Anyone who saw the hit 2011 movie "The Help" will never forget Octavia Spencer as the sassy maid Minny, who baked a "special" chocolate cake for a racist white woman. The performance earned the now-41-year-old Alabama native an Oscar as best supporting actress. Even though she seemed to come out of nowhere, the Auburn University graduate actually had been working as an actress since her early 20s, when she made her debut in the John Grisham thriller "A Time to Kill." Spencer has since appeared in films such as "Bad Santa" and "Big Momma's House," and in TV shows ranging from "CSI" to "The Big Bang Theory." In "Fruitvale Station," which won the top prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Spencer plays the mother of a young man who is murdered by an Oakland, Calif., transit policeman during a New Year's Eve confrontation. The film is based on a killing that took place in 2009. Newsday contributor Lewis Beale spoke with the actress by phone from San Francisco.
What was it that interested you about this film?
It resonated with me on a personal level, but I almost didn't take the part. I was sent the script, and some of the footage from the cellphone videos , and I took the shortcut of watching the footage. I was angry, hurt, and at the time the Trayvon Martin incident had just occurred, and I thought anger was not the right emotion for this subject matter, and I passed. And my agent said, "Read the script. Anger is not the way Ryan approached the subject." He presented a balanced look at the main character], and that is what I wanted to be a part of. Ryan chose not to view people from anger. This movie could have been an indictment of our judicial system, but that would be painting everyone with a general brush.
You're also listed as a co-executive producer on the film. How did that happen?
We had a very limited budget, under $1 million, and while filming we lost a great deal of money, and I didn't want Ryan's vision compromised. I knew a lot of people with deep pockets and made calls, and I kicked in some of my own money. It's what I've always wanted to do, it was just a natural progression. I wanted to be a producer originally, and had been a producer in a performer's body. I like putting people together, and producing is puzzle-solving.
I read somewhere that during the course of your career, you've played a nurse something like 16 times. How come so many?
There are only a few ways women of color are viewed: the nurturer, the caregiver, the wise sage. And I fit the nurturer-caregiver.
You don't have a degree in either film or drama. So how did you get into acting?
I've always been attracted to the film and TV industries. I wanted to act and thought you could act and produce. My mother, being the practical woman she was, when I said I wanted to be an actress, she said maybe not that. It was my animated personality that directors were drawn to , and I was asked to audition for things.
When did you realize you could make a living as an actor?
Once I realized I was going to pursue a career in this industry, there was nothing that made me think I couldn't make a living at it.
What kinds of offers did you get after winning the Oscar?
There's not a plethora of roles for women of color, and I'm basically a character actress. A lot were things I've played before -- like moms -- and some things I haven't played before, but were not fleshed out. If it's too much like something I've recently played, I turned it down. I don't care about the size of the role, it's the impact the role has in the script.
You recently finished shooting "Paradise," a film written and directed by Diablo Cody of "Juno" fame. What's it about?
It was the first film that [Cody] directed and wrote, and I liked it because we don't have many women behind the scenes. I play a bar singer in a Vegas bar, and Julianne Hough is a young girl who grew up in a religious environment. She lost her faith, and comes to Vegas to explore what she has been denied in her previous life.