Nominee Q&A

Oscars: 'Hidden Figures' Star Octavia Spencer "Believes in Advocating for People"

Courtesy of Hopper Stone
Octavia Spencer in 'Hidden Figures'

The actress recounts how she felt "compelled" to make the biographical drama and reveals her most difficult scene.

Octavia Spencer's voice is hoarse after weeks of promoting her box-office hit and SAG Award ensemble winner Hidden Figures, about a trio of real-life black female mathematicians who helped NASA put the first American into space. Her Oscar nomination for best supporting actress — she plays one of the three women, Dorothy Vaughn — comes five years after she won in the same category for The Help, co-starring friends and fellow 2017 Oscar nominees Viola Davis and Emma Stone, both of whom are competing in the best actress category.

Spencer, 46, is the first black actress to be nominated for an Oscar after winning an Academy Award but doesn’t want to dwell on the #OscarSoWhite controversy. She spoke with THR about why she felt compelled to make the biographical drama.

What was the biggest challenge of playing Dorothy Vaughan?

The fact that she did this work at a time when she was seen as a second-class citizen and when segregation allowed people to be racist — this is not something you can easily convey. It weighed heavily and permeated everything.

Hidden Figures has earned nearly than $130 million. Is this a wake-up call to Hollywood that more films like this should be made?

When I first heard of the project, I thought it was fiction. There were a lot of emotions I experienced about how the contributions of these African-American women had been obscured from the world. I felt compelled to do the film because I want little girls to see they can realize any dream.

What was your favorite scene to shoot?

The church picnic where Katherine Johnson [Taraji P. Henson] meets her future husband. It showed the immense bond these three women shared. They were all brilliant mathematicians, but more than anything, they were friends who wanted one another to be happy.

What was the most difficult scene to shoot?

The scene in the bathroom with Kirsten Dunst’s character. I really wanted to let that character have it when she says, "I don’t have anything against you all,” but Ted wanted more restraint. I understood that argument but, man, did I want to say something salty.

In what ways are you like Dorothy?

I believe in advocating for people, so I loved how she put her ambitions aside. Dorothy also could do math, but she sent Katherine to work in the Space Task Group. She also had a great work ethic and is a very practical woman.

What other films have you enjoyed this awards season?

The entire best picture lineup is amazing. I'd add Zootopia because I love the message about inclusion and not judging a book by its cover. The fairer sex doesn't mean the weaker sex.

A version of this story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.