Octavia Spencer on Playing God in ‘The Shack’ and Working with Del Toro on ‘Shape of Water’
Based on the best-selling novel by author William P. Young, The Shack tells the story of Mack Phillips (Sam Worthington) who, after suffering a family tragedy, goes on a spiritual journey that takes him to an abandoned shack deep in the wilderness. While there, he encounters the enigmatic Papa (Octavia Spencer), who helps him look inside of himself to overcome the deep depression and crisis of faith that he is facing, changing his life forever.
At the film’s press day, Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer spoke at a roundtable interview about how she got involved with The Shack, being one of the legion of fans of this book, why she wanted to play Papa, preparing to play God, and wanting everyone to draw what they need from the story. She also talked about getting a different gratification from writing than she does from acting, how much she enjoyed working with Guillermo del Toro on the top-secret The Shape of Water, and the projects that she’ll be producing next.
Question: Were you drawn to this role for the spiritual element to it?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: This is actually the first one I’ve done. I’m drawn to material. It has to resonate with me, on some level.
Had you been familiar with this book, before reading the script?
SPENCER: I read the book independently of any movie talk. I read the book a few years ago. I am one of the legion of fans. When I heard that Gil and Lani Netter were thinking about making a movie of it, I went there to convince Gil why I needed to be Papa.
What was it about the role of Papa that most appealed to you?
SPENCER: It’s not the role. It’s the material, as a whole. I loved the message of the book. I loved the fact that [William P. Young] wrote this book where a regular man has a conversation with God and he asks some very hard-hitting questions, and I liked the way that God answered them. I thought it was a unique way to look at religion, and for regular people to look at their role and how they influence their environment.
When you read this book, how did it impact you?
SPENCER: I don’t really like to go into specifics. Reading the book, I learned something different. And then, after playing the role, I learned something very different. For me, when you have to prepare to play God, walking away from that, you realize just how tough God’s job is. I don’t want that job!
Do you feel like this film is really about the fact that you can’t get through things alone, whether it’s grief or something else?
SPENCER: I hate to tell people what they should think ‘cause I really have an aversion when people tell me what to think. I like to present the material and let you draw from it what you need. For those people who go to the film and realize perhaps that they can’t do it alone, then that’s the message that’s meant for them. I just know that the one thing that we all have in common is challenges. No one lives a challenge free life. Mack is definitely an example of a person who experiences a lot of challenges. As a young boy, he is abused by the one person that he should be able to trust more than anyone – his father. We can identify with challenge. Some of us can also identify with depression and guilt. Grief can be a paralytic. There are definitely some universal themes in it. But I also think that our challenges make us unique, and how we deal with them makes us unique. What I love about this film is that it puts the information out there. Based on your individual needs, there are so many things that you can draw from it.
You and Sam Worthington have some beautiful scenes together. Did you have time to get to know each other, prior to this shoot?
SPENCER: No, we didn’t really get to know each other that well. We were both coming from different sets, so there wasn’t a lot of getting to know you time. But, I’m a huge fan of Sam’s. One thing that we both believe in is finding the truth in a scene. We had a table read where he came in from Australia and we exchanged emails and phone numbers and said, “Hey, if you want to chat about something, I’m around.” But, we never felt that we needed that. I also like to exist, as much as I can, in the truth of the character. He and I were estranged from each other, so there wasn’t a need for us to hang out and be buddies. It was about me winning his trust again. Just by hanging out with him on the set, seeing that he was a new dad and seeing his beautiful young family, and hanging out in our downtime was enough.
You’ve been doing some writing. Do you get as much satisfaction from that, as you do the acting world, or is it different for you?
SPENCER: It’s weird because I was an English major at Auburn [University] and one thing that my mom drummed in us was, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” So, when things weren’t happening for me, as an actor, that’s when I spent the majority of my time writing. I don’t have any time, these days, to write. It feels really weird when I don’t. I actually haven’t been writing as much. I get a different type of gratification out of that because it’s my own work. It’s what I do for my own sanity. It’s a very different feeling.
Does that give you a deeper appreciation for the writers of the material that you act in?
SPENCER: I appreciate all writers. There are people who ad-lib and do improv beautifully. I’m not one of them. I want it on the page. I want to have time with it, so that I can figure it out and own it. I appreciate writers. I think a good performance begins with the word on the written page. So, I definitely appreciate writers.
You also recently did The Shape of Water with Guillermo del Toro. What made you want to be a part of telling that story, and what was it like to work with him?
SPENCER: I’ve had two interesting meetings in my career, in the sense that they were supposed to be 30 minutes and they turned into three hours. The first one was with Gil Netter, for this movie, and the second one was with Guillermo del Toro. I have been a Guillermo fan since Mimic. He just owns the horror genre, and really innovated it. To see him sort of go back to his roots with The Shape of Water, there are elements in the film that go back to that genre. He’s been doing different things, in and out of it, and I’ve seen everything he’s done. He is the ultimate father figure. He’s just pure love. He’s fun, and he cusses better than anyone I know. He is all about promoting healing. Our rehearsal time was more like being on a couch with a shrink. He’s somebody that I will always love. They were really tight about the film. Everything is under wraps with the script, so until we start promoting that, I don’t feel comfortable talking about the film until I know what they want us to say. But, I’m excited. It’s very unique.
Do you have a dream project that you’d like to do?
SPENCER: I love looking for material. I call my agents, just about every other week, when I read something, to find out if the rights have been taken. I like doing puzzles, and to me, the job of a producer is a person who’s puzzle-solving. You’re bringing pieces together that should be congruent. I’m enjoying seeking those projects out. I just produced a film, called Small Town Crime, that’s going to SXSW. I play John Hawkes’ sister, and it’s starring John Hawkes, Anthony Anderson and Robert Forster. I am producing Raven, which is about the Jonestown Massacre, with Vince Gilligan, and Michelle MacLaren is directing it. And I am producing and starring in the Madam C.J. Walker story. There are also a few more things that I’ve optioned and that I’m writing, with a co-writer. What I’m really having fun doing is finding material, finding new ways to tell stories, and finding people who haven’t gotten their shot.
The Shack opens in theaters on March 3rd.