Arts & Culture

The Southern A-List: Octavia Spencer

A modern leading lady with old-school Southern values

Photo: Art Streiber

Actor and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer is what one might call a speedy talker. This could be because her brain moves so quickly, the words race from her mouth to catch up. Or because she believes “to be silent is to be passive,” so she chooses to be neither. Or maybe because she was born into a family of seven children and bandwidth was at a premium. Never mind the reason, her loquaciousness is but one part of her expansive charm, alongside openness, grace, and uncommon candor. “It actually makes me smile when people underestimate me because I’m Southern,” she confides with glee. “Because I know I am about to blow their minds.”

People talk about the Australian mafia in Hollywood. Is there a Southern mafia?
Yes! The majority of my friends in L.A. are Southern. There is something warm about having that little twang around you when you are so far from home. It is comforting, to hear voices that sound like mine. You can relax. I’ve got my little posse. And we’re close.

Speaking of close, you just finished shooting your friend director Tate Taylor’s James Brown biopic, Get On Up.
I made Tate find something for me to do in James Brown. I told him, “I’m not jumping out of that boat until you say, ‘You’re drowning us!’” He’s never getting rid of me. He’s going to have to throw me out of the boat.

What does Hollywood get wrong about Southerners?
They are still hung up on the South we were before I was born. But we are more complex than what I often see on television and film. Just because we talk slower, we aren’t stupid. We are the sum of all the parts.

Even the ugly ones.
The thing about the South is we accept our history. We don’t push it under the rug. There is racism all over the United States. Most Southerners I know, we definitely find ourselves defending our heritage. But let me tell you something, whatever you think about the South, if your car breaks down in any Southern city, you’re only going to be sitting on the road five minutes, max. You don’t even have to pop up your hood! When my car broke down in L.A., nobody stopped. They just kept whizzing by.

In your Oscar acceptance speech for The Help you thanked your home state, Alabama. That’s probably a first.
I know. [Laughs.] It’s hilarious. But you know what? I’m grateful to Alabama.

In what way?
The rearing. It just feels right. I miss that genteel quality. There is a difference in the way that you treat the elderly. You have proper respect. You don’t talk back to your mother. I love seeing Southern mothers teach their sons chivalry and manners. Yes, ma’am. No, ma’am. Here in L.A., people get mad when you ma’am them. They say it makes them feel old.

Does it make you feel old?
Maybe a little. Oh, no! I’m in the ma’am years!

You come from a big family.
There are seven kids: six girls, one boy, all about two years apart. I loved it. You become adaptable. You hit the ground running. You know how to find your place in a mélange of people. It’s like a little society. But they know all of your secrets. You realize as you get older how important all of that is. My friend lost her only sibling a week ago. And I was thinking, Oh,God, what would I do if I only had one sister and I lost her?

Tell me about your mother.
She is the architect of my whole life. I never felt my life had any limitations. How did she do that? Teach us that we could dream and do and be anything? As a girl, I always had big moon eyes when I watched the Oscars. And then, I was there.

What was that night like?
I can tell you where I sat. But I don’t remember much else. It was so overwhelming. The whole win—it felt like the longest time in human history from opening the envelope to saying the winner. And when I got up, in my head I kept thinking, Don’t fall down, don’t fall down, oh, my God, my legs, my knees aren’t working, don’t fall down.

You didn’t fall down.
Not yet.