With Fox's excellent new drama Red Band Society about to launch September 17, Vulture had an occasion to get Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer on the line. This year she's in a bunch of great projects, including the recent Snowpiercer, Mike Binder's Black and White (which is about to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival), and, of course, the Divergent sequel Insurgent. We talked to her about it all, plus her BFF-ship with Allison Janney, vision boards, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, crime TV, and more. Frankly, we didn't want it to end because chatting with Spencer leaves you with warm-fuzzies. There's no other way to say it.
You and Allison Janney looked so mischievous when you were presenting at the Emmys. Why were you guys giggling?
Okay, this is why we were giggly. We had been told to say, “We’re running long,” that we weren’t going to do The Help bit, and that the TelePrompTer was going to just say, “The nominees are ...” I said, “It’ll be up on the monitor, exactly what we’re supposed to say?” And they were like, “Sure.” So, when we went out there, it started with Alison’s line about The Help, and Janney — she and I are really, really, really close friends, so I can tell when she’s freaked out because her voice goes up an octave. It’s always funny to me. She went [in a high-pitched voice], “I can tell what you’re thinking,” because she was terrified. She was thinking, Oh, no, am I supposed to do it or am I not? It made me so giggly. That was a friend reading a friend’s discomfort and totally reveling in it.
Well, it was adorable.
I thought it was hilarious.
I also just got this release about you two raiding the gifting suites together. Are you really going to go to on that trip to Bora Bora?
Together with our group, yeah! I had picked her up for that. She and her boyfriend had a wild, you know, a fun night at all the parties. So she was in no shape to drive. I was her ride that day. She’s one of my best friends, and we had a ball.
What’s most exciting about Bora Bora?
Well, I would be sitting under a tree in the shade the entire time. She would probably be out sunning, and I’ll be like, “Hey!” from the shade. That’s how I am with beaches. What we do is we always try to get a group of us together to go places like that. We travel in a pack. It’s a wolf pack.
You’re in the new sick-kids drama Red Band Society, which I loved. I read you said people will probably reduce your character to “no-nonsense nurse,” but that she’s more than that. What did you see in her?
Red Band Society checked a lot of boxes for me. I was offered comedy deals. I was offered parts where I was the definitive lead of a show. What I loved about this was (a) I thought it was an amazing script, the best pilot I read; and (b) I loved that it wasn’t all about her. There were mysterious things about her that you knew would play out in the season. Why does she ride the bus? She’s a nurse. She can afford a car. What’s that about? Why is she so caustic with some of the patients but shows this very heartwarming side to others? I thought, What a very complex person, and I cannot wait to get into her skin to bring all of that to life. Tough love is the hardest to give. And I also loved the bigger story, that it’s presenting these sick kids where their illnesses are just a backdrop. What’s at the forefront is the fact that they’re all still just teenagers. And it’s definitely life-affirming.
You were going to be the lead of NBC’s Murder, She Wrote reboot, which didn’t wind up going forward. I know from your Twitter bio that you are an “armchair detective” and “professional snoop.” How bummed were you that the project didn’t work out?
I was bummed for a second, because I love Bob Greenblatt over at NBC, and I was really thrilled that I was going to get to work with him again. And I love the writer Alexandra Cunningham (Desperate Housewives). We connected on such a personal level because we both are just crazy mystery whores! But I realized when I started thinking, things happen for a reason, that I cannot and do not want to work 18 hours a day as a lead of a show. The pace of television is very different from film. I don’t know that I would have been able to keep up with that pace, working those hours and still turning in good work. I’m having problems now with an ensemble drama! I’m dyslexic, and it takes me longer to memorize and to embody the character so I can really own it. So I was sad for a minute — and when I say a minute, I mean a New York minute.
What are your favorite crime shows to watch?
Well, I loved True Detective. I met McConaughey, I know him personally [laughs], and I love the fact that he did something different. But I really like my old stalwarts because they’re comforting to me. I will live in TV Land watching Columbo. I also like my Forensic Files, all of that true crime. Dateline. Mystery in America.
Switching gears, we have to talk about how badass you were in Snowpiercer. This was your first action movie, right?
