Octavia Spencer effortlessly conjures up two words: funny and fierce. Her fiery disposition has allowed the Award-winning actress to co-star with the likes of Viola Davis in The Help and Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures, and shine brightly. Spencer holds the distinction of being one of only 11 actresses to win the Critic’s Choice Award, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA, and Oscar in the same year for her role unforgettable role as Minny Jackson in The Help in 2011. In 2017, thanks to her role as the formidable and brilliant NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughn, Spencer earned the distinction of being the first Black actress to be nominated for an Academy Award after already having won one.
Yes, Spencer is fierce. And fiercely funny! Spencer’s naturally funny nature is infectious – she just seems to be giddy about life and is enjoying it to the fullest.
I got to experience Spencer’s special brand of funny and fierce firsthand during our bi-coastal phone interview. When I asked her how she was by way of introduction, Spencer’s reply immediately sent me into a giggling fit as she shared that her wig was itching her and she desperately wanted to rip it from her head. The fierce side of the petite actress and executive producer’s disposition showed up about midway through the interview as Spencer shared her thoughts on children in the foster and adoption care system. It doesn’t take long to learn that Spencer is passionate about children (in fact, her affinity for children and their stories has taken shape in the form of two children’s books that she’s written as part of her Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective series).
On November 16, Spencer returns to the big screen in the new movie Instant Family, based on the true story of how a couple came to adopt a teenage girl and her two younger siblings. Spencer plays Karen, a dedicated caseworker that helps married couple Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) navigate the complicated and emotionally charged world of fostering and adoption.
BET.com spoke to Spencer about the movie, working out with Wahlberg, her definition of family, finding personal joy, and more.
BET: Do you have any personal experience with fostering, adoption, or adopted children that you were able to draw on for your role in Instant Family?
Octavia Spencer: Well, I know people who are adopted, but personally, if I’ve ever cared for anyone in foster care in any way like that, no. We had advisers that we spoke to in order to get ready for our varying roles, but not personally. I don’t have any ties.
What was it like preparing for your role as the funny, feisty, tell-it-like it is character of Karen, who brings all of that personality to her everyday job as a social worker impacting the lives of displaced children and broken families?
It’s a lot of information to process and to understand what these professionals encounter every day, and for me learning what that life in the system is like for young people who aren’t adopted out of it, it broke my heart, a lot. And it made me appreciate my friends that I know who are adoptive parents, and my friends who were adopted kids. I try to think of where I was as a teenager, and I lost my mom very young but I still had a very strong family unit around me with my siblings, and so while I didn’t have my parents, I still had a family unit. To know that some young people in the system age out because people don’t open their homes really to teenagers, it broke my heart. I love that the director included that in the story so that we can try to find as many people [as possible] who want to open their homes, and who want to give kids a better life, and love, and shelter and protection. I learned a lot and it affected me very deeply.
What are your thoughts on the evolving notion of what a family looks like in America?
I think that if a child is safe, and if a child is surrounded by love – we have to give them the best opportunity to reach their full potential, and that starts really and truly with the family unit. I think the changing face of the family actually really isn’t changing that much, because the strongest face is love. It doesn’t matter how that face appears aesthetically. At the end of the day it’s how are they loved and if they’re supported and are we making and being responsible for people who will function in society in a positive way. I think family can’t really be defined as anything other than family. It doesn’t have to be mom and dad, you know what I mean? It may be just mom, it may be just dad, it may be two moms, it may be two dads – as long as those kids are loved and unharmed and given the best opportunity to flourish.
Was there anything that you learned about the foster care and adoption system in the making of Instant Family that was shocking or surprising to you?
Definitely. Everything pertaining to teenagers, the statics of how many kids are abused and then they go into the system, and how many age out of the system, and then they become homeless because they’ve aged out of the system – when you start thinking in sheer numbers and volume, and the volume of numbers it’s scary. Then you realize the sense of belonging. We all want to belong, we all want to be loved, we all want to contribute, and that, the thought of a child not feeling like they belong, that is painful.
The manner in which the present administration is dealing with immigration issues in general, and children being separated from their parents in particular – what are your thoughts on this?
I don’t think there’s ever a reason, there’s never a good reason for a child to be separated from their parent, especially a small child, so definitely unacceptable. Never a reason, especially because a child has no idea what that separation is about, and it’s traumatic. And then the reunification process is too long and they think that their parents have abandoned them – it’s just too much, and we should know better.
Arnold Jackson from Diff’rent Strokes or Webster – if you had your choice, who would you adopt, and why?
I would adopt both – and Willis! I would bring in Willis too, Arnold’s brother. I watch Diff’rent Strokes even still on TV. It’s funny, because it was a part of our lives and we didn’t understand the importance of it, until like you said, the changing face of families now. You didn’t realize how cutting edge Diff’rent Strokes was, and how cutting edge and beyond their time Webster were as shows. But I would adopt both if I had the means and the ability to give them a home. All three, actually – all three.
You’re executive producer of a wonderful upcoming movie Green Book, also based on a true story like Instant Family, and starring your Hidden Figures cast mate Mahershala Ali. How did you become involved in that project and why is its storyline so compelling to you?
