spencer, who also has written two children’s books, took the opportunity while promoting her new movie, to speak about recent allegations and revelations of Hollywood sexual misconduct and how she is striving to bring projects she supports to fruition.
Q: Did Guillermo del Toro give you a full biography for your character?
Spencer: He did. That’s a part of who he is as a director. I always write a biography for my character, because what your experiences are in life will shade every bit of your character. It was great to get that from Guillermo as well, to see what he thought. There were a couple of things that we had that intersected. They were odd things that no one else would think of. So, it was really funny that he and I were that intuitive about Zelda.
Q: Since winning the Oscar, you’ve landed some really great supporting roles. Have you gotten offers to do a very meaty lead role?
Spencer: I’ve had to create those. It’s odd because, doing this film, I saw that it is possible to have a supporting role that was fully fleshed out. That’s the thing about this movie—with every supporting character, you go to their homes and you see their backstory. You see what’s going on in their lives. We also facilitate the main story, but we get to have our story within the story. That made me hunger for more of that.
Q: Is there a character that you’ve always wanted to play and never had the chance?
Spencer: A producer. A person who facilitates opportunities for other people, and I get to find things that are unique. I don’t ever want to limit myself, because someone said, “Well, you’ve played a maid and you’ve now played a janitor.” But they’re very different. They have very different experiences. So, I won’t say I won’t ever play a character like this again, who has this type of job. What if she’s a serial killer? That would be kind of fun to play. I’m excited about the prospect of just creating those opportunities, not just for myself but for other people.
Q: What was it like working with Guillermo del Toro in terms of watching him, because he also is a producer?
Spencer: First of all, Guillermo has a standard of excellence and everybody has to live up to that standard. He’s a perfectionist, and he creates an environment on a set where you come in with your A-game, or you don’t come in. At the same time, it’s Guillermo, so he commands respect but he doesn’t demand it. It’s up to you to live up to it, because he is a loyal director. He uses the same actors again and again. That’s what I liked about working with him. It’s what I imagine it’s like being on a (Steven) Spielberg set, or any of these titans of the (movie) industry.
It also was fun. This is his opus, and it was wonderful to get to be a part of it and to see how everyone worked very hard. I’ve never been on a set where during takes people aren’t on their cell phone. It was kind of weird. Everybody was watching. They’re as engrossed in the process as you are, and that was refreshing.
Q: Your character has such a heavy load. She’s got this husband and she works so hard. And it’s 1962, when American women of color are often mistreated.
Spencer: Each time before, I’ve had to deal with the circumstances. These are women who had no agency and no civil rights. It was always a part of my narrative and I always had to play to that. In this film, those circumstances are still there but it’s not a part of my narrative. My narrative is about my husband. My narrative is about Elisa’s crazy relationship as a best friend, so that was refreshing for me. It didn’t feel heavy, because I’ve always played the woman who has had to persevere. In this movie, I don’t have to persevere. Sally, as Elisa, does.
Q: In your other films, you were the other?
Spencer: I’m the other in all of them. But I’ve had to acknowledge that I’m the other. I’ve had to deal with it as a part of my narrative. In this movie, I don’t address it until I’m confronted by it, with Michael Shannon’s character saying, “God looks more like me.” All of those little things. But it’s not the entire narrative for me. My narrative is, I have a husband who doesn’t appreciate me. My narrative is, my best friend is in love with a fish and she is endangering not just her life but our jobs by stealing the fish. There’s this caper. There’s a larger objective that I get to play.
Q: In your role as a producer that you’re taking on now, do you plan on championing stories that are not being championed in all of it?
Spencer: Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to limit myself in any way. I’ve optioned books that are around women of color, around white men. I want to tell stories that haven’t been told from every aspect and I’m excited about that.
Q: Do you have some interesting encounters with fans, because you are famous and people love you and people feel like they know you? Any strange encounters?
Spencer: It’s not fun when you’re walking through the airport and someone grabs you from behind and you have your purse on that side. It’s like, “Oh my God.” You start fighting them off. I want to say, “Don’t ever do that. Don’t ever approach a person from behind.” I can’t tell you how many times it happens. It happens a lot and it’s scary.
Q: It’s about personal space, isn’t it?
Spencer: Yeah, but people don’t realize it. Because they have their cameras out, I’m like, “What’s going on here?” That’s a way to get shot if you’re on the street. You just don’t do it.
