LONDON — So interdependent, and yet utterly distinct, are the three principal players in “” that it wasn’t immediately apparent which, if any, would be singled out by major awards groups for attention. All three are given plenty to chew on in director Theodore Melfi’s rousing, true-but-little-known story of three female African American mathematicians promoted from NASA’s racially segregated computing division to vitally assist the space race in the mid-1960s.
Taraji P. Henson narrowly has the lead role as the prodigiously gifted Katherine Johnson, enlisted to calculate flight trajectories for Apollo 11, among others, while 2016 breakout Janelle Monáe has the sparkiest part as Mary Jackson, who fought the courts for the right to continue her studies in hitherto white-only classes. But it’s Octavia Spencer who has nailed down Golden Globe and SAG supporting nominations, five years after winning an Oscar for her turn as a memorably vengeful domestic worker in “The Help.”
Spencer quietly shines as the weariest, most subtly resilient member of the trio, Dorothy Vaughan, who used her position as an unofficial supervisor to advance the status of black women in her office. It’s a role that chimes in with her selfless, team-oriented nature as a performer — and one that resonates all the more potently after a present-day U.S. election cycle that proved the professional glass ceiling is still very much in place at all levels of power.
Seeing “Hidden Figures” on the morning after Donald Trump’s victory, as cruel luck would have it, I was struck by how the film’s message had inadvertently shifted overnight: What might have played as an upbeat victory march in the wake of a history-making Hillary Clinton win, instead becomes a positive plea to keep pushing for change. Looking game-faced but jet-lagged in a central London hotel suite a week later, Spencer admits that she’s been through the emotional wringer.
First up, let me just put this out there: I saw “Hidden Figures” on the morning Donald Trump was elected your country’s President.
Oh. Oh, honey.
Yeah. So while the film definitely lifted my spirits, it wasn’t for the reasons I was expecting.
I feel that. There’s a line that Janelle’s character has in the movie: “Every time we move forward they keep moving the finish line.” And I’m going to be honest with you. I felt the same way. I knew that I had all of the press coming up for this movie that I love. And then after the election it just put me in a very different headspace. I love my job and I love what I do, especially when I love the material. But I honestly didn’t know how I was going to do it. I don’t like to put any face forward that isn’t me. I thought, how am I going to do this without either getting angry or openly crying every two minutes?
Then it was Saturday night at the Academy’s Governor’s Awards, when all of us were together — me and Janelle and Taraji and Pharrell (Williams) and Stacey Snider and Ted (Melfi) — and I had this epiphany. These women lived in de jure segregation, de facto misogyny and blatant racism. And in spite of that they rolled up their sleeves and did something extraordinary for the world. So I realized that instead of being the triumphant rallying cry I thought it was going to be, the film was going to ground me in this spirit of enlightening people, inspiring people and galvanizing people.
This story struck me like a bolt from the blue — the space race has been covered every which way in American cinema, but I had literally never heard anything about these remarkable women before. Was it the same for you?
Yeah. Two years ago, my agent told me I was meeting with Donna Gigliotti about a project about these three female mathematicians that helped get John Glenn in our space program. And I thought, “OK, I guess this is historical fiction like ‘The Help.'” Because I’ve seen just about every movie about the space race and not only have they not mentioned women, they definitely haven’t mentioned African American women. And then she told me no, it was a true story. I was astounded. I told her I wanted to be a part of this no matter what — because if it took this long for these stories to be told, the least I could do is throw my name in the ring.
Stories of any kind centered around a group of black women are still an extreme rarity in studio cinema, let alone ones set in an advanced professional sphere.
There is cognitive dissonance when I think of African American women at that time and their contributions at that time. There is no precedent for this movie. Even with “The Help,” it was three African American maids with the protagonist being a white girl. It has not been done. There’s an underserved audience for stories of women like this working, and succeeding. There is a kind of fatigue on slave stories, on subjugated stories, which for some reason there is still a plethora of in Hollywood. I think this movie will be impactful in a lot of ways because African American women have contributed so much and have been regarded so little. But there’s still a lot of road to cover, a lot of stories to tell.
And while this is a political film, it’s also rooted in smaller, everyday trials and victories. Dorothy, Mary and Katherine are breathing, aching, laughing characters, not symbolic vessels.
It’s not a confrontational piece. In spite of what was going on socially, these women persevered. It’s their story being told, not a story within the story of the civil rights movement. That’s something to feel empowered about. And that is what I found refreshing about the script. Allison [Schroeder] and Ted did an amazing job painting and establishing what we already knew existed at the time, but keeping the focus personal.
I think the fact that this movie is out there, the fact that “Fences” is out there, is encouraging: These aren’t necessarily just stories about African American struggle, but about daily life. There’s a need for it and an audience for it. We have romantic comedies coming out now that are doing the same thing. I’m very grateful, and very hopeful that it continues, and that it’s not just about African Americans. We need different slices of Latina life. We need different slices of Asian American life. There are so many stories out there that need to be told, and just because the leads happen to be three African Americans doesn’t mean they won’t translate to mainstream audiences.
It’s not a “black film,” but a film about black people.
Between “Hidden Figures,” “Fences,” “Moonlight” and more, this has felt like something of a watershed year for more socially representative films receiving their due in terms of publicity and acclaim. Is lasting change afoot? Is the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, for example, taking root?
Speaking as an Oscar winner, the fact that we have several films with African American actors in the Oscars conversation this year — that’s great. But I hope it’s not seen as a reaction to anything if any one of us make the final 10. Or as tokenism. If any of those films get nominated it’s about merit, and because they deserve to be there. Let me tell you, when we sit down and fill out our ballot, we don’t think about politics. We vote because we like the movie.
That’s what I was trying to impart when all of that was happening. The actors branch has quite a few people of color. You don’t sit down and say, “Well, that film has a black actor in it, so I’m going to vote for it.” You just don’t. You vote with your heart and for what you saw. To me, #OscarsSoWhite places the blame in the wrong place. It’s the end of the process; it should have been more focused on the films that were being greenlit. There’s material out there, but it hasn’t been greenlit. Oscars are the frosting on the cake. What matters is that you have a cake that is baked.
Do you feel winning the Oscar has opened doors for you professionally?
Oh sure, I’ve chosen a broader range of roles in the last few years. But I can tell you they have tunnel vision with African American women: We’d only had “The Help” in the can for two months before I started being offered every other maid role. I mean, all of them, “The Paperboy,” everything. And I turned them all down because I had just played the best maid. If I were offered a maid role today, and it showed different aspects I haven’t seen and haven’t played, I’ll take it. If it’s a serial killer maid, I’ll jump at the chance.
I am here for your serial killer maid thriller.
Yeah, I really want the serial killer maid now that I think about it.
Just get a studio and start. As if that’s so easy.
Well, I’m moving more into producing, and planning to do a lot more of that going forward, so I’m literally just looking at projects right now. I just produced an indie with John Hawkes called “Small Town Crime,” in which he and I play brother and sister. It also stars Anthony Anderson and Robert Forster. So it’s just a matter of trying on different hats and seeing what fits, you know? I’m excited about that.
Some of the things I’m in and some of it I won’t be in. I probably won’t take an acting role in the Jonestown massacre project Vince Gilligan is doing with Michelle MacLaren. But, you know, Vince is writing it so it’s going to be brilliant. I don’t know. I’ll look at the roles and see what’s there but I think the African American women that were more prominent in that story were older, so I’d rather an older woman play those parts. I will be acting in the Madam C.J. Walker biopic I’m planning — that’s a very important project to me.
I always think of you as one of the industry’s true team players. You seem to thrive within heavily collaborative ensembles.
Let me tell you something. There are some people whose goal is to always be the lead. And it’s not that I shy away from that. But I am 40-something. We won’t say what something. Let’s just say 41, 42… maybe I’ve been lying a bit! But I’m 40-something and it’s hard to be away for so long. I like ensemble pieces. I like being shoulder to shoulder with my fellow actors. I enjoy telling a story with a group of talented people. I probably am more inclined to be the boss behind the scenes, which is why I’m transitioning into producing. But I’ll always be the ensemble person because you know what? I like sleep. And I like having a life outside of this. I mean, I’ve been auditioning and working for 20 years; success has come late for me. I can’t now see myself chasing stardom all the time. It’s not anything I’m inclined to do.
Is working with predominantly female ensembles something you pursue?
I revel in the sisterhood of things when I work with women, but I don’t shy away from working with men. There’s a beauty in both. When you’re working with, like, a Kevin Costner, a man who is appreciative of what women bring to the process, that’s a very special camaraderie.
And what about representation behind the camera? Ted Melfi has been frank in interviews about his position as a white man directing a story of African American women.
Here’s the thing about white men telling stories. They’re the ones that are getting all the jobs, and there are all these African American directors and writers out there who aren’t telling anybody’s stories. If studios aren’t funding stories about people of color and aren’t hiring people of color, then what stories are left to tell for that community? So I understand the backlash. But take Ryan Coogler — he can tell any story. The fact that he’s now in the Marvel world with a black character is interesting, but it also means they’re considering him for far more than just “the African American genre.”
But it’s never part of the conversation that we need more female voices represented because we tell stories differently. Emotionally differently. As a producer, bringing it up in meetings with white male executives, I find there’s resistance to it. So I say, “Hey, I need a female voice in this and it can’t just be mine.” There’s a misconception that it’s about keeping people out. In fact, you just kind of have to wave every now and again. Keep refreshing their memory.
So half a century on from the struggles depicted in “Hidden Figures,” it now feels like you can’t take any progress for granted. As we head into Trump’s presidency, you just have to keep your voice raised.
Well, it’s a call to arms. Actually, let me just say a call to action, because arms is a whole different thing. And with the rhetoric that’s been bounced around in this election cycle, you have to be specific. So, a call to action, a call to be vigilant about what we’re going to allow, things that have already been litigated like Roe v. Wade. We can’t allow them to be revisited. We can’t allow an attack on civil liberties with the strides that have been made for same-sex marriages. No matter who is in office, we’re not going to let any changes to those things happen.
Your differentiation between arms and action makes me think of Hollywood’s still-limited definition of female strength on screen.
We’ve just desensitized ourselves to what we think strong women are. They’re carrying guns and doing action movies or whatever. But that’s a surface definition. A strong female character is a person who, no matter what her situation is, has a voice. A strong female character is vulnerable in a lot of ways, and it’s through that vulnerability that we see that she’s strong. And that’s how we are defined as people. A strong female character is not one that has to act like a man. It’s one who shows her femininity in spite of the situation she’s in. She establishes her own identity and retains her identify in spite of the men in her life. That, to me, is a strong female character.
And “Hidden Figures” checks every one of those boxes.
With that in mind, what strong women do you still want to work with?
I just met Nicole Kidman and I’d like to do something with her. Sally Field. Angela Bassett. Something else with Jessica Chastain. Taraji are I are doing something together because we literally had so much fun working together. Meryl Streep, of course. Amy Adams. And I have something that I’m probably going to pitch to Amy Schumer. I love her dry wit, love it.
Bring it on. I think we’d all love to see your raunchy side.
Oh, well, honey. That’ll come. That time will come.