Already an Oscar winner for “The Help,” Octavia Spencer might be making her third attempt as Best Supporting Actress in a few weeks. In the new film “The Shape of Water,” she plays Zelda Fuller, a custodian at a top secret governmental facility in 1962. She is good friends with a co-worker (Sally Hawkins) and assists her in helping a sea creature (Doug Jones) escape the laboratory.
Gold Derby recently chatted with Spencer before she received Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Awards nominations for the role. You can watch that video above or read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Octavia Spencer, “Shape of Water” opening soon. I’d love to know as we start this off about your relationship in the movie and on working on the movie with Sally Hawkins, because the two of you together is just magical.
Octavia Spencer: (Laughs.) Well, the thing that people don’t know about Sally, and she’s probably going to kill me for saying this, she is painfully shy. So as I was getting to know her, I realized that she pours her soul into characters that she plays, and she doesn’t like to be front and center of anything in her personal life. And when I realized that, we just fell in love as people. She and I aren’t the best sleepers so we had that in common and we just bonded over things like that, the commonalities that we have. It’s easy to love her. It’s easy to want to protect her because she’s genuinely a good person and I felt honored to be working alongside her.
GD: Well that relates right back to the movie because your character’s a friend of hers, a co-worker of hers, and you are very protective of her.
OS: Yeah. But you’re protective of your true friends in your life. Think about it. The people that love you and are protective of you, you reciprocate and once we got to know each other it was easy to fall into those roles, I think.
GD: Is she one of those method actresses? She plays a mute character. Was she trying to be mute on set, too?
OS: On set I think everybody tried to stay in character because there wasn’t that much… our shooting period was truncated because it’s such a small budget. I think that we all tried to, once they cut to stay in the scene until we were done with it. But off work she was Sally. That’s what you love about her.
GD: We chatted with Guillermo [del Toro] earlier this week and he was talking about how much fun he had on the movie. I would love to know the first time you saw the script was everything there? Did you know right away this could be something special?
OS: It’s funny because my agent told me that I would be meeting with Guillermo and it was supposed to be a 30-minute coffee at breakfast and when I met him it turned into a three-hour odyssey. We had this conversation about everything and the last five minutes when he was paying a check, that’s when he told me about the movie, that he had written this part for me and he wasn’t gonna tell me anything about it. He wanted me to read it and tell him what I thought, and I think the script changed a little bit from what I had originally read. It changed, I wouldn’t say considerably but Zelda was pretty much the same, and there were things that we did in rehearsal that he would incorporate into the script, but it was pretty much there when I read it.
GD: I’m sure walking onto the set, especially the governmental facility set, such wonderful production design, you really get the feel that you’re there. What was it like being on location there?
OS: The location itself, it was the big concrete pillars and walls. It was very sterile. And then when you get to the actual sets of the apartments and the houses, it was remarkable. Guillermo has a very keen eye for detail, and he was involved in every aspect of every decision. I love that about his work because I pay attention to all that stuff too, and that’s one of the things we have in common. We both love antiques, and there was a lot of antiquing going on on that set.
GD: Let’s talk about a couple of other people in the movie. Michael Shannon, you’ve got a few scenes with him. Most villains, most intimidating type people onscreen are often some of the nicest people offscreen. Was that the case?
OS: Absolutely. It’s so funny because he plays these very intense, intimidating people and in real life he’s just a big sweetheart. He’s a dad, so a couple of times I’ve caught him humming nursery rhymes ‘cause he’d probably just spoken to his daughters. But yeah, he is a sweetheart. And then you have Richard Jenkins, who’s one of the funniest people on the planet, and people don’t know that Sally actually has a really good sense of humor. Once you get to know her, she keeps you laughing. And Doug [Jones] and Michael Stuhlbarg, we had a wonderful cast. The love and admiration that you see with all of us is real. It’s genuine.
GD: What was it like the first time you saw the whole thing put together?
OS: I was nervous, and excited. When I saw it, Guillermo, he’s a magician. I love to say that he’s an alchemist because he makes the most mundane things seem otherworldly and beautiful. We take them for granted usually. The thing that had me was Page 1, when I read that Elisa was dreaming that she was underwater and everything in her apartment is floating. I couldn’t wait to see how he did that so I was already in.
GD: He called it, when we met with him the other day, a fable for troubled times. What does that mean to you?
OS: Well, exactly that. Troubled times back then but some of the themes are very, very relevant today, the “otherness” of it all. It’s funny that he wrote two main characters who can’t speak, and then the people he chooses to use as their voice are people who represent very disenfranchised groups, an African American woman and a closeted gay man. That’s a testament to who Guillermo is as a person. No one is invisible to him. The ‘60s, people who look like me and who were a part of the LGBTQ community, had no civil rights, and were disenfranchised people so “a fable for troubled times,” it applies even today.
