Once a year it seems a performance comes across as more than the sum of good writing, strong direction and lucky timing. The performance appears to be rooted in the reality of the actor’s history; in essence they have lived much of what they are being asked to portray. Such is Octavia Spencer‘s portrait of Minny Jackson in The Help. She plays a maid who suffers through emotional and physical beatings like a native but not a naive veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement — Spencer grew up in Montgomery, Ala., and graduated with a BS in Liberal Arts from Auburn. Perhaps it’s the combination of her education, Southern comfort and humor that have helped Spencer emerge as a Supporting Actress frontrunner for the Oscars even with such equally impressive co-stars as Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney and Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek. She spoke with AwardsLine contributor Craig Modderno about her experience with The Help, which is up for four Oscars including Best Picture.
AWARDSLINE: Many actors say they’re perfect for the role especially when they’re auditioning. Was your part in The Help a natural fit for you?
SPENCER: I don’t know. Basically it was physically, because I suspect Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, who I knew while she was writing the book, might have modeled the character after me. But there are a lot of other short and round black women in the South who also seem to not hesitate in speaking their minds. Even though I was friends with the author and other influential members of the production team, I still had to audition for the role. When I did, in the back of my mind, I thought I was hearing someone ask if Jennifer Hudson was available yet!
AWARDSLINE: Most actors struggle to get a signature role that identifies their character, like Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. Do you see your role in The Help as one making you a household name?
SPENCER: I doubt that. The positive effect it’s had is raising my profile and getting me into interesting rooms, which is important for meetings and auditions. Hopefully that will translate into me getting involved in more quality projects. Nowadays, I get people pointing at me and saying “You look just like someone”, and then they shake their head and snap their fingers, which is kind of a hard thing to respond to.
AWARDSLINE: If Viola Davis’ character Aibleen is the heart of The Help, would you consider your character to be its soul?
SPENCER: I’m more like its muscle. We, the ensemble as a unit, were the soul, as you put it. I’d go one step further and say Mississippi herself is the soul of the film. It’s on the backs of domestics that she and other states were cultivated into what we know today as an imperfect union seeking perfection. By taking us on a journey through one of the darkest times in our nation’s history, The Help brings us closer to that goal, reminding us that ordinary people are this country’s true heroes.
AWARDSLINE: Did you approach your character as if she was an acting ensemble or did you have a different mind-set?
SPENCER: Being a part of an ensemble. Intellectually I knew the character was her own entity and I had a problem with how she responded to the battered-wife syndrome until I realized that was her link to several other characters. The Help is a movie about relationships, and it’s a testament to the true ensemble of actors that our part of the picture worked.
AWARDSLINE: What’s has it been like on the awards circuit so far?
SPENCER: I don’t want to talk about my own chances because I don’t want to jinx myself, also out of respect for my fellow co-stars.
AWARDSLINE: You were born in 1972, long past the major landmarks of the civil rights struggle. Did you research the assassination of Medgar Evers, an event your film covers?
SPENCER: I spoke to his wife. I researched the Freedom Riders, Rosa Parks and other icons that contributed to the social climate of the time. For people who live in parts of the state, Jackson. Mississippi, for example, the civil rights struggle continues.
AWARDSLINE: How would you describe the current state of race relations in the South?
SPENCER: During my research for the film, I discovered much that hasn’t changed. It’s definitely regressing socially, but at the same time blacks and whites in the South get along better than outsiders and political pundits give us credit for. Oddly this was a wonderful climate for The Help to hit theaters. You’ve got the Tea Party making crazy political statements. Some of their beliefs now echoed issues of the 1960s. Gay rights and women’s rights are part of the social conscience now but have eluded us in the past. There are very serious issues in the world which hopefully Hollywood and films like The Help can shed some light on.
AWARDSLINE: Did filming in Mississippi have any specific effect on your psyche and work?
SPENCER: Filming in Mississippi added another layer of authenticity in revisiting the civil rights era. Not for the obvious reasons: the beautiful landscape, expansive foliage, or sprawling homes. While the Delta is famous for its rich farmlands, and being the birthplace of blues music, it was also the epicenter of volatility and brutality with regard to the civil rights struggle. Emmett Till’s body was found six miles away from where we filmed the church scene. Many atrocities took place along the very back roads we walked or drove daily. Not surprisingly, the ghosts of that bygone era still loom heavily, which made it difficult for me to sleep at night. It really allowed me to be in the oppressive mind-set of my character. Being there, and being a part of the project, was transformative.