The new Fox drama series Red Band Society is a provocative coming-of-age dramedy about a group of rule-bending friends and the adults who mentor them through the ups and downs of adolescence in Los Angeles’ Ocean Park Hospital. The pediatric ward is run by Nurse Jackson (Octavia Spencer), a caregiver with a take-no-prisoners approach to helping these teens get the most from their lives, even when they’re facing serious life-threatening issues and illnesses.
During this recent interview to promote the show’s September 17th premiere, Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer talked about how she got involved with the show, what appealed to her about this project, her character’s journey this season, working with such a talented young cast, her favorite scenes, getting to learn more about her character, and finding the beauty in unexpected places. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
Question: How did you become involved with this show?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: I have a great team at WME. They were fielding a lot of requests for me to read a lot of stuff. I read a few pilots, and Steven Spielberg is my favorite director, so when his name is on anything, of course I’m going to take it seriously. But, I was really relieved that I absolutely, positively loved the show. Everything that you experience, as a viewer, I experienced, as an actor reading the material. It’s on the page. We had a brilliant director in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who was just nominated for an Emmy for American Horror Story, and Margaret Nagle, who has been nominated for countless Emmys. So, I just felt very, very lucky to be given such amazing material when I was asked to be a part of it.
When you were growing up, did you ever have any interest in nursing? Was that what appealed to you about this project?
SPENCER: I can’t say that it was a part of my fabric, no. What appealed to me about the project was the fact that it’s a very fresh perspective on a show set in hospital, and it’s a very fresh perspective on a show that’s centered around teens. The fact that she’s a nurse might have been a drawback because I’ve played a nurse so many times. But, it’s a special project and it actually was the best pilot script that I had read. I had been offered so much, and I just read that one and felt a connection to the work.
Are you aware of any real-life programs that are similar to this?
SPENCER: Well, it was amazing to have Margaret Nagle as our writer because this is very, very much her wheelhouse. The kids were in contact with patients. And Dave [Annable], Rebecca Rittenhouse and I were all in contact with either doctors, nurses or caregivers that would be able to give us ground floor information that we should know. Coming into it, I thought I knew a lot about hospitals because I’ve played a nurse a good many times, but I never played a pediatric nurse and didn’t realize that the hospitals are so different. The services that they provide are more than just even for the sick. I think it’s about giving kids a well-rounded atmosphere, so that they can continue to be kids. We visited several hospitals, all over the country. It’s a very unique environment, and it’s actually been life-altering.
You said that you’d read a lot of pilot scripts and that this is the one that really stood out for you. So, were you specifically looking to do a TV series, or were looking at everything and this really stuck with you?
SPENCER: Well, I’m an actor and I am looking for roles where I can continue to evolve, and things that are challenging. I gravitate to the roles, not necessarily television or film. It’s just the fact that, for me, the most interesting roles have been in television. So, it was basically just finding a project that resonated with me and was a group of people that I wanted to work with and see, every day. You also want to like the people that you work with. So, it was a win-win situation for me because I have a wonderful relationship with everyone over at DreamWorks. The fact that Steven Spielberg, Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank are producing this, and Fox is really one of the most forward-thinking networks out there helped. The material had to be good, and the people that I would be working with had to be people that I wanted to be working with, but it was not any one thing. It was quite a few mitigating circumstances that made me want to be a part of this project.
What can you say about your character’s journey, this season?
SPENCER: There are so many series regulars on the show, largely the teens who are in the hospital. Then, Dave Annable and I are like the mom and pop of the situation, with Griffin Dunne being the great uncle. I don’t know how much I can tell you, except that just like in your regular life, you’re not one way all the time. That would just be so dull. I think that Nurse Jackson is a woman who is taking care of people, some of whom have very serious illnesses, and there’s just no time for tomfoolery. There’s a lot that you have to do, and she maintains that type of bravado, especially with the patients because you can’t give an inch sometimes, or people will probably likely try to take a mile. But I think what you’ll learn about her, as the season progresses, is why she chose this line of work. You will determine whether or not she has a heart of gold, or if she has a cold heart. I don’t want to say too much, but I think that’s just enough.
What have you been able to learn from all of the younger actors, and what have you been able to teach them?
SPENCER: Well, I’m glad that I don’t have to teach. This is an amazing group of professionals. They’re really brilliant, very hard working, very intuitive young actors. A lot of them have worked a lot, maybe not a lot in television or in film, but they do have great work ethics. So, what I learn from them is to continue to enjoy the process and have that free spirit about approaching the work, and to not be so rigid. I think, if anything, what they learn from me is professionalism. But, they’re all quite professional. They show up ready to work. I feel very blessed because, even though I’m the oldest person on this show – older than Dave Annable, and all the kids combined – I feel very lucky because it’s a very familial atmosphere. We are a very good unit. I feel lucky that I get to work with these guys, every day.
Do you have a favorite scene, so far?
SPENCER: Well, the scene that I love is where Leo goes to talk to Charlie in the coma. It’s just one of the most grown-up. It was transforming. It didn’t matter what they were talking about, what he was saying to him, or that it was about his illness. I think you could substitute your own life or your own circumstances into what he was saying. I thought it was just so beautifully done. Charlie Rowe is a young Daniel Day-Lewis. He was just amazing. It’s really hard to lie still and not blink and not move and not twitch. Every time you’re in a scene with Griffin Gluck, out coma boy, it just takes my breath away because he’s so perfectly present, even though he doesn’t say a single, solitary word to us. So, that’s my favorite scene.
Will we get to see some more of your character’s life outside of the hospital?
SPENCER: Absolutely. This show is really centered around the kids and what they do, as they grow with their illnesses. But the adults are the glue that keeps everything together, so you will see character progression or regression. You’ll definitely learn more about Nurse Jackson, and some of the other adults on the show. You’ll learn a lot about Dr. McAndrew. You’ll learn a lot about Brittany. It’s a very even-handed show. It’s a true ensemble.
What do you love about your character the most, and what makes her different from the other strong characters you’ve played in the past?
SPENCER: I think that there’s a mystery there. You want to know why this woman is the way she is, and why she chose to be a caregiver. I think that the show of strength, or what people think is strong, is not necessarily the case. Some of the strongest people are people who are quiet and not so brazen with their emotion. What’s interesting about Nurse Jackson is that her strength comes in her quiet moments. I like that you get to see a whole person, and that I’ll get to grow with her. I think she’s just a very interesting character.
Have you ever had an experience where you found beauty or happiness in a place that normally would be unpleasant, much like these kids have to do in the hospital?
SPENCER: If you go through life and you don’t find the beauty in an unexpected place, then you really have a sad existence. Every day that I live, I try to find the beauty in things. That’s one of the things that really, really resonated with me about this show. My perspective of hospitals certainly has changed. I value medical professionals in a way that I really hadn’t thought about before because, gratefully, I have my health. But there are so many people who don’t, and who have to exist in a world where they’re not at 100%, as far as their physicality. You have to embrace whatever your reality is, and that’s what I thought was so refreshing about this show. These kids are sick, for sure, but they are still kids. They still have the same insecurities that kids that are healthy have. They want to be the prettiest. They want to be the tallest. They want to be the smartest. They want to be the fastest on the soccer field. I think there is beauty in that. I think there’s beauty in the fact that the caregivers are on the sidelines giving guidance. That’s what I thought was very beautiful about this show, and about a lot of the children’s hospitals around the country and the services that they provide.
Red Band Society premieres on Fox on September 17th.