10 Actors to Watch 2011: Octavia Spencer

Montgomery, Ala. native Octavia Spencer knows she gets laughs in “The Help,” but doesn’t see the tempestous, Jim Crow-era maid Minny as being comedically self-aware.

“Her life is so difficult. She’s not easily amused,” says Spencer, who has earned raves for her spirited, rich portrayal of Minny in the adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel about life for house servants in the 1960s. “I never played it as if I’m trying to be funny, never saw her with a sense of humor. She said exactly what she felt, and because of the context, it comes out funny.”

Before “The Help,” Spencer’s bailiwick since moving to Los Angeles 15 years ago was nailing one-scene moments in films and a handful of TV series. Tackling a feature-length role like Minny was a change that she clearly cherished.

“I had to build it, and it was really hard,” she says. “But it was a good lesson to learn.”

Less enjoyable was waiting to know if she’d be given the opportunity to play Minny, even though the character was inspired partly by Spencer, who met Stockett eight years ago through her good friend, “The Help” director Tate Taylor.

Taylor wanted her, but she figured DreamWorks might have other casting ideas, specifically an African-American actress who was more well-known to auds.

“I thought it would go through Mo’Nique, Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah before it ever got to me,” Spencer recalls. “I’m grateful (DreamWorks CEO) Stacey Snider took such a huge chance.”

Spencer originally thought she’d become a producer, and developing her own projects is still not far from her mind.

“I’ve been writing concepts and treatments,” she says. “By nature I’m a detective. I like figuring things out, and I know that’s what producers do.”

For now, though, she enjoys dispelling friends back in Alabama about what they assume to be the incessant glamour of Hollywood life. It’s not all limos, caviar and gowns.

“I tell them, ‘Honey, there’s nothing glamorous about squeezing into two pair of Spanx.'”

Lucky break: “I got a tiny part in ‘A Time to Kill,’ and then I came out to L.A. and Sandra Bullock put me in her short ‘Making Sandwiches.’ Because of that, one thing led to another.”
Favorite film: “If ‘The Color Purple’ is on, I will be late for anything.”
Career I’d like to emulate: “Pour in Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Alison Janney and Melissa McCarthy, shake it up and make a Molotov cocktail.”

10 ACTORS TO WATCH 2011:
Benedict Cumberbatch | Jean Dujardin | Luke Evans | Josh Hutcherson | Felicity Jones | Taylor Kitsch | Brit Marling | Elizabeth Olsen | Octavia Spencer | Shailene Woodley

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