The euphemisms stop here: Octavia Spencer’s multiple roles in ‘The Help’ phenomenon

This appears in Auburn magazine.

As an award-winning actor and an outsize personality who, even in the hammy social circuit of Hollywood, stood out for her straight-talking, no-bull charisma, Octavia Spencer was accustomed to stealing scenes, holding court, and generally being watched.

She did not know, however, that an unpublished writer was quietly scrutinizing her and finding in her a heroically cantankerous muse. As a result, Spencer is now enjoying one of those monumental, art-imitates-life twists on the Hollywood dream. She is starring in “The Help,” the much anticipated Steven Spielberg-produced movie opening in theaters on August 10, playing the role of “Minny Jackson,” the character she originally inspired in the best-selling book.

In 2002, during a vacation in New Orleans, Spencer, a 1994 graduate of Auburn, met Kathryn Stockett, a softspoken, belle-ish alumna of the University of Alabama, through some mutual friends. Both had been English majors, and Stockett was exploring an idea for her first novel.  Spencer was trying, grudgingly, to slim down for the camera.

“I was 100 pounds heavier then and on a diet,” Spencer recalls. “It was August, so it was hot, and I was hungry and surrounded by all that rich New Orleans cuisine that I wasn’t supposed to eat. I was extremely grumpy.”

Stockett, drawn to Spencer’s amplitude of form and attitude, took notes for her novel-in-progress, and the resulting “Minny” — a plump and deliciously defiant maid — became one of the principal narrators and most memorable characters in this story of race relations and female friendship in segregated, 1960s-era Jackson, Mississippi.

“Minny was probably the easiest character for me to write because of Octavia,” says Stockett, who grew up in Jackson and now resides in Atlanta. “At the time we were more acquaintances than friends, but I would watch her at parties – her mannerisms and gestures. She’s just hysterical. She’s extremely intelligent and well-educated, but Octavia will definitely tell you like it is. You can just imagine the look on her face when some skinny white girl came up and said to her, ‘I’ve written a book and you’re one of the main characters.’ She rolled her eyes and said something like, ‘that’s good,’ and walked away!”

Spencer, who lives in Los Angeles, puts her harrumphing reaction in context: “In Hollywood, everybody – and I mean everybody — is shopping around a book or a screenplay or a video or an idea at every turn.”

All of that shopping around paid off. The Help became one of the publishing world’s seersucker Cinderella stories, released by Putnam to crest The New York Times best-seller list for 103 weeks. Spencer, like book clubs around the country, was won over once she started reading.

“Frankly, I approached it reluctantly – I bristled at the dialect,” she says. Minny’s first words are: “Standing on that white lady’s back porch, I tell myself, Tuck it in Minny. Tuck in whatever might fly out my mouth and tuck in my behind too.”

Spencer says, “I thought, ‘Oh, God, not another one of those books about the South.’”

Her reading tastes lean toward Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Maya Angelou, she explains, so she feared that the The Help might be just another exercise in moonlight-and-magnolias cliché, a hoop-skirted white author rhapsodizing with the vapors over some one-dimensional “mammy.”

“I was naturally curious, though, about this ‘spitfire’ based on me, and once I cracked the book open, I ended up skipping a party to sit down and devour it, and decided it was one of the best books I’d ever read in my life,” Spencer says. “It really resonated with me as a Southern woman, and I realized immediately that the important themes and the rich complexities of these characters would resonate with readers across racial, regional, socioeconomic, and generational lines. Suddenly, I had high hopes.”

Spencer grew up in Montgomery, a bookworm in a family of seven children.

“Most people in Hollywood are dreaming of acting, of being in front of the camera, but ever since I was at Auburn, I’ve called myself a writer,” she says. “I had a minor in theater arts, but I had to be more or less dragged in front of the camera.”

That pivotal moment came when was working behind the scenes as a production assistant on “A Time to Kill.” A director asked her to read, and she landed a small part in that Mississippi-based film. On that set, she became fast friends with another up-and-comer, Tate Taylor, and they lit out for Los Angeles and lived as roommates for four years, eventually accumulating a coterie of “expat Southerners” in the dues-paying stage of their red-carpet aspirations. Taylor had grown up in Jackson with Stockett.

“We all had culture shock in L.A.,” Spencer says with a laugh. “I remember the first time my car broke down on the side of the road, and I thought, ‘Back home, 10 people would’ve stopped to help by now.’ I missed the manners and the warmth of the South, so I surrounded myself with other Southerners who felt the same.”

The reluctant actress began burnishing her resume with roles in Dinner For Schmucks, The Soloist, Seven Pounds, Bad Santa, Spiderman, Big Momma’s House, and Being John Malkovich. On the small screen, Spencer became a familiar, apple-cheeked face, starring in the series “Halfway Home,” and appearing in “The Big Bang Theory,” “E.R.,” “CSI,” “Raising The Bar,” and “Medium,” along with a memorable five-episode arc as a lusty INS agent-turned-stalker in “Ugly Betty.”

Meanwhile, Stockett almost had given up after 60 agents had rejected her novel. Tate, who had directed several indie projects, begged for the film rights before it was even published and went to work on a screenplay. In 2009, the year The Help came out to such fanfare, Entertainment Weekly named Spencer one of the “25 Funniest Actresses in Hollywood,” and then DreamWorks got behind the movie project.

“We all had run around together, and since Kathryn modeled some of Minny’s traits after Octavia, we felt no one else could play her but Octavia,” says Tate, who made authenticity his mission (read: refreshingly believable drawls), shooting the film in Greenwood, Mississippi. “When I was looking for actors, I was looking at how they talked, the way they moved. I didn’t want to do a Hollywoodized version of the South. The South is an oppressive, complicated, beautiful, tragic, loving place all in one bundle.”

Ironically, Spencer had drilled away her accent. “I partially paid my way through Auburn with public speaking scholarships,” she says, “so I had to put that lilt back in my voice!” she says. Ultimately, she so embraced the dialect that she read for the audiobook version of The Help, and won the “Earphone Award,” and Spencer accompanied the author on a book tour in which she delivered the African-American voices in the text during readings.  “Some people suggested I might be underplaying Minny,” Spencer says. “You can read her rebellious thoughts in the book, but realize that to talk back to a white employer during that era was dangerous. She couldn’t publicly express her feelings. So I tried to play it down rather than overacting and overplaying her fiery spirit.”

It comes through, though, in every knowing, sidewise glance. Spencer, as Stockett noted, can’t help “telling it like it is,” just like her alterego, Minny, who muses: “Truth. It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky-hot body. Cooling a heat that’s been burning me up all my life.”

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