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Octavia Spencer on Diablo Cody’s Paradise, Sowing Her Wild Oats, and Singing Radiohead

Octavia Spencer. Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty

In Diablo Cody’s directorial debut, Paradise, Octavia Spencer plays a morose Vegas lounge singer who finds a lost lamb — literally, her name is Lamb — who has come to Sin City to finally experience worldly pleasures. Spencer’s character Loray, along with her bartender best friend (Russell Brand), consequently take Lamb (Julianne Hough) for a night out on the town, which includes getting Lamb her first tattoo, rescuing her from a strip club, and doing the zip line. Spencer chatted with Vulture about her go-to karaoke song, sowing her wild oats, and why she wants a fan campaign to release the director’s cut of her next movie, Snowpiercer.

Before we start, I just wanted to check on whether you’d gotten your boxed set of The Wire yet? Your Fruitvale Station co-star Michael B. Jordan promised he was going to make sure you’d get one.
[Laughs.] He didn’t do that! No. But you don’t know if he’s giving me that as a Christmas present. He might be.

I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to spoil your Christmas surprise.
I think you might have! No, it’s funny. That will be my next guilty pleasure, but I haven’t had that much time to do that much TV-watching, so I want to do it when I can binge-watch and get all caught up.

So in the film, we first meet you when you sing Radiohead’s “No Surprises” …
I had heard of Radiohead, but I’d never really heard any of their songs until this, and I was thinking, This is a cool song! So I became a fan by accident. And I love that [Diablo Cody] picked something that would be in Loray’s repertoire of music that wouldn’t necessarily be in my repertoire of music for that situation. I mean, I’m pretty eclectic with my bands. If it were just me up there singing, I would do Gladys Knight. My karaoke song is “Midnight Train to Georgia,” because I can do the, [sings] “Mmm” and make myself sound like I can sing. [Laughs.] You got to sell that, [sings] “Mmm, L.A. …” But for singing Radiohead, Loray doesn’t care about pleasing people, so that was fun, getting to be a little rebellious.

There’s a scene where you, Julianne Hough, and Russell Brand do the zip line in Vegas, but you didn’t get to practice or rehearse that first? It was just for the one take?
Oh, honey! That was the only time. The zip line scared the bejesus out of me. But I’m glad that I got to do it because Octavia, in her life — speaking about myself in the third person [laughs] — would not do anything that crazy. So I’m glad that because of my character’s reality, I had to do something out of my comfort zone. We only did it once. They had cameras coming and going. As soon as Russell and I hit the other side, he, like the guy that he is, was all macho, but even he didn’t make his way back to do it again. It was also freezing that night, too. It was really blistering cold, and the winds were really high. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation that windy before! So there was a concern that we could have been blown off, so I don’t think they would have let us, but between you and me, I wouldn’t have done a second time anyway. But it was really kind of cool and scary.

Some of the suggestions on Lamb’s “napkin of sin” — her Vegas to-do list — are in different handwriting, so did you contribute any? Would you do any? Who wrote, “Make out with me“?
That might have been Russell. [Laughs.] But listen, I bet you a gazillion people were writing that down for Julianne to make out with them, but [mock serious tone] what happens in Vegas must stay in Vegas. Tattoos involve a needle and pain, so that wouldn’t be on my napkin of sin. I think I’ve done it all, you know? At my age, I’d better have done it all. My napkin of sin is like, “Sleep in. Don’t wake up at 6 a.m.” I think I’ve done all the fun stuff. The college years are when you sow all your wild oats and become a vampire. By 40, you’ve lived it up. At least, you hope. I’ve seen too many sunrises, as far as the walk of shame, staying out too late doing very bad things. [Laughs.]

Like your character on Mom?
Oh, my character on Mom has done more drugs than a pharmaceutical company puts out. She definitely has her demons.

Loray is in film school studying various tropes and narrative conventions, so she goes off on a rant about the “magical Negro,” and how she isn’t one. And it’s true, because there are some characters in films who don’t get their own development …
Absolutely. And I say that for women in general, the roles aren’t really the same, the narratives aren’t really the same as the male roles. What’s great about Diablo’s writing, the “magical Negro,” the concept that there is such a thing, Loray isn’t Lamb’s “magical Negro,” because their story, they don’t really get to evolve. Loray does. She comes full circle. The story isn’t about Loray, a woman in Vegas finding herself — it’s about this young girl coming to Vegas coming to rediscover her spiritual foundation. So in that sense, Loray definitely serves a purpose. But is she the wizened old sage to innocent Lamb? That’s up for the viewer to decide.

I don’t know if you’ve been following this, but Snowpiercer is finally coming out in the U.S.
When?! [Laughs.]

… but it won’t be the director’s cut that will be released in other countries.
Well, that makes me sad, because the director’s vision is what we all signed on to do — Bong Joon-Ho is an auteur — so it’ll be interesting to see what it turned out to be. I don’t know why that needs to be. Perhaps the narrative will suffer from those twenty minutes being cut. I’ve not seen the cut version. I’ve only seen the full-length version, and it’s a very visceral film, and Chris Evans is a wonderful antihero, and Tilda Swinton is a great opposition. I hope people will kind of demand to get to see both versions. I think it would be an injustice to not see his cut. It’s intense. It’s stylized. It’s everything that you hope a Bong Joon-Ho movie would be. It’s a thrill ride on that train!

Octavia Spencer on Paradise, Singing Radiohead