The black SUV pulled up to the curb of the Montgomery Rave Theatre on Vaughn Road one hot Friday evening in August. A small crowd, including one television station camera crew, had gathered on the sidewalk waiting for the arrival of Octavia Spencer, a capitol city native, in town for the premiere of The Help, her first starring role. Until that night, the movie was known primarily as a New York Times bestselling novel. But all of that was about to change in a big way.
Spencer stepped out of the car, took one look around and lit up when she realized most of those waiting were former teachers, principals and childhood friends.
“Oh my gosh, my principal!” she squealed. “Oh, wow! I haven’t seen you in years; I can’t believe you’re here!” she yelled to another bystander as she jumped up and down and hugged each one.
It seemed odd to see the touted star of the heavily advertised movie get more excited to see familiar faces there to greet her than the other way around, but it was just opening night, and nobody really knew what was about to happen. Spencer was escorted into a packed theatre where she thanked her hometown for coming out to support the movie, signed copies of the books movie-goers had brought with them and then slipped away. Little did any of them know, including Spencer, that after that weekend, Octavia Spencer would become a household name nationwide. No, make that worldwide.
Spencer, who plays the feisty domestic help, Minny Jackson, in the movie, has deep roots in Alabama. She was born and raised in Montgomery and is a 1994 graduate of Auburn University where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in theatre arts. She always dreamed of working in theatre, but saw herself working behind the camera not as the focus of it. She also entertained the idea of becoming a comedian.
While a student at Auburn, Octavia worked at the Pizza Hut in Opelika where customers remember her dynamic and humorous personality.
“She entertained my sister and me when we went to Pizza Hut with my parents,” says Laurin Thrower of Opelika, who was just a little girl back in the early-mid 90s. “We would put quarters in the toy machine there that had the claw that goes down and grab a prize, and Octavia would get behind the glass machine and act like she was inside of it. We would laugh so hard.”
Thrower says Octavia always told the little girls she was going to be in Hollywood some day, and if she became a star, she would come back and make stars out of them, too.
“She had the best attitude and was always smiling,” remembers Thrower, now 20. “We loved her, and I’m so glad to see she has ‘made it.’”
The sixth of seven children, Spencer always wanted to work in the film industry, but she was not very comfortable performing. That all changed in 1995 when acclaimed director Joel Schumacher gave her a small part playing a nurse opposite Sandra Bullock in the hit film A Time to Kill. Then, in 1996, she teamed up with Bullock again in Bullock’s directorial debut Making Sandwiches, a short film that premiered at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival.
“I was originally hired to work on casting, but I asked Mr. Schumacher if I could audition for a small part, and he let me,” says Spencer, still sounding a bit surprised she got the part.
In 2003, she starred opposite Emmy Award-winner Allison Janney (of The West Wing) in Tate Taylor’s critically lauded and award-winning short feature, Chicken Party, and had a brief, yet memorable appearance in Will Smith’s Seven Pounds. Until recently, Spencer was perhaps best known for her role on Ugly Betty as Constance Grady, the INS Agent turned stalker of Betty’s father, Ignacio Suarez. In 2009, she was recognized for her comedic timing and named by EntertainmentWeekly.com as one of its esteemed 25 Funniest Actresses in Hollywood.
But all that preceded August 2011, when DreamWorks released The Help. Spencer joined Viola Davis, Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard (daughter of Ron Howard) playing the feisty and unflappable domestic, Minny Jackson. The Help, written by Jackson, Miss., native and University of Alabama graduate Kathryn Stockett was directed by Stockett’s childhood friend, Tate Taylor, also of Jackson and an Ole Miss graduate who was Spencer’s roommate for several years when the pair first moved to Los Angeles. Long before the book was published, Stockett told Spencer she was writing a book and using her personality as a character, so when DreamWorks picked up the screenplay, Taylor knew exactly where to go to find “Minny.” With her genuine performance and her classic “side-eye,” the expressional Spencer’s portrayal of the defiant maid has movie critics talking and buzzing about award nominations, including an Oscar.
To say The Help was a life-changer would be somewhat of an understatement, but it is safe to say Spencer’s aspirations to be behind the camera are, at least for now, on hold.
The DVD of The Help will be released December 6.