I didn’t know what I was doing! Here’s how delusional I am about the process: I worked with the stunt coordinator for three hours a day for two days. It was like, “Do this, do this, do this,” and I was like, “Okay.” I just learned my two or three little moves, and I thought I was, you know, badass. Until I got to set. Chris Evans walks in to do this long action scene, and it was like a dance. He and Jamie Bell. And I got a little mad! “Well, hold on a minute. Why didn’t I get that much time with the stunt people?” Then I realized, Ooooh, it’s Chris Evans. He’s done so many stunt movies that he doesn’t have to spend that much time. I went up to him and said, “How long did you guys rehearse that?” and he goes, “Just now. That’s when I realized, okay, I’m not really cut out for this. I need a lot more time, and I’m afraid of being hit.
But the point is you didn’t look afraid.
I was paralyzed with fear when the lights go out. Remember that scene? All these guys are running around, hitting each other. I was standing there thinking, Oh, God, somebody’s going to hit me for real. I actually hit one of the stunt guys for real, with one of those rubber things. I smacked him across the face. Honey, I started panicking for real. My crazy brain went, I’m going to be underneath all of these fighting men. They’re going to hit me. I’m going to die. I’m going to die.
I’m telling you, it looked cool.
You have to do what scares you, so I’m sure I’ll do it again. But a lot of it will be with a stunt double, because Snowpiercer was no stunt double. That was Mama! I thought I looked totally badass in a couple of scenes while I was doing them, and then I watched the movie. No. I look like a crazy person! Everybody else is poetic and fluid with their movements, and I just looked like a crazy brute. It was really hilarious. “Mama Bear is coming!”
Speaking of Chris Evans, he nominated you for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Have you seen his video? Are you planning to accept?
I have one planned. I have one planned. I just got all caught up with Emmy stuff, and then coming right back into work the very next day. But it’s coming. Oh, honey, it’s going to be a doozy, trust me. And it’s going to be very different from everybody else’s. And I want to say that Sandra Bullock gave me this idea. I was going to try and shoot it with her as my director, but my fitting went long on Saturday. So things got to where I just didn’t have a break, but just know that Sandra Bullock gave me the kernel of the idea, and I just took it and ran with it.
Credit will be paid. I feel like I’m skipping all over the place here, but I also wanted to talk to you about another of your friends, Beth Grant, who is on The Mindy Project. She told me she got promoted to series regular after you encouraged her to make a vision board. She said that’s how you won the Oscar. What else is on your vision board?
I need to do another one, actually. Believe it or not, everything on my vision boards has happened, and I have had maybe three. I wanted to work with Steven Spielberg, and I got to do that with “The Help.” And now I’m doing it again, he’s my boss on Red Band. All the people I got to meet, like George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Having a great job surrounded by great people. Getting my children’s book published. It’s time to do another board.
What is the key to a winning vision board? And yes, I’m asking for myself.
Here’s the thing. It’s just about — you light candles, you collect pictures from magazines of the images in your brain, of what it is that you want, words. Cut them out. Light your candles, drink your coffee if that’s your feel-good place. This is like a diary. It’s you making a little visual diary in the bubble of the most happiest moment you can create. Watching mystery TV or baking doughnuts. Whatever it is for you. Make it an environment that is really, really warm and conducive to happiness. You should feel very safe and very happy when you make it. Also, don’t look at it anymore once it’s done. Put all of that happy energy into it, and then put it into the back of your closet or underneath your dreams so that nobody else will be able to see your dreams. It should be protected. Then don’t focus on it anymore, because when you focus on it, it becomes this obsession.
You better believe I will do this.
Yeah! You know it can be as small as eight by ten, or it could be a poster board. And you want to put a picture of yourself in the center of it. Like, this is for me. And you can write words on it, print out your intentions. Then you put it away and allow the universe to bring it to you. Oh, and it’s also good just to do a few things at a time. You don’t have to solve your whole life in one vision board, you know? It worked for me. You just have to release it.
Okay, final questions are about the next Divergent movie, Insurgent. You play Johanna, spokeswoman for Amity. Doesn’t Amity feel like the hippie faction? How do they even exist?
[Laughs.] Well, Johanna is a de facto leader because, you’re right, somebody had to take the reins. I think they could exist because they’re in charge of sustenance, right? They have the one commodity that everybody needs, and that’s food. Also, I’d choose Amity because they’re not going to mess with me. The other factions sound awful!
Amity is the no-drama zone.
Exactly. And Johanna was a warrior. She got that scar for some reason, right? She wasn’t all peace and love and harmony — they all have to use that peace serum. I bet you Johanna was a Divergent. And, another bonus for Amity: The set is the most beautiful set I’ve ever seen. Honey, I actually went through it and said, “Are you guys keeping this for the next movie? Because I want to buy this if not. Seriously, I want to buy this.”