For Oc­tavia Spencer, it’s not just about the role

Ac­tress takes jobs based on project as whole


LOS ANGELES — Oc­tavia Spencer is at the point in her ca­reer where she can be se­lec­tive about work. An Os­car for her sup­port­ing role in 2011’s “The Help” — and nom­i­na­tions for 2016’s “Hid­den Fig­ures” and last year’s “The Shape of Water” — al­most ne­ces­si­tates it.

But that doesn’t mean she’s chas­ing only awards-bait movies. Take, for ex­am­ple, her lat­est role in Sean An­ders’ “In­stant Fam­ily.” In the­aters Nov. 16, the com­edy fol­lows Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg as a cou­ple look­ing to adopt chil­dren. But they find them­selves in over their heads when they welcome a trio of sib­lings into their home. Spencer shares most of her scenes with co­me­dian Tig No­taro as a pair of adop­tion coun­selors who help the new par­ents find their way.

Ahead of the film’s pre­miere, Spencer talked about the role. She also talked about serv­ing as a pro­ducer for one of the year’s most pop­u­lar film fes­ti­val of­fer­ings, “Green Book,” also in the­aters Nov. 16, about a white bouncer who be­comes the driver of a black pi­anist on a con­cert tour in 1960s Amer­ica. The fol­low­ing is an edited tran­script.

Q: What about “In­stant Fam­ily” made you say yes?

A: It al­ways depends on what that script says, be­cause if it’s not on the page, there is lit­tle chance that you’re go­ing to get any magic in front of the cam­era. The scripts have to be dy­namic. And when I read this script, I just re­mem­ber go­ing through all of these emo­tions. I laughed and cried.

And the funny thing is, I had been toy­ing with the idea of re­ally try­ing to fig­ure out if my life, right now, is con­ducive to bring­ing kids into it, mak­ing a home for kids. Then this project comes along and it’s, like, “Oh, Lord, what are you try­ing to tell me?” (Laughs) It just touched me and res­onated with me in a way that was very per­sonal. And when I met with the di­rec­tor Sean An­ders, who also co-wrote it, and found out it was based on his life — and that they ac­tu­ally lived a lot of the stuff in the script, all of that res­onated with me.

Q: Did you speak to ac­tual foster coun­selors to prepare for the role?

A: Yeah, they def­i­nitely had coun­selors there at our dis­posal . ... There was so much about the sys­tem that I was un­aware of.

Q: Like what?

A: I did not re­al­ize that it’s such a hard­ship for teenagers to find fam­i­lies. And when you think about it, of course it is. Ev­ery­body falls in love with the cute lit­tle baby or the cute lit­tle tod­dler or the kid that’s just start­ing first grade. But teenagers need homes and love as well. And how many of them age out of the sys­tem when they are barely ready to be on their own and they ba­si­cally com­prise a huge num­ber of the home­less pop­u­la­tion. That was heart­break­ing for me to re­al­ize that.

One of the things I re­ally en­joyed about the film was the di­a­logue was just so real. My fa­vorite line that you say in the foster care group is, “I love see­ing white peo­ple fight.” (Laugh­ing) And I was, like, “Me too! I re­ally do.”

Q: What was it about that story in “Green Book” that made you want to get in­volved as a pro­ducer?

A: I grew up in the South and all of this stuff pre­ceded me, but I know it well. When I heard that they were do­ing a movie about the green book (a guide list­ing the ho­tels and busi­nesses that served black peo­ple), I was kind of cu­ri­ous. I was asked to read the script to be a con­sult­ing pro­ducer, if I so wanted that role. And I read it and I thought, “Well, you have two very strong men as char­ac­ters and as ac­tors — both Viggo (Mortensen) and Ma­her­shala (Ali) — and they were weigh­ing in on the script and liked where things were go­ing. So I felt like they did a great job in the re­search and, again, when you see it on the page — when it is ap­par­ent that the script has the ca­pac­ity or the po­ten­tial to move you in a way — you want to be a part of those types of sto­ries, es­pe­cially in these try­ing times.

And, sadly, some of the scenes that were rep­re­sented in the ’60s are very much a part of what we’re liv­ing to­day. So I wanted to be a part of this movie for the so­cial im­pli­ca­tions. Be­cause if you have these two men from dis­parate back­grounds who are forced in a sit­u­a­tion, one as an em­ployee and one as an em­ployer, to be

with each other for an in­or­di­nate amount of time, they have to find a way to work with each other. They have to find a way to see each other as hu­man be­ings, and that’s what hap­pens.

I heard some­where, “Is it an­other white sav­ior movie?” And I had to laugh at that be­cause there’s noth­ing white sav­ior about it. It’s about two men sav­ing each other. And that’s one of the things that I re­ally val­ued, that Ma­her­shala’s char­ac­ter, Don Shirley, does a lot to save and change Viggo’s char­ac­ter, Tony Lip, as much as it’s Tony’s job to save and pro­tect Don Shirley. So there’s a lot of give and take, and a lot of learn­ing that both of these men have to ex­pe­ri­ence. And at the end of it, they grow.

Q: Is it sur­pris­ing to see the response that it’s got­ten thus far?

A: (Di­rec­tor Peter Far­relly) had put to­gether about 20 min­utes of the movie (in ad­vance), and I felt like I did when I watched “The Help” and when I watched “Hid­den Fig­ures” ... that sense of hope, that things can change, that peo­ple can work to­gether and see each other as hu­man be­ings. Pete has such a beau­ti­ful hand with lev­ity, and I think some­times that lev­ity lends it­self as a won­der­ful

teach­ing tool. Be­cause if you can laugh at a mo­ment that is tense and scary and you don’t know what’s about to hap­pen, the les­son that you learn from it will more than likely take, if it’s not con­fronta­tional.

Q: Is there any dif­fer­ence in your ap­proach to look­ing at projects to act in ver­sus pro­duc­ing?

A: No, I don’t even look at roles, per se. I look at projects as a whole, be­cause you could have an amaz­ing script and a brand-new di­rec­tor who’s only di­rected a two-minute short film and some­body’s given him mil­lions of dol­lars and you’re sup­posed to trust that.

I look at all of the cre­ative. I look at the script, first and fore­most. And then I look at whether or not my role is sig­nif­i­cant enough or if it war­rants me tak­ing the role or if it should go to some­one else who needs it or de­serves that op­por­tu­nity. They def­i­nitely have to be movies that I want to see, movies that will some­how have an im­pact. If it’s about pure es­capism, then great. Some­times you need to get away from your prob­lems. But if it’s about life and in­tro­duc­ing in­for­ma­tion and en­light­en­ing peo­ple in a way that they hadn’t been be­fore, that’s usu­ally what I grav­i­tate to­ward.


Os­car-win­ning ac­tress Oc­tavia Spencer has two films out this month, “In­stant Fam­ily” and “Green Book.”

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