I became involved in that project because I had the great fortune of working with Jonathan King and Jim Burke on The Help and they approached Pete [Peter Farrelly] and asked him if it would be okay to have me, if I were interested in serving as a supervising executive producer, as a consultant. I read the story, because I grew up in the South, and it all preceded me – the story and the film – but I’ve now done quite a few movies from that time period and you know, the research is there, the history is there, and I thought it was amazing that they looked around the table and thought we needed another voice in here, and from that perspective. So, I was happy to be a part of it, and I think it’s one of the few times that we get to see Black people with agency. Mahershala plays Dr. Don Shirley, and he hired Tony [Lip] to escort him through the deep South, and what people don’t realize is that while he was on tour, he could’ve toured metropolitan cities in the North and in the East, but he decided that he wanted to show not just people of color but White people his perspective and introduce them to people that were like him, and I thought that was an important story to tell. I thought it was beautifully told, and to see that kind of agency during that time in history was remarkable. Isn’t it sad that we have to harken back to a time where Black people had no civil liberties or civil rights, and we do have civil rights today, but they are in a lot of ways disregarded? So, I think it’s important that now, more than ever, we see each other’s humanity. We see the LGBTQ community, we see Latinos, we see African Americans, we see Asians, we see people and their culture and their contributions to society, and we see their humanity. Because if we don’t, we’re going to continue to have this polarization based on your political ideology, and I think we can all agree to disagree on certain things, and we should be able to still flourish as people.
Mark Wahlberg, your Instant Family co-star, just seems like such a nice guy! What was it like working with him and working out with him?
What people don’t know is that [Mark] is a God-fearing man, he loves his family, and he loves working, and if you approach him on any of those terms, you will see who he is as a person. We got along really well. I put it out there because of Sherri Shepherd and Loni Love – they were both on a weight loss quest and I just started ballooning because I’ve been on the road so much and I was out of contact with my personal trainers and everything. So when I saw Sherri Shepherd and Loni Love I thought, you know, public accountability, if you’re going through this process it would be great to go [through it] with a community. So I put it out there, and because we worked together, and I had been asking Mark questions about his workouts and everything, he, being the wonderful person that he is, reached out to me and said, “Look, I have this company, and here are some products that might help you. Try them. And if you want to come work out with me and my guys, come.” And I think he does that a lot to anybody that he sees struggling, but he probably didn’t know that I would actually take him up on it. Because for me, I want to learn from the best, and to see the physical shape that he is in, why would you not take the opportunity to learn from the best? So I have nothing but love, love, love for Mark Wahlberg. He’s also inspired me to work out with my crew members. Mark has “The 4am Club," and I have what we call “The 10 After Club," and at ten after the hour we do like one set of something. And so I don’t do all twelve hours that we’re working. At first I was only doing like a couple of hours, like I’ll do this for a couple of hours, and then at lunch me and my glam squad, we plank and do push-ups and whatever at lunch, but now I’ve worked up to for half of my day at ten past the hour for six hours I do some of the things that they’re doing. And that’s because of Mark.
Speaking of wonderful people, the chemistry and energy between you and Tig Notaro on camera made for some very comical moments in Instant Family. Humor played a very interesting role in this film that tackles such a serious subject. Can you talk a little about that, and is there any message that you want to send to people who perform these roles in real life every day?
She’s just one of the funniest people on the planet. To the people who do it in real life every day, I can’t say thank you enough, because the children who are in the system need that advocacy. They need them advocating for them on the front lines day in and day out, and they probably don’t get a lot of thank you’s, hugs or what have you, but having now had the opportunity to meet so many adoptive families in this process and quite a few case workers, I just want them to know that they’re a special kind of person. Nurses are special. Teachers are special. Firefighters are special. And I think we forget people who work with children in these very transitory situations. They should be heralded just as loudly as all of those other professionals. Very special people.
Your career continues to bloom and your star continues to shine brightly. You’ve mastered the art of making us laugh, moving us and touching our hearts, and inspiring us. What do you want your body of work years from now to say about you as an actress?
Every day that I get to do what I love doing is a blessing, and I know that. If nothing is said about my career, if people don’t remember my name a year from now, or 50 years from now, I know that I did what I feel that God called me to do, and that was to enlighten, sometimes educate, but always entertain people, sometimes at the lowest points in their lives, sometimes at the happiest points in their lives. When you can allow for escapism in someone else’s life and allow them to forget their problems – that’s all I ever care about. So I don’t ever think in terms of legacy. I just want to make a difference in how you go about your day. So if you see my name on a movie and you know perhaps I’m going to be entertained, that’s all I care about. That’s all I care about.
You have a huge heart! Is there anything that’s on your heart or your mind that you want people to know or want to share?
Sure! Listen, I think these are dark and very troubled times, and the way I’m navigating my life to get through what you see going on in this country is, it’s not about burying your head in the sand. It’s about having a voice, and using your voice wisely, because these days it’s easy to whip people into a frenzy and then it’s forgotten until the next incident. So for me it’s about finding and creating joy in your own space – whatever that is. If you are a person who can’t afford certain things, but you find joy in baking, then I think you need to bake, at least once a month, to keep your sanity and your peace. Acting is my baking, and doing what I love to do. So I think it’s just about putting positive energy and encouragement out into the world, and at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about for me.
Instant Family is in theaters now!
Photo Credit: Randee St. Nicholas
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