Octavia Spencer as "Roberta" and Chris Evans as "Frank" in the film GIFTED. Photo by Wilson Webb. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.
Orange County School of the Arts

Octavia Spencer on child prodigies, faith and superheroes

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Mckenna Grace as “Mary” and Chris Evans as “Frank” in the film GIFTED. Photo by Wilson Webb. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

The first thing Octavia Spencer says after assessing my outfit is, “This is cute, honey, I love this!”

I tell her I have to put on my A game at 10 o’clock in the morning. She smiles and says, “Well I got a team, but you did that on your own. Beautiful!”

This is a woman full of life. She’s open to everyone and shows kindness to the room. She also knows how to work a crowd, making us laugh with an anecdote of how she left her straw in the other room as she sips her glass of Coke.

Spencer is here promoting her latest movie, Fox Searchlight’s “Gifted,” directed by Marc Webb and starring Chris Evans as loving, kind uncle Frank Adler and Mckenna Grace as his math prodigy niece Mary. She plays the nurturing, fiercely protective neighbor Roberta, Mary’s best friend.

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Poster of Hidden Figures. Courtesy of Fox

The two-time Oscar nominee is fresh off her success in “Hidden Figures,” in which Taraji P. Henson’s character math prodigy Katherine Johnson is able to flourish and become a NASA mathematician. Yet in “Gifted,” 7-year-old Mary is stifled inside the regular classroom as well as the professional world. I ask Spencer how her experience in these two movies have shaped her opinions about balancing the nurturing of a gifted child and still keeping that inner child intact.

“I think that’s a slippery slope. If we could solve that one problem, there wouldn’t be so many crazy custody battles,” she says. “Education is very important and I think providing a space for a gifted child to flourish is important. But I also think you have to allow them to be a kid. Their mind and their intellect already ages them. And childhood once it’s gone it’s gone and you don’t get to revisit it. You have to provide a space for them to be able to do both. That’s the optimum outcome.”

Though she wasn’t a math prodigy, Spencer was exceptionally bright for her age growing up. And in that way, she could see herself in Mary’s character—inquisitive, intelligent, and not to mention a little bit sassy.

“Every time [Mary] asked questions, I thought, ‘oh my god she is so annoying,’ but I love her, because that’s me,” she says emphatically.

The role of Roberta is relatively small, but Spencer recognized that this wasn’t Roberta’s story. She was the first to be attached to the project because she loved the storyline, and after all, “There is no small role,” she clarifies.

When she heard Evans was circling the project, she quickly told him to hop on board. They had previously worked on “Snowpiercer” together. “Gifted” was such a fun set, she says, so much so she went to watch them film even on her days off.

One particular day ended up being one of her favorite moments in the making of the film. The cast was shooting at the beach and the filmmakers were able to capture a scene with Evans and Grace as silhouettes against a huge setting sun.

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

“I will never ever forget it. I made Marc save the screencapture,” says Spencer, recalling the beautiful moment. “They did the sunball. It’s a giant setting sun. To me it was a beautiful metaphor of just how small we are in the real world, yet connected to everything. They were tiny silhouettes in front of the sun. We rushed down the beach—everyone was so quick. When they got the shot, I started clapping. It was one of my favorite moments.”

In that scene, Evans’ and Grace’s characters are discussing the possible existence of God. He tells her that he doesn’t know, but the scene is left very open-ended as to how Grace will one day make up her mind.

“I loved his response to her and it was the best response possible,” she says. “He left her free to shape her own choice. He didn’t dismiss it and he didn’t tell her what to think. She’s going to have to come to a conclusion on her own. But he’s also not a person who’s taking her to church every Sunday. It’s great because that’s not his belief, but he’s not telling her she shouldn’t believe.”

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Octavia Spencer as “Roberta,” Mckenna Grace as “Mary” and Chris Evans as “Frank” in the film GIFTED. Photo by Wilson Webb. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Spencer is a believer. She also just finished promoting “The Shack,” a film with Christian overtones. She grew up in Montgomery, Ala., and says she doesn’t know a single person from the South who didn’t go to church growing up. But Spencer kept her faith.

“It’s like eating and breathing. Faith to me is that,” she explains. “It’s also my reality. But for a person who’s reality it isn’t—that’s why I never say, this is what you should take away from this movie. Because I don’t know what people’s realities are. My reality is that faith is as much a part of my life as breathing and eating and sleeping, all those necessities.”

Spencer’s faith was, in a way, what kick started her career. After all, you need to either have a lot of self-confidence or trust in a greater Being that everything will work out when you leave your hometown with only $3,000 to stake your claim in Hollywood. It worked out.

“I always wanted to be a producer first. Acting I enjoy it and I love it. I can’t see myself walking away from it because it’s in my DNA. But I am a puzzle person and I think that’s what producing is. It’s solving this great puzzle and putting all the right elements together. Twenty one years ago, it was that moment,” she says, reflecting on coming to Hollywood. “Failure was never an option. To be a producer was a win, to be an actress was a win, and now I’m getting to do both so it’s a win-win.”

There’s a lot that goes into making a commitment to a creative project. For Spencer, it has to have heart.

“There has to be something about it that connects to me internally,” she says. “I also like movies that provide escapism and are entertaining but will also be educational and enlightening in some way. I think that’s one of the reasons I got into this business—to put art out in the world so whatever you’re going through in your personal life, once you spend that hour and a half to two hours watching a film, you can leave that behind and escape into this world we’re creating. And hopefully when you leave the theater whatever you saw will affect you so that whatever you’re going through in your life you can take something from it to help better your life in a way.”

When asked about the potential of being in a big superhero movie perhaps alongside co-star Evans, she says she’d love to, and applauds the steps studios have taken to ensure diversity on-screen.

“What I love about Captain America and Marvel is that they have been very diverse in their casting,” she says. “You realize that there are other ethnic groups in the Marvel comic world, and when I think of superheroes, I think they all need to aspire to be more Avenger-like, more Thor-like in their casting.”

Spencer is a hero in her own right. With “Gifted” and “Hidden Figures,” Spencer is inspiring young boys and girls everywhere to dream big, dive into education, and follow their passions.

“Hidden Figures is a different type of superhero movie,” she says, and I agree: brain power is a superpower too.

“Gifted” comes out in theaters on April 12, 2017.

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Journalist Cassandra Hsiao and Octavia Spencer. Courtesy of Cassandra Hsiao
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Journalist Cassandra Hsiao at the “Gifted” Press Conference. Courtesy Cassandra Hsiao

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