GD: Audiences for this I think are gonna be varied. I think it’s gonna reach older people, middle-aged people, younger people, men and women. It feels like the kind of movie that would touch a lot of different kinds of people. What do you hope somebody gets out of it when they see it?
OS: I try never to tell people what to think or how to feel. I only hope when they leave that they feel something. So it’s hard to describe what this movie is, to me. “What is your movie about?” And you say, “Well it’s about a woman who falls in love with a merman.” The facial expressions or the reactions that you get are crazy. So I didn’t wanna tell people anything. I just say, “You should see it.” The same way I was introduced to it, “I’m not gonna tell you anything, I just want you to read it,” that’s how I’m approaching it. I’m not gonna tell you anything. I just want you to see it.
GD: You have had some kind of year, all the way back to January. You and the “Hidden Figures” group won the SAG Award for Best Ensemble, you’re used to that now. You’ve won a couple of those ensemble awards. I was in the pressroom that night and you were all so elated. Take us back to that night and what the meant to all of you.
OS: To be a part of a group of talent and to be recognized by your peers, there’s nothing more rewarding. We all got to take the prize home. That was unexpected and it was fun, and I miss those ladies. It’s so funny because this time last year we were promoting “Hidden Figures,” and Janelle [Monáe], because I was working on this during the summer, Janelle had to do most of the heavy-lifting during the summer and Taraji [P. Henson], poor thing, she was flying back and forth every other weekend for things when we started promoting it in the fall, but I basically did the heavy-lifting with Q&As and all those types of the things. The fact that we were able to walk away with SAG’s highest honor, it was wonderful.
GD: Even before I went to see it, people were telling me… this is a few weeks before it opened in theaters, they were saying, “Wait til you see ‘Hidden Figures.’” Why did it resonate with so many people across the country and across the world?
OS: I think it resonated because no one knew this story. As many times as we’ve heard John Glenn’s story, you would think that Katherine Johnson’s name would be indelibly linked, or inextricably linked, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t until the telling of this story that we even know these women, black and white, who contributed to the Space Race even existed in that capacity.
GD: The three of you presenting with Katherine on the Oscars was just one of the highlights of the year. Tell us about that moment.
OS: The fact that only one of those women was alive to receive that recognition is disheartening, but at the same time, she was there, and she represented a bygone era, and the fact that she received a standing ovation from that audience too ay thank you for your contributions to science and STEM programs and to NASA and to us and where we are in technology today, is a highlight for me. But I wish that Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were able to be there too. They were there in spirit but it would have been the cherry on top of the cake.
GD: And you got yet another Oscar nomination this time around. How did it feel different this time as opposed to the first time?
OS: It doesn’t feel different. To be recognized again by your peers, it’s humbling. It’s very humbling. It didn’t feel different, really at all. It felt the same.
GD: Just the whole season, though, and going into the ceremony, you didn’t feel as much like a newcomer to it. You had to have a little bit of experience from the first time around.
OS: Well as far as being nominated it didn’t feel any differently. I’d been to the Oscars. In the past seven years I’ve been five times, so as a presenter and as a nominee. That was not anything new or different, but when you go as a nominee it’s very humbling.
GD: And you hosted “Saturday Night Live” a few months ago.
GD: What was that experience like?
OS: That was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. I have stage fright and I’m dyslexic and you read cue cards and you present it in front of a live audience so it was terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.
GD: We’ve referred to “The Help” in terms of that being your other SAG Award-winning movie. We were just talking to Jessica Chastain last week with her new movie. Viola [Davis] now has got an Oscar, you’ve got an Oscar, Emma Stone’s got an Oscar. Jessica was talking about how much Tate Taylor had to go to bat for all of you just to even be in the movie.
OS: Allison Janney, Emma, yeah, he did. It was so great being there when Viola and Emma won their Oscars this year and I’m excited and my fingers are crossed for Jessica and my fingers are crossed for Allison, that they see their time soon, and Bryce [Dallas Howard].
GD: You’ll always be linked together, that group of women, I think.
OS: Oh, I hope so. We went through something very special. To have that journey and to still be in each other’s lives, it’s remarkable because those types of friendships when you meet people on the set, they come and go, but our friendships that we’ve all created, we’re still in each other’s lives. We’re all crazy busy, but we’re still very much a part of each other’s lives.
GD: Well congratulations on everything. Good luck with “Shape of Water.”
OS: Thank you. Thank you so much.