Q: Talking about getting grabbed, you’d have to be living in an igloo to not know what’s going on in Hollywood. As a woman, what do you think of the whole sexual abuse scandal?
Spencer: What people fail to realize is it’s never easy to speak up. You don’t gain anything by speaking up, but you realize the people who are speaking up are regaining a little of the dignity that they were robbed of—to speak up and to speak out. So, while it is seriously taxing to read, imagine what it was like for them? It’s important that we don’t go on witch hunts, but allow the space to be made for people to have their moment of reckoning. Anyone who holds another person’s dreams hostage should lose theirs. They should lose their livelihood, because you have not allowed a person to progress. I’m all for this airing out, but I think we have to be careful in the, “Such-and-such smiled at me” situation, and stop digging, and allow people to come forward.
Q: Does it make sense for an actress to go to a producer’s hotel room at 11:30 p.m.?
Spencer: Here’s the thing. I can’t judge an actress for that, because this is the craziest business possible. We’re in a hotel right now. We’re always in a hotel room. My thing is, how about the guy or the gal, whoever the sexual predator is, how about you just do your job and not force yourself? Because I believe in flirting. I’m a big flirt. It’s one thing to flirt. But if the person doesn’t respond, you don’t make physical contact, you don’t keep pushing the situation. It means they’re not interested. But a sexual predator is a sexual predator and they prey on people. They’re not going to be lawful people anyway.
If you’re unsuspecting—and a lot of these women were in the (studio mogul) Harvey Weinstein case—he offered them rides home and then comes up and knocks on the door, you think, “Oh my God. Was he just robbed at gunpoint?” Because this person was being kind to you just a moment before, so you’re not expecting when they’re knocking on your door that they’re going to assault you.
I tell every woman I know to keep a fork in your purse. A knife is too dangerous, but a fork will give you enough oomph, because you can grab it to get away or to hit a vital organ without killing anybody. Keep a fork in your purse. Women should keep forks.
Q: Where do you get your strength from? Is it a mom, a grandma? Who taught you because you just always seem so cool and strong.
Spencer: I don’t know that I’m strong. I’m definitely fearful of a lot of things. I’m surrounded by a lot of people who allow me to be who I am, and I think that when you are given permission to thrive in your own way, then it also gives you confidence and confidence can be read as strength.
Q: Last year you were in the film, “The Free World,” but you usually do period pieces. Is there something that you find more attractive or, that is the role that comes?
Spencer: Those are the roles that come, but here lately, after playing Madam C.J. Walker (a TV limited series in development, based on a book about the first self-made African-American millionairess) we’re kind of refraining from the black woman who perseveres in a time period. I just want to do some fun stuff and have more light on a set, or not be stressed about different things and play someone who not closely resembles me. Minny (“The Help”), Dorothy (“Hidden Figures”) and Zelda (“The Shape of Water”) are people that are masterfully created. I want to play somebody who knows the bands that I know.
It’s going to be a minute after Madam C.J., before I do another period movie that I’m acting in. I probably will produce things, but it’s really taxing to come home every day, because I also immerse myself in the time period. I don’t come out of the ’60s when I’m in the ’60s, and it is not fun. It’s not fun to just be in this bubble of segregation, because you segregate yourself, and so I don’t want to do that again any time soon.
Q: When does the miniseries about Madam C.J., come out and what can you say about that character?
Spencer: I play Madam C.J., who didn’t inherit her fortune. She was self-made, and it was the turn of the (20th) century. So, I’m excited to play her. It will be for Netflix and it will be on sometime next year. It’s a limited television series. That’s going to be a fun one, because she gets rich, at least.
Q: How do you immerse yourself in the period? What do you do?
Spencer: You have to listen to music from the time period, because it pre-dates you. That’s the fun part, the listening to the music. But you also spend a lot of time watching (footage of that era). I have the documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” where it’s all footage from post-lynchings, segregation and all of that. It’s real, and you want to make sure that you live within the reality that your character would be living in. Every now and again, when I would get cabin fever and go crazy, I would go out to a movie, but that was only once or twice. Otherwise, it’s like 1960 all day, every day, and it’s just not fun.
“The Shape of Water” opens in New York Friday, Dec. 1. It opens in Los Angeles Friday, Dec. 8, and expands to additional markets in the weeks following.