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Spencer earned her second consecutive Oscar nomination, and third in six years, for her role as a kind-hearted custodian in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. In doing so, Spencer, 45, made history as the only African-American actress to receive back-to-back noms from the Academy (she also has one win under her belt — for supporting actress in 2011’s The Help). The actress, who stars opposite fellow nominees Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins, spoke with THR — while battling a cold, no less — about her latest accomplishment and why she takes issue with all those comparisons between her current role and characters she’s played in the past.
What was your first meeting with Guillermo like?
It was wonderful. I’m a huge fan, so I was over the moon. We were meeting over a lunch that was supposed to last 30 minutes, but we talked for three hours about everything other than the project. In the last 12 minutes, he told me he wrote the part for me.
What’s the key to selecting great roles?
I select projects as a whole. My role could be tiny as long as it’s integral to the story. I look for stories that I connect to and that I can see myself being a part of, something that feels like a world I could live in.
What was the hardest scene to film for you?
They were all difficult because I’m dyslexic. I learn my lines by picking up on audio cues. When I was in scenes with Elisa [Sally Hawkins], I don’t have cues because my character speaks in non sequiturs. It was basically learning these monologues that were all over the place. Guillermo likes us to be doing things while we’re working, because that’s how we communicate in real life. Whatever your character is in the movie, you are that while you’re shooting it.
Did playing opposite Sally Hawkins’ character, who is mute, pose unique challenges?
Only in the conversation end of it. While she didn’t communicate with words, Sally did communicate with feeling. She is incredibly expressive, and we had a great rapport. When I’m trying to memorize and don’t have her feeling recorded, that makes it difficult. But doing things live on set was fine and I was able to feed off of her feeling.
How does Zelda differ from past characters you’ve played?
The only similarity between Zelda and other characters I’ve played is that they’re all women from the 1960s. [The Help’s] Minny Jackson was a mother. [Hidden Figures’] Dorothy Vaughan was a scientist, with a lot more money than Zelda and Minny. Zelda has no kids and a bad marriage. She’s in a much different place than Minny and Dorothy. Maybe she’s similar in the roles that they play in the films, but I don’t think of them as that similar of characters. I find it interesting that when black women play similar people in a time period they’re seen as the same character. White women don’t seem to get that as much.
What other actors’ performances stuck out for you this year?
Quite a few, some even that weren’t nominated. I thought Hong Chau was amazing in Downsizing. I thought how Mary J. Blige shed her beautiful, magical musician appeal to become this maid in Mudbound was amazing. Carey Mulligan also did a fantastic job in that film. Allison Janney in I, Tonya. All of the nominees for me were very different, very colorful. That I’m a part of the final five this year is incredible to me.
You made history with this nomination. What does that mean to you?
I’m grateful any time anyone views my work as one to be lauded. I am grateful to work with wonderful writers and directors.
This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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