Spencer is the longtime friend of the film’s writer-director Tate Taylor, who is the even longer-time friend of Help author Kathryn Stockett. Taylor introduced the two women, and Spencer’s brass and class became Minny’s essence.
The Help, which opened on Aug. 10, portrays three unlikely cohorts who expose scandals and civil-rights injustices in 1960s-era Jackson, Miss. And even though the film marks Taylor’s first big studio job, he practically demanded the casting of Spencer, making for a rarity: the person inspiring a novel's major character actually playing her on the screen.
Ever since a preview last April at the film-exhibitors convention CinemaCon, many in Hollywood have been buzzing that performances by stars Viola Davis, Emma Stone and Spencer will carry them all into Oscar season.
So, for a fresh perspective on the Spencer story, it was time to dig a little deeper.
“She’d pass up a state dinner with the Obamas to watch a Little House on the Prairie marathon,” spilled Taylor recently, with author Stockett at his side, chuckling and nodding in acknowledgment.
In a separate interview, Spencer confessed, “That would be true,” adding a slightly embarrassed smile. “You know why I like Little House on the Prairie so much? My mom and dad separated, they never divorced, when I was really young. I think my mom was pregnant with my younger sister, and Michael Landon always played these wonderful dads. He was like my father figure, kind of what I wanted my dad to be.”
Spencer was born in Montgomery, Ala., attended Auburn University and was introduced to Taylor when they were production assistants on the 1996 Sandra Bullock thriller, A Time to Kill.
Spencer recalled that when working on the film, she told director Joel Schumacher, “I want to be the woman who starts the riot between the clan and the crowd, and he said, ‘Oh, no Octavia. Your face is too sweet. You could read for Sandy’s nurse.’ I was like, ‘Really?’ I thought, ‘Oh my god, I get to play Sandy’s nurse.’I never thought it would cement my path.”
She went on to play nurses in the TV series City of Angels, Worst Week, Grounded for Life, Just Shoot Me!, Roswell, Chicago Hope, Brimstone and The X-Files, in the short film The Spleenectomy, in the features What Planet Are You From?, Everything Put Together, Halloween II, The Sky is Falling, Seven Pounds, and even in the upcoming indie Lost on Purpose.
And the 39-year-old Spencer said she'd play a nurse yet again, but with a caveat: She’d have to be nursing a character played by George Clooney, and it wouldn’t hurt if she got to bathe him onscreen. “Can you set it up for me?” Spencer asked, laughing. “Get it out there. Put it out in the cosmos.”
She seems comfortable talking about just about
everything except the prospect of an Oscar nomination.
“I don’t think there is any way to prepare for that, because it is out of my control,” Spencer explained. “What I hope is that people will go out and see this film. Support Viola Davis in her first lead role – well-earned, well-deserved. Support Emma Stone in her dramatic turn. Support Bryce (Dallas Howard), support Jessica (Chastain), support myself, support Tate, (producer) Brunson (Green), Allison (Janney) and Sissy (Spacek). I feel like it’s a hope or dream that all that other stuff happens, but right now I am living in the moment. It is all about getting the project out and hoping that people will see it.”
And, who knows? If The Help is a hit and those big-paying parts roll in, she may end up with her own little house.
“A little house in Alabama and a little condo in the (San Fernando) Valley,” Spencer said. “That’s the dream.”
Photo: Octavia Spencer