Since winning her Oscar for her scene-stealing turn as the feisty Minny Jackson in the box-office juggernaut “The Help,” Octavia Spencer has distanced herself from studio fare to focus on films than mean a great deal to her. In James Ponsoldt’s affecting indie “Smashed” she played a recovering alcoholic who comes to the aid of a troubled young woman, and in her latest project, Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize winner “Fruitvale Station” (out this Friday in select theaters), Spencer plays the real-life mother to Oscar Grant, whose unlawful killing at the hands of a BART police officer sparked protests and rallies. It’s a film Spencer cites as “the biggest movie I’ve ever done.”
At the film’s New York premiere, hosted by The Weinstein Company, I had the chance to sit down with Spencer for a brief chat at the Standard Hotel’s Boom Boom Room.
How involved did you get early on in the project given that you’re a producer on the project?
I was brought on board as an actor. Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker are the producers, they are the ones that got it greenlit. The reason I got a co-executive producer credit is because were were midway through filming and we lost a great deal of our funding, and I basically made some calls to some friends, pitched in some of my own money and helped get past the hurdle. Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker were so gracious and offered me that title, and I took it. So I wasn’t involved early on at all. It was a done deal when I came to it.
I for one am glad you came to the rescue. Since winning your Oscar for the studio picture “The Help,” you’ve only appeared in small scale indies; this and “Smashed,” both of which premiered at Sundance. Is that just where the best work is?
Well, I’m a businesswoman just as much as the next person. Yes, you want to do studio movies, but I also want to grow as an actor, and an actress like me is not going to get roles where you grow and evolve in a studio film. It’s just not gonna happen. So this project spoke to me, “Smashed” spoke to me, and I was able to do something in both films that I’ve never done before, and explore characters I’ve never had the opportunity to explore. Just trust me, when you get the studio offers, you can do it with your eyes closed. It’s what I like as far as material and I’m pretty happy.
“The Help” must have been a godsend to you; a studio picture with so many great, complex roles for women.
My best friend was the director/writer and one of my other best friends was a producer, so I was a part of that process with them, watching them go through everything with the understanding that I was going to be in it, but ultimately, DreamWorks had to sign off on that, and they did, thank god, but yeah it was a godsend.
“The Help” did so well at the box office, as did “Bridesmaids” that same year. And yet it seems that studios still haven’t learned from that. The only female centric mainstream film I can think of, released this year, is “The Heat.” There should be more!
Women drive box office. And it’s logical, because if you’re a mom, you want the time off with your girlfriends, and you want to see something that you want to see. That’s why you have “The Great Gatsby” doing so well, coming out at a time that is “summer movies.”
Are you surprised that there aren’t more though?
Well it’s a hard lesson that the industry needs to learn. People want to see more diversity. That’s why you have the Kevin Hart making $17 million dollars on a holiday weekend. People want to see that. People want to see Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. People want to see that. People want to see something that isn’t necessarily somebody walking around in a superhero costume. But, you live and learn.
What has the experience been like promoting this film, a film that cuts so close to home for many and demands to be seen by the widest possible audience.
It’s definitely a labor of love. It’s something that I take very seriously because it is representative of a real person’s life that will extend beyond this film, beyond any promotion, whether or not it does well, what have you, it is their life recorded in celluloid. I take it very seriously. It’s also something that I know I’m really passionate about. This is the biggest movie I’ve ever done.