Born and raised in Alabama, Octavia Spencer landed her first acting role while working behind the scenes of 1996’s A Time to Kill. She then moved to Los Angeles where she landed small parts in films and on television. Spencer appeared on the short-lived television series, City of Angels and The Chronicle. In 2011, her career reached new heights with the hit dramatic film The Help.
Growing up as the second youngest of seven children, Octavia Spencer didn’t think that she would become an actress. While interested in performing, she was encouraged by her mother to do something more practical. At Auburn University, Spencer studied English and Theater Arts. She graduated in 1994 and soon started working behind the camera, assisting in casting movies filmed in her native Alabama.
In 1995, Spencer landed her first on-screen role in A Time to Kill, a film adaptation of the popular John Grisham novel. She had signed on to help with casting the movie, but the director Joel Schumacher asked her to audition. Released the following year, A Time to Kill starred Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey and Samuel L. Jackson. Spencer made quite an impression on Bullock, who later hired Spencer to work in her 1998 short film, Making Sandwiches.
While making A Time to Kill, Spencer also met Tate Taylor, who worked on the film’s crew. The two began good friends. Around this time, Spencer decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. With no professional training, Spencer landed a part in the 1997 comedy The Sixth Man. She was disappointed, however, when much of her performance ended up on the cutting room floor. Undeterred, Spencer took acting classes to improve herself. Her hard work paid off with small film roles and television guest spots on such shows as ER and The X-Files. In 2000, Spencer appeared in her first television series, City of Angels, with Blair Underwood, Vivica A. Fox and Viola Davis. The medical drama only lasted for a season. Next Spencer tried science fiction with another short-lived series The Chronicle.
In 2003, Spencer appeared in Taylor’s well-received short comedic film Chicken Party with Allison Janney and Melissa McCarthy. She also earned raves for her stage debut in the Los Angeles production of Del Shore’s The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife that same year. More small roles on film soon followed, including her memorable turn in Bad Santa with Billy Bob Thornton. Spencer gave another scene-stealing performance in the comedy series Ugly Betty, playing an I.N.S. agent.
Spencer became known as a strong supporting actress, adept at both drama and comedy. Entertainment Weekly named her one of The 25 Funniest Actresses in Hollywood in 2009, calling her “sassy, smart and wise beyond her years.” But it took a personal connection to take her career to the next level.
Through her friend Tate Taylor, Spencer met author Kathryn Stockett.
Released in the summer 2011, The Help proved to be a commercial and critical hit. Spencer herself received largely warm reviews and netted several accolades, including a Golden Globe Award in 2012. In her acceptance speech, Spencer quoted the late Martin Luther King, Jr.: “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.”
She also took home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress that February for her work on The Help. Nearly overcome by emotion, Spenser thanked, “my family in Alabama—the state of Alabama. My L.A. family . . . My Help family,” in her acceptance speech. She later said that she, “can be some sort of beacon of hope, particularly because I’m not the typical Hollywood beauty.”
Spencer hopes that her newfound fame will lead to greater opportunities in front and behind the camera. “I want to do more ensemble movies like I’m doing now . . . I want to work with the best of the best,” Spencer told Back Stage. “I’m trying to write now and get things I want to produce now that I’m meeting all of these great producers and people with deep pockets.”