Octavia Spencer is known for playing characters who aren’t afraid to speak their mind and often have something to say. But the actor found herself speechless when she heard she was being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Dec. 8. “How do you respond to that?” Spencer says of the news. “To know that you will forever be a part of the mythology of this town. It was a rare moment where I just couldn’t think of anything to say.”
It’s been more than 25 years since Spencer drove out to Los Angeles to pursue the dream of being an actor and one of the first places she wanted to visit was the Walk of Fame.
“It’s a place where you can actually see that bygone era of stars who are no longer with it. And you can actually reach out and touch their star,” she says. “It can make it feel attainable to people. It’s just a rare and huge honor.”
She can’t help but make a small joke about how thrilled she is to find out where her star will be located. “Once I find out, people might see someone who resembles me out there with a broom and mop from time to time,” she says with that perfect comedic delivery that’s become her trademark. “Especially after a rainy day or someone spills something, you might just see someone come out and do a little dusting.”
Few people in Hollywood are as beloved as Spencer, who parlayed scene-stealing roles into an Academy Award-winning breakthrough performance in the 2011 film “The Help.” She’s also stepped behind the camera to produce and created the book series “Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective.”
Spencer has come a long way since her film debut in 1996’s “A Time to Kill,” in which she played Sandra Bullock’s nurse. “She’s a real human. A good human. A safe human,” Bullock says. “A person who comes into the room with such integrity and a joy for life that it makes you want to try harder at everything … because she is!”
Though Spencer had secretly wanted to act , she had been working in the casting department of films shot in her native Alabama. That all changed when Bullock and director Joel Schumacher encouraged her to audition for the role.
“Anyone who meets Octavia remembers the exact time they met her,” says Bullock. “At the time she was a P.A. Like a moth to the flame, all of us would just migrate to where she was and we would want to just stay there. When we were in search for someone to play the nurse in one of the last scenes, Joel Schumacher and I squealed ‘Octavia!’ Just another opportunity to be in her presence!”
Spencer’s past, present (and likely future) will collide to celebrate her, with speakers set to include her good friend and frequent collaborator Allison Janney. The two have made several movies together, from small indies including “Chicken Party” to hits such as “The Help” and “Ma.” (All three are directed by their mutual friend Tate Taylor.)
Janney says she first met Spencer at a party around 1999. “I heard this infectious laughter rising above the crowd,” she recalls. “It was Octavia. She was holding court, telling stories about horrible auditioning experiences and making everyone laugh, including herself! Her laughter was infectious, and her spirit was super warm and effervescent and it was then I decided I had to be friends with her. Everything was just more fun when Octavia was around. We became very close friends sharing our disappointments, our dreams and our hopes. We prayed for parts we never got, but her humor always lifted us above the disappointment.”
Also set to speak is Will Ferrell, Spencer’s current co-star in “Spirited.” Now streaming on Apple TV+, “Spirited” is a modern-day retelling of the Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol,” starring Ferrell as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Ryan Reynolds as Clint Briggs, the Scrooge-like media consultant he hopes to redeem. Spencer stars as Kimberly, Clint’s long-suffering co-worker, who catches Present’s eye. It’s a joyous concoction with a few surprises along the way — including the fact that it’s a full-blown musical with songs by the Tony- and Oscar-winning duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
The role of Kimberly was written for Spencer by Sean Anders and John Morris, who previously worked with her on “Immediate Family.” Both films are also directed by Anders, who called Spencer about “Spirited” but buried the lead on the musical part.
“The first thing he asked me was, ‘Do you know how to ice skate?’” Spencer recalls. “I said I could try. Then he asked if I liked musicals, which I love. But he didn’t give me any clue about anything else. When I read it I said, ‘Oh God, I think I just signed on to do a musical.’”
Asked how she was able to sing so well and Spencer replies: “With a lot of help.” She worked with the best of the best, including voice coach Eric Vetro and producing music supervisor Ian Eisendraft, who taught her to see the lyrics as dialogue.
“Then it wasn’t about singing, it was about doing the dialogue and trying to imbue it with emotion,” she notes.
While it was intimidating and challenging, Spencer loved the process and says she would “never say never” to another musical.
Spencer shares a wonderful rapport with Ferrell and though they had never met before, she says she’s been a long time fan. Compliment their chemistry and she replies, “I think it’s difficult to not have great chemistry with him. He is the absolute best co-star. I mean, he and Ryan had amazing chemistry. Those two have chemistry with everyone.”
Anders, for his part, wasn’t surprised by the sparks between Spencer and Ferrell. “Will and Octavia are simply two of the most decent human beings you will ever meet,” says Anders. “We did our first table read over Zoom and even on the screen, even stuck in separate tiny boxes, they were an absolutely adorable couple.”
Having roles written for her is not new to Spencer — she estimates about 75% of the work she takes are parts that were designed with her in mind. That includes the likes of Guillermo del Toro penning her an Oscar-nominated role in “The Shape of Water” and her old friends Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy regularly creating parts for her, most recently in “Thunderforce.” And of course, she was part of the inspiration behind Minny Jackson, her character in “The Help” that won Spencer her Academy Award. But even before her breakthrough, people were writing with her in mind.
“I love having friends who are writers and directors because they have a vision and they know how to execute it,” she notes. “And when they envision me inhabiting a role, I get excited.”
While Spencer would likely never have a shortage of options, she has ensured extra job security by being active behind the camera, as well. She was an executive producer on the Oscar-winning “Green Book” and her production company, ORIT Entertainment, recently announced that they are teaming with ID, discovery+ and October Films in a partnership and development deal for premium unscripted true-crime content. ORIT has produced the Spencer-starring limited series “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” and the award-winning doc “Right to Try” and is behind her Apple TV+ series “Truth Be Told,” which just completed shooting its third season.
Those who know her best aren’t surprised her skill extends to behind the scenes.
“After her turn in ‘The Help,’ things really opened up for her,” says Janney. “I already knew she was a talented actress from the beginning, but now I got to see this brilliant businesswoman side of Octavia. She’s incredible. She is solid and strong in her beliefs with an incredible head on her shoulders. It’s been so much fun for me to see her confidence bloom alongside her many subsequent successes. Whether producing film projects, writing children’s books, other acting roles. she successfully goes all in on everything! Octavia is my go-to for business advice all the time. She’s very brave and decisive and talented. I admire her greatly and am continuously proud to call her my friend.”
Asked if her company has a theme or mantra that attracts them and Spencer doesn’t hesitate.
“In Hebrew, ‘Orit’ means ‘light’ and so we try to bring light into these very dark spaces,” she explains. “We always look for projects that have hope. Even in the most dire of circumstances, somewhere in there, there has to be hope. Because without hope, we don’t have anything to live for. We don’t have anything to strive for. So that’s one of the reasons I just want to be a light bearer.”
“Truth Be Told,” which stars Spencer as a true crime podcaster, is a prime example of light in dark places. Although she can’t reveal too much at this point, Spencer says without hesitation, “It’s our best season yet.” She can reveal that Gabrielle Union has joined the cast and the new season will focus on missing girls.
“Our show is dark, I mean, we have about a zillion people getting murdered in a season,” she jokes. “But it still finds a way to have light moments even though the subject matter is serious.”
As for continuing with the show for another — or even a few more — seasons, Spencer says she’s open. “I have the best cast members,” she raves. “Working with this group is the best of the best. So would I ever want to change that? ”
To hear Bullock tell it, any project is lucky to have Spencer. “She truly collaborates. A lot of people ‘talk’ about collaborating, but Octavia lives for the group sport of ‘collaboration.’ She is loyal and supportive to each and every soul on a set. She remembers everyone’s name. She shows up and remains on set to soak in every single moment. Nothing is wasted on her. She is grateful to have the opportunities, and in turn she wants to pay it forward to others.”
That includes volunteering her time to various philanthropic organizations, particularly those that speak to her two passions: film and education. Spencer is on the board of directors of both AFI and City Year, a nonprofit that partners with public schools in high-need communities. She has also worked with the Sundance Institute on several occasions, including serving as an adviser to upcoming filmmakers including Radha Blank.
“These are beautiful artists who are going to change the future and I feel so lucky to work with them,” Spencer notes. “People like this, indie filmmakers, changed the game for me.”
Bullock says: “She deserves all the goodness coming her way, not because of her immense talent, but because you can see that she is truly thankful to be where she is. So it will be an honor to take the 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. shift on the cleaning schedule for her star on the boulevard. Good people like Octavia deserve to have their stars shine brightly 24/7. And I do my best cleaning for those I love, at night .”
Essential Octavia Spencer
One of the most lauded actors working today, Octavia Spencer has a wealth of performances to choose from that crosses all mediums and genres. Here’s a look at a few key moments in her expansive career.
In the beginning Spencer played a lot of characters with “Nurse” or “Clerk” in the name. But she soon proved there is no such thing as a small part, making meals out of scenes — or even a single line. In 2003’s “Bad Santa,” her character — a prostitute named Opal — has only one, NSFW line, and walked away with the whole movie. So much so that she made an appearance in its 2016 sequel. She also made maximum impact with few words in 2003’s “S.W.A.T.” as an outspoken neighbor and in 2002’s “Spider-Man” as the woman who tries to discourage Peter Parker into entering his first wrestling match.
Rumor has it Spencer beat out some huge names and Oscar winners to land the role of Minny Jackson in Tate Taylor’s 2011 adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller “The Help.” Spencer had actually helped inspire the character. Taylor and Spencer were shooting his 2003 short film “Chicken Party” in New Orleans when his childhood friend Stockett came to visit. They went on a walking tour of the city on a day that was particularly hot and Spencer spent most of the time complaining. Years later, Stockett sent Spencer a copy of the book. Spencer was touched to see that Minny’s sister was named Octavia. But it didn’t end there — Spencer would go on to lend her voice to Minny’s chapters in the audiobook version of “The Help” before being cast in the film.
Though many other acclaimed roles followed, Spencer earned back-to-back Oscar nominations for her roles in 2016’s “Hidden Figures” and 2017’s “The Shape of Water.” This made her the first Black actress to receive two consecutive noms and the first Black actress to land two nominations after winning the prize. With three nominations, she is behind only Viola Davis as the most-nominated Black actress to date.
The Change of Pace
It was her good friend Taylor who had the guts to try and dismantle her beloved persona with “Ma,” the 2019 thriller that cast Spencer as a lonely woman who first befriends, then terrifies, a group of teenagers. Of course, because it’s someone as lovable as Spencer, for a good part of the film the audience is actually on her side. Then things go a little too far and the actor pivots to turn in an unsettling and truly terrifying performance. “Ma” also spawned an entire movement of memes featuring movie mash-ups, complete with doctored movie posters. Some of her personal favorites? “AquaMa,” “Ma Ma Land” and “RoMa.”
What: Octavia Spencer receives a star on the Walk of Fame.
When: 11:30 a.m. Dec. 8
Where: 6623 Hollywood Blvd.