When Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer was approached by producer Gil Netter to portray Papa in “The Shack,” she was already a huge fan of the best-selling book that inspired the movie. It was a profound story about the resiliency of the human spirit in which a grieving father (Sam Worthington/Mack) is faced with unimaginable loss and must make the hardest decision of his life. “I have experienced loss in my life,” Spencer explained, “but the thing that brings you back is your faith, so I understood Mack’s journey in a lot of ways.”
At our roundtable interview, Spencer revealed how the project first emerged, what made the film unique, her thoughts on a black woman portraying God and being part of a multi-racial cast, why she rejects any negativity that detracts from the inspiring story, what it was like working with Worthington, what she looks for in a script, her Oscar nomination for “Hidden Figures,” her new movie “The Shape of Water” directed by Guillermo del Toro, and her upcoming role as Madam C.J. Walker in a new series helmed by Kasi Lemmons.
Here’s what she had to tell us:
How did this project first come together for you?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: I read the book a few years ago, organically, totally independent of the film. Then, my agent told me that I would be meeting with Gil Netter. It was scheduled to be a 30-minute meeting. I met Gil, and we hit it off so well that it turned into a three-hour odyssey talking about all things antique, all things “The Shack.” I think we knew that if it was happening that I was probably going to do it because we both jelled in a way that’s not normal.
Morgan Freeman has played God several times. Did you ask him for any pointers?
SPENCER: No. His God was very different from my God.
What do you think is unique about this film in the realm of faith movies?
SPENCER: For me, I loved the whole thriller aspect of the book because that’s how it came to me. My friends know that I love thrillers. I had no idea that there was a faith element at all, but I thought it lent itself so beautifully to the narrative. What a unique way to explore the frailties of humanity. To suffer such a tragic loss, and something that we all identify with — losing something or someone, and then suffering a depression and not being able to come back from it, then finding forgiveness of yourself and forgiving the person that wronged you, and then him finding his way back to his faith. I thought it was all so beautifully done. I loved the fact that questions were asked of God that everyman wanted to ask. For me, I saw myself as Mack. I’ve never experienced loss in that way, but I lost my mom when I was 18 and my dad when I was 13. So, I do know loss. I loved the way the questions were presented, and I loved the way they were answered.
Is this movie spiritual or religious?
SPENCER: I think that’s up to the viewer to determine. It provides answers to life’s questions, whether you’re religious, or spiritual, or agnostic. One thing we can all agree on is the fact that it is everyman’s story and we all face challenges, and it’s about how to come back from that. So, I think that’s for you the viewer.
The Bible suggests that God is male. What do you say to those who might be offended by the film portraying you, a black woman, as God?
SPENCER: Then, they need to read the book. After they see the film and still have questions, then they need to search their own hearts for why they have a problem with it. It is an element of the story. Mack, when he was a young boy, was betrayed by the one man that should have been his savior, his protector. He was abused by his father. The one person to show him kindness was this woman that I played. She could tell that young boy had trauma. And what child doesn’t want a slice of pie and a big glass of milk? It was very grandmotherly of her, which means that he didn’t really have that type of extended family. She gave him something that he wasn’t used to having. In order for him to receive the healing that he needed to receive and find his way back to his faith, God gave him what he needed, which was love in the shape and form of the woman who gave him so much kindness as a child.
The book was controversial for that very reason. Do you think there are elements of racism and sexism in the criticisms of this?
SPENCER: I can’t give any of that any thoughts or energy because it detracts from what it means to me. It detracts from the message of the story. For people who have those types of issues, they need to look within their own hearts to figure out what that’s about. It’s not up to me to give them any sort of absolution for how they feel about that. My job as an artist is to present the material. My job as a woman is to receive from it what I need. What I learned from this whole process of playing God is just how difficult his job is. Trust me. His job is difficult, and that’s about all. I can’t play into that negativity.
I grew up thinking God is in the form you want to see him and it’s all about interpretation. What was it like for you playing this figure?
SPENCER: I’m a Southern Baptist so I grew up with the conventional images of God being a man. I have no problems playing God, because the author is not trying to say in any shape, form or fashion that God is a black woman. But, God also in my mind gives you what you need. So, if you need God to be a black woman and you need that for whatever your reasons are, then perhaps your blessings will come in that form. I can’t speak to that. For me, the portrayal, I couldn’t wrap my brain around playing God. As an actor, you have to have a frame of reference and I’ve only played humans. I’ve never even played a cyborg. So, there you go. I had to deal with the relationship between Papa and Mack, and for me, it felt like a parental relationship. In order to prepare for the role, the director, Stuart Hazeldine, gave me so many books that he wanted me to read about grief, about religious theory on all these types of things. We have that as a shorthand. But, what really broke it down for me and made me able to play the part was actually dealing with the fact that I had to be his mother. I had to be the mother that failed him. I had to then try to bring him back to where he could trust me, trust himself, and others in his life.
How was it working with Sam? What can you tell us about him?
SPENCER: I can tell you what I observed. He was a brand new parent when we started the film. Rocket was so tiny. I think he was barely six weeks old. For new parents, they are sleepless. So then, he was exhausted and vulnerable, which was kind of what he needed to be for the film. It had him in the right frame of mind. He is just a loving dad and you saw how exhausted he was. When that baby was around, when they would come to set, his whole countenance changed. It was great to work with Sam.
You’re part of a multi-racial Holy Trinity in the film. In your opinion, was this an attempt to promote diversity as opposed to perpetuating the image of a white Christ?
SPENCER: Well I have no idea. That’s something that you’ll have to ask of the writer. I can only tell you that I liked it. I liked it, because if you believe that God created all of us in his image — Native Americans are in his image, Asians are in his image, Israeli men and women are in his image — it felt apropos for the Holy Trinity. Also, Alice Braga played Wisdom. It’s definitely diverse because he made all types of people. I thought it was a beautiful description and to me a beautiful way to have it play out.
In so many movies now, you’ve played very strong female characters. What do you look for in a script and what do you most want people to take away from this movie?
SPENCER: I would love to play a weak character. I’d love to play a frail person. I’d love to play a deranged person. But, Hollywood has this problem of thinking outside of the box. What I try to do is, of all of these characters that come to me, if they don’t show range or an aspect of what I can do that’s very different from anything that I’ve done, then I don’t do them. I look for roles that resonate with me these days. While I love putting out just fabulous entertainment, I think now as artists, especially with so much uncertainty going on in the world, you want to be a part of things that offer or promote healing in some way and perhaps a little introspection once you leave. That’s what I hope people take from this film. I don’t like to say, “Oh here’s the message or the theme of the film and this is what I hope people leave with.” What I choose to do is to say, because we all come from different circumstances, our life experiences really color how we view things. So, when people sit down to this movie, whatever their emotional baggage is, I hope that they will find the entertainment value, but at the same time when they leave, through the messages of forgiveness and healing, that their load is a little bit lighter and perhaps they see their future a little bit brighter.
The film talks about forgiveness and building a closeness to God. How did you personally connect to the film?
SPENCER: While I play a character whose life is an open book, in God, my life isn’t an open book. Yes, I’ve had to forgive people. I would love to say that I am more like the character that I played and that I’m able to forget, but I’m human fraught with very human thoughts and emotions, and I’ve learned a lot. Again, I don’t ever want to be the type of person to tell you what to think or what to believe. Whatever stage in your life that you are in, I want you to organically reach whatever conclusions that you possibly reach. Suffice it to say that I did connect, but I’m not going to tell you everything. I’ve got to keep some things to myself.
You must really have been in God’s favor these days after having shot this film when you look at the results of “Hidden Figures”?
SPENCER: I feel very blessed. What I don’t want to say is, I’m in God’s favor, and then for the person that things aren’t happening for, for them to believe that they’re not, because I really believe things happen as they’re supposed to and in the time that they’re supposed to. All of these films weren’t supposed to be coming out. I have three films coming out within the first quarter of the year. “Gifted” I shot in 2015. It was supposed to be out in the fall and so was “The Shack.” But I think right now, we can safely say they’re all feel good movies. They’re all aspirational and inspirational films. They’re offering a type of healing and a healing message. It’s one of those things that I believe things happen in their time.
The Oscars are coming up. Can you talk to me about your Oscar experiences and what you’re looking forward to on Sunday night?
SPENCER: It will be my anniversary with Oscar, my five-year anniversary to that very day. I’m excited to be going back as a nominee for representing a woman who did not in her lifetime receive the acknowledgement or the accolades that she should have for her contributions to the space race and to science, technology, engineering and math programs. I’m humbled and I’m excited.
Can you tells us about your Guillermo del Toro movie, “The Shape of Water”?
SPENCER: I do have a Guillermo del Toro movie. (joking) It’s about healing and positivity. No, it’s a little bit darker. It’s beautiful. But I don’t know, because we’re not promoting that one yet, if Guillermo [would want me to talk about it now]. We turned our sides in every day. So they were very [cautious]. They watched exactly whatever information was given out. Until I’m in a situation where I know exactly what is okay to say and what’s not okay to say, I can’t say. It is set in the 60’s at NASA.
What’s next for you?
SPENCER: I think I might be done with the 60’s. I’m now going to tackle Madame C.J. Walker, which is a whole different character.
Are you going to be playing her? You must be blown away?
SPENCER: I am. That is another story that has yet to be told. She’s an icon definitely for women and for the African American community as well. It’s time that her story gets told and in a manner that I think people will enjoy. She was the first self-made, African American millionaire, and it was all through beauty products. She was also a philanthropist and an activist. She was multi-faceted. She did so in the Reconstruction Era.
“The Shack” opens in theaters on March 3rd.