Octavia Spencer On Hidden Figures

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Hidden Figures stars Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe as three African-American mathematicians at NASA in the early 1960s. We sat down with Spencer to ask her about her machine-building skills, tough early years in Hollywood and her love of martial-arts...

Did you know the story of Hidden Figures before you read the script?

I knew the story of the space race, but there was never a mention of Katherine Johnson or Mary Jackson or Dorothy Vaughan. I actually thought the film’s plot was fictitious. I said to [producer] Donna Gigliotti, “Aren’t people going to know that this isn’t true?” The fact it’s real makes it that much more compelling. I knew instantly that I wanted to be a part of it.

Your character, Dorothy, is a mechanical genius. Apparently you put yourself to work during the shoot, trying to build various things…

I did. And to answer your next question, none of them worked! I do try to understand what my characters do, because as actors our job is to find out what makes them tick. I wasn’t going to figure out quantum physics and all that, because my brain doesn’t work that way. But they had me work with transportation to understand the mechanisms of what goes on under the hood of a car. And then I talked with an IBM guy about different computers from back in the day. We were filming in Atlanta, and it was so hot down there that I asked production to get me a fan. I was getting ready for bed and thought I’d just have to plug it in. But when it arrived, it was in a box in lots of little parts. The only tool I had in my condo was a butter knife, but I put it together. And I kid you not, it was fine. I was so proud of myself when it looked like a real fan. But three days later I was woken up by the sound of it tipping over and smashing. I’m going to stick to Lego from now on.

Hidden Figures

Speaking of cars, director Theodore Melfi told me to ask you about your driving scenes.

Oh Lord. There were a couple of moments in this show where I had to actually drive Taraji and Janelle. And I was terