Pardon Octavia Spencer for still reeling over how awesome 2011 was for her.
She’s never going to get over that level of giddy, but the work she turned in for the acclaimed upcoming indie film Fruitvale Station (and the attention it’s earning her) could quite possibly become a close second.
Two years ago, the actress collected her Oscar for The Help, and her career has been on an incredible upswing in the years since. Tomorrow, she co-stars in another film that’s already generating award-season buzz: Fruitvale Station, written and directed by 27-year-old Ryan Coogler. The film documents the true story of Oscar Grant, who was tragically killed in 2009 by BART police officer Johannes Mehserie in Oakland, California.
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and collected both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film. The movie also earned Best First Film at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
EBONY.com talks with Octavia Spencer about her role as Oscar Grant’s mom, the importance of his story, and the classic Black actress struggle. (Yes, in spite of the Academy Award.)
EBONY: 2011 was a fantastic year for you. Where do you pick back up after coming off of that kind of a high professionally?
Octavia Spencer: I actually have not come down from that high, you know? I’m excited that I get to do what I love, and I’m benefiting through projects that speak to me. You just keep moving forward and doing what you do, and hope that it resonates with people. And if it doesn’t, you just keep moving on until you find a project that does.
EBONY: Does winning an Oscar change the way you pick projects?
OS: No. I choose projects that resonate with me on some personal level and projects that I’m afraid to do. If I’m afraid to do them, then I usually say yes, because it means that I’m not ready to go there and deal with certain aspects of the script. And that means that I need to do it, because the things that scare you only make you better and stronger. I want to find things that challenge me.
EBONY: So you like being uncomfortable, it sounds like?
OS: A little bit. You have to get out of your comfort zone in order to grow. And as an actor, you don’t become Meryl Streep by doing the same type of comedy. You get there by being challenged. And unfortunately, there’s a lack of roles for women of color, so you actually have to be the engineer creating some of those roles.
EBONY: What made you say yes to Fruitvale Station?
OS: I said yes for several reasons. To make a long story short… my agent said, “I need you to read this script, because I need to know if you want to do it.” I’m going to be honest with you: I was tired. I just thought, I can’t read another thing. So I chose not to read the script and I chose to watch [director Ryan Coogler’s] short, which I thought was amazing.
And then I saw the actual footage that people shot with their cell phones. I was left with a lot of anger and resentment, and I thought, “I don’t think this project is for me.” I don’t think anger is the right emotion to deal with this particular subject, especially now with the Trayvon Martin story being out there. Anger is not the emotion that we need to propel this story forward.
And my agent said, “Good. You need to read the script because that’s not the approach that the writer/director takes.” And when I read the script, it resonated with me on so many levels. Because I assumed Ryan Coogler was a young, Jewish kid who wrote the script and I loved what he had to say. When I found out he was African-American, it impacted me even more, because he could’ve come from a place of indictment of the police in this country, from a place of anger. But he didn’t. He came from the place of a storyteller who, basically, wanted to restore what was taken from Oscar in a way that he could and that was his humanity.
EBONY: This is a very topical story, given the prominence of the George Zimmerman murder trial. This seems to be an extension of being an entertainer these days: doing projects that inspire deep conversations. You certainly did that with The Help. Is that an added bonus? Or do you have to ready yourself for that?
OS: I have to say, after doing The Help and hearing all the great conversations—whether you were pro or against the fact that Viola [Davis] and I played maids in 2011—I was happy those conversations were being had. It sort of galvanized in me the idea that perhaps my role as a filmmaker was not only to promote diversity in filmmaking and the stories that we tell, perhaps not just to entertain, but to educate and enlighten.
Fruitvale is one of those movies that does all of those things, checks all of those boxes. So I was very attracted to it on that level. I’m attracted to things that make me want to be a better person. I’m not saying that I won’t do popcorn movies and things that are just for pure entertainment. But for who I am as a human being, it’s just what I’m trying to do right now.
EBONY: Did the door open a little bit for you after the Oscar win? Or is the intensity and the struggle still as difficult as it was before the Oscar?
OS: The struggle is definitely still there. What Oscar did was allowed me the availability or the access to those roles that are available. And there aren’t very many. It’s a challenge. For me it’s about meeting that challenge and creating roles that are diverse in nature for women or color and women period.
I want to see more women behind the scenes. I want to see more women as producers. We have an Asian producer on this film. We had a female cinematographer. This is the most diverse group of people I’ve ever worked with. In our cast, we have Asian, African-American, Latin, Caucasian, Indian. It’s reflective of our world and it should be reflected in all of our media. And that’s why I’m involving myself with projects that are multicultural. Is it a challenge? Yes. But it opened a lot of doors and I’m grateful for it.