Octavia Spencer: ‘I’m a Carefree Black Woman but It’s a Role I Never Get to Play’

The New York Times

The New York Times

What do you think of when you think of Octavia Spencer?

Throughout her career she has played on many black woman tropes; the motherly figure (Coach Carter, Fruitvale Station), the wisecracking black woman (The Help), the stoic civil rights hero (Hidden Figures), the pathetically sexually desperate black woman (Ugly Betty). But in a recent New York Times profile Spencer revealed that none of those are representative in any way of who she really is — a carefree black woman.

Spencer is 46 years old, unmarried and her career is white hot. She is one of the few to escape the ‘Oscar curse’ (she received the Academy Award for Best Support Actress in 2012) and continue to land stimulating, meaty parts. Her newest project is getting Oscar buzz and she has begun producing projects. By all indications she is a magical black woman, breaking glass ceiling in entertainment and living an exciting and, yes, carefree life.

But on screen ‘carefree black woman’ is not a role she’s allowed to play.

“Many of the best African-American actors repeatedly find themselves in worthy but grave narratives built around slavery and civil rights — prestige parts, yes, but shouldn’t the possibilities be wider? “I’ve yet to play anyone who remotely resembles me,” Ms. Spencer said. “I’m carefree. I don’t have kids. I’m more of a romantic comedy, dating the wrong people and trying to find love.”

The typecasting began early in her career, Spencer says, when she was described as having a “nurse face.”

“On a film set in Canton, Miss., two decades ago, Octavia Spencer got a big break, and a foreshadowing that others might be harder to catch. She was in her mid-20s, working as a production assistant on the Matthew McConaughey-Sandra Bullock thriller “A Time to Kill.” She asked the director Joel Schumacher if she could read for a small part: perhaps the woman who starts a riot?

“He said: ‘No, honey, your face is too sweet. You can be Sandy’s nurse,’” she recalled, laughing. She was sitting, regally postured, in a private glassed-in room at a hotel restaurant. That face was youthful at 46 and frequently lit by a signature ear-to-ear grin. “It was so funny because I didn’t know that there was such a thing as typecasting. It’s like, ‘You’re just a nurse face.’ What is a nurse face?” According to IMDB.com, Ms. Spencer has played a nurse 16 times.”

Shows like Issa Rae’s Insecure are breaking ground by featuring non-dysfunctional black women in pursuit of love. (Rae and her co-star Yvonne Orji are both dark-skinned women of Senegalese and Nigerian descent, respectively.) Viola Davis has spoken at length about how significant it is that she, a dark-skinned black woman, is playing a sexually desirable, but not fetishized, woman in a hit TV series.

We would SO give our money to see Spencer kill it in a romantic comedy. She is adorable, has the comedic chops for it, and we truly hope that Hollywood is not too far off from making something like this happen. Because she, too, is the image of a carefree black woman.