Tonight Octavia Spencer will grace the silver screen as James Brown’s Aunt Honey in the highly anticipated biopic Get On Up. Despite receiving an Oscar for her role in The Help, Spencer has found more success in television than film. Why? Black actresses are usually not afforded the same opportunities for roles as their white counterparts. So, Spencer has tried, very sensibly, to avoid that suffocating space. The Academy Award winner spoke to The Daily Beast about how race affects Hollywood careers and why there’s more room to breathe in the television industry than film. Here are a few highlights from the Q&A.
That last time we spoke was prior to your winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Help. How has life changed for you since then?
Life is exactly the same. Life is the same. I have to lead a very small life in terms of what people think “Hollywood” is. It’s a full life for me, but I’m not jetting across the world. But life is good. I’m doing a TV series for Steven Spielberg called Red Band Society, and it’s the best pilot script I’ve ever read.
What motivated you to go to television?
Well, the roles I’m being offered in film are too small to sink your teeth into, and I thought it was time to be able to live with a character at inception and travel with her to fruition, and allow myself to evolve as an actress. I don’t get that opportunity in movies, where they ask me, “Will you play the distraught mom of this boy?” I say, “Sure, but I’ve played it before.” I wanted to play against-type, and while people will say, “She’s playing a no-nonsense nurse,” there’s so much more to her than that.
Why do you think the parts you’re being offered after winning an Oscar for your excellent performance The Help are, like you said, “too small to sink your teeth into?”This phenomenon seems to happen more to people of color who win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. It doesn’t happen to the Rachel Weiszs of the world, but to the Mo’Niques and Jennifer Hudsons and Octavia Spencers.
There are so few roles out there. And even if it is a film that could be led by a black actress, how many times is that film going to get funded? Let’s just be real. But it’s not just black people. It’s Asians, it’s Hispanic people if you’re not Salma Hayek. It’s hard. It’s hard to get films funded. It’s a business thing, and you have to change the mindset of people around here. The fact that Think Like A Man made so much money last year—over $100 million—but got very limited worldwide distribution is a problem. Will Smith would not be Worldwide Will Smith if he had not insisted on going worldwide and touring with his films. You have to build that audience for people and allow for it to happen.I learned this at a Jeffrey Katzenberg party the night before the Oscars a few years ago, but there were all these people being escorted around and all they wanted to see were the people from television. So I thought, “Well, hello! In order for you to be known worldwide if you’re not getting the introduction through films, you need to be in television.” I don’t have a problem with the medium—film or television—because I’m an actor. I act. So if I’m able to get a part that helps me stretch myself and evolve as an actress? Wonderful. And if I get to be a part of something that will expand myself to a worldwide audience? Hell yeah. Sign me up.
I was talking with Patricia Arquette about film vs. television, and she mentioned how actresses of a certain age on film really seem to be given the cold shoulder, but there’s a home for them on TV and they’re able to play much richer parts.
I’m barely 44, but that’s still the pasture, I guess. Hollywood is strange in and of itself. People dress up and pretend to be other people, and you can either make millions of dollars, or no money. It’s odd. But what I love about it is thank God for television, because you wouldn’t have the diversity. Now, we’re seeing it a little more in blockbuster movies. Thor had a multicultural cast. So did Winter Soldier. The Amazing Spider-Man 2. To me, that’s what it should be. It baffles me that everything is so homogenized, because the world isn’t, and yet we continue to support things that are so incredibly milquetoast.
To read the rest of Octavia’s interview, click here. What do you think?