Octavia Spencer is my best friend.
Ok, ok, she’s not really. But, whether she’s playing a pie making maid (The Help), a side-eyeing neighbor with a big heart (Gifted), or the first African-American woman to supervise a department at NASA (Hidden Figures), Spencer’s performances not only make you embrace her as your friend, but truly make you fall for each of her characters.
In Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, Spencer plays Zelda, a cleaning lady who vents about her husband, and her aching feet to her best friend, Elisa (Sally Hawkins). She’s that friend we all need on occasion—the one that will look at someone new in your life up and down, without smiling or blinking—even if he happens to be a fish. I got a chance to sit down with a few other select press to talk to Octavia about the film, playing a woman of color in the 60s, and why we all love fairy tales.
Yolanda Machado: One thing that’s sort of a trademark for Guillermo del Toro as a director, is that he gives his actors these detailed back stories, that have nothing to do with the script. Was that helpful? Did you use it?
Octavia Spencer: Well, that’s part of my preparation. I always give my characters a backstory. I create those backstories for my characters, always. What I loved is that, when he gave me the character’s backstory that he had written, there were two things on there that I had already come up with. When I tell you, they’re not common. They’re odd and out of the way. I won’t tell you what they are because there are some secrets that are meant to be kept.
It floored me that we were that intuitive about Zelda. During the rehearsal process, we all had a couple of hours a week with Guillermo and he’s a different director with each of us. For me, it was always a therapy session. My character is in a relationship, where she feels undervalued. So, I’m sitting in there (with del Toro) talking about very personal things and always leaving in tears.
Yolanda: What was the draw for you in the fact that, through the two characters in the movie that are mute, the film tells and gives a part of our society a voice?
Octavia: That’s one of the things that I loved about the movie. That, it’s set in a time period, where black people were disenfranchised and the LGBTQ community has been disenfranchised up until about five to eight years ago. The fact he has two main characters that can’t talk and he chooses a black woman and a closeted gay man to be their voices, says a lot about who Guillermo is. He wanted disenfranchised people to be represented, to be heard. We’re working at NASA and usually, it’s the scientists who are at the center of things. But in his story, the cleaning crews, are the center. The invisible people are the ones who get the screen time. I knew I loved him as a filmmaker before that, but after reading the story and just the political implications of it, that resonated with me. I love the story, but then at the same time, I couldn’t get away from the love story. It’s hard to describe to people. What’s the movie about? Well, she falls in love with a Merman. People give you a look.
For me, it’s not telling people what it’s about, but it’s about telling people, how you feel when you watch it. So, that was my thing, how I felt when I read it. It’s like you walk out of there with a song in your heart, with a little bit of hope. And boy, don’t we need some hope right now.
Yolanda: Similarities between 1962 and today are very apparent. How did working through a woman of color in the 60s change your perception of what happened then and what you’re putting out now?
Octavia: It hasn’t. I have played a woman from this error three times. This’ll be my third. For me, the heavy lifting is … I’ve always had to play the circumstances of the character. You know that she’s a woman of color, who has no agency, no civil rights, no say in the outcome of her life, except what happens within her home. And, she perseveres. In this movie, all of those circumstances are there, but I don’t have to play them. I don’t have to address them. I get to be a regular woman, who’s complaining about her relationship, who’s complaining about her job. And supporting her best friend, who has the weirdest love affair. And, that was refreshing to me. So, there’s that part of it.
The fact that, one of the themes of the movie is not seeing people as the other, is important because some people don’t realize they do that. Some people don’t realize that they judge a book by its cover and that they’re missing out by judging the book by its cover. So, sometimes you have to have art that addresses that, but it’s subtle. Because, sometimes you won’t receive the message if you are told in this didactic way that, that is how you’re supposed to react. But, if it’s wrapped around a beautiful love story, it makes you think, well, when have I ever judged someone. When have I ever not allowed people to be seen or heard? And when you think that way in the privacy of your own home, you can confront those things easily, I think.
Yolanda: You always earn the trust of your audience, no matter what the role is. You walk out believing that character is you. What makes you different from your characters? How are you different from Zelda?
Octavia: One of the things that I find common in all these characters that I get to play is I am somebody’s best friend. I know how to listen. Those are elements that are very true and I give as I get. I’m a reciprocal lover. I give the love that you give me, I give back to you and I reciprocate in every way possible. But, I don’t know what it’s like to be Zelda and underappreciated to that extent in a relationship. Because, I’m that a person who’s going to go, you don’t appreciate me? I’m done! You know I’m never going to butter your toast. You’re a grown ass man…you know what I mean? There’s are those aspects of myself that I definitely try to upload. It’s always, a through-line is I’m the friend. Yeah, I would never put up with that in a relationship, which is why I’m constantly single. I need to be the Sun and the Moon honey. I need to be the Sun and the Moon. If you don’t realize you have the Sun or the Moon, you don’t deserve them and vice versa. I want you to be my Sun. I want to make light in my day and if I can’t give you that or you can’t give me that, then we don’t belong together.
Yolanda: There are so many different storytelling mediums nowadays. This form is one that we’ve all grown up with – a fairytale. Why do you believe audiences are connecting with fairy tales, one of the oldest storytelling method, now more than ever?
Octavia: Because there’s so much bleakness in the world. It’s so dark out there, with crazy people running around. Shooting up schools and shooting up concerts, when it’s your day off and you’re just going out and spending time with your family. And, you don’t know that it’s going to be the last time that you see them. People need hope. People need a little light. People need a little laughter. If you can get that from artists, like Guillermo who can consistently deliver, we look to that. And Lord, with the current administration, you know there’s always something. So, I think people need a lot more escapism, now more than ever. That’s why you’re able to suspend your belief. Then, a lot of us, we don’t realize that we are hopeless romantics. That we do want our fish. I want my fish man, you know. We all deserve that. When we realize we deserve that type of adulation and love and unconditional love, it’s fun to hope that it comes.
Yolanda Machado is a Los Angeles based, award-winning blogger (SassyMamainLA), critic and freelance entertainment journalist with bylines at Harper’s Bazaar, Broadly, Moviefone, Remezcla and more. She is a Latina mother of one daughter, and has an obsession for pop culture and Broadway musicals.