LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Actress Octavia Spencer seemingly came out of nowhere to steal this summer’s sleeper hit, “The Help,” about a group of African American maids in the early 1960s working in white households in Mississippi.
The film, based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel of the same name, has grossed $199 million at worldwide, and Oscar buzz is circling Spencer for her role as Minny Jackson, an outspoken maid who gets fired and seeks a nasty sort of vengeance using her ability to cook.
Spencer, 41, spoke to Reuters about how life has changed since the film, which was released on DVD this week, and how she’s coping with the Oscar buzz.
Q: Prior to “The Help,” you were best known for your role on TV’s “Ugly Betty.” Now, you’re about to star in a movie opposite Russell Brand. How has life changed?
A: “Quite honestly, I‘m getting in to a lot better rooms to meet people I only dreamed about meeting before. And for that I‘m grateful. I have been getting rides on a private jet and sleeping in great hotels while promoting this movie, so that’s been great! But my life is pretty much the same.”
Q: Up until last December, you were living with ‘Help’ director Tate Taylor, who had you in mind for this part from the get go. Tell me about your friendship with him.
A: “Tate and I met in 1995 when we were both lowly production assistants on ”A Time to Kill,“ the Sandra Bullock film that Joel Schumacher directed. We’ve been inseparable ever since. We decided to live together and when Tate bought a house in L.A., I thought if I‘m going help anyone pay their mortgage, it would have to be my best friend. We’ve surrounded ourselves with a wonderful group of friends and that’s how it’s been for the last 16 years.”
Q: How did you go from being a P.A. to an actor?
A: “Acting is not something I thought I could make a living at. But I worked behind the scenes in casting and every director I had ever worked with would ask me to audition for something. So I thought, maybe I should give this a try.”
Q: Has it been a hard road, or an easy one?
A: “One thing led to another. After meeting Sandra Bullock on ‘A Time to Kill,’ she cast me in a short she was directing. Then the director of photography on her film was working on a Disney film, got me an audition and I booked that, so little things continued to snowball. But also, Tate and I were in acting class three or four days a week for about five years.”
Q: Tate was originally considering doing ‘The Help’ as an independent film. When Disney got involved, did that jeopardize you in the role of Minny?
A: “When they started talking to studios, I immediately distanced myself from the idea that I could possibly play the role because I understand the way of the business. It’s about having names who draw people into the theater and I understood that I wasn’t that. I wasn’t thrilled to relinquish the hope of doing the project, but I did for self-preservation.”
Q: Did you have to audition to prove yourself?
A: “I did. Tate and (producer) Brunson Green and 1492 Pictures knew what I could do, but they weren’t signing the checks, essentially (laughs). DreamWorks and Participant films were. I understood that, so I had no problem auditioning.”
Q: Were there others in the running?
A: “No one else read for the role, but they definitely had people on a short list. How many short, chubby African American actresses are there? I can tell you Mo‘Nique, Queen Latifah and at the time, Jennifer Hudson, were perhaps on the short list.”
Q: You’re getting accolades from critics groups like the National Board of Review. An Oscar nomination seems imminent. Do you think about it, or do you try to shut it out?
A: “It was easier to shut it out when the movie first came out in August because that was far, far away from December. Now it’s harder to shut that type of talk out of your mind. Let me tell you something: it’s an honor for people to even be using my name in the same sentence as Oscar. But I‘m also a control freak, and I know that all of that is beyond my control.”
Q: So what do you do to not let it overwhelm you?
A: “I‘m really marshaling my energy to just enjoy the process. If I don’t get to be on Oscar’s red carpet, well then, I’ve already met Michael Fassbender, (director) Steve McQueen, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey. I’ve met people that have influenced my life.”
Q: Is there anyone you haven’t met that you’re hoping to?
A: “I still have yet to meet Clint Eastwood, so I hope that things linger long enough for me to accost him at some function.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Patricia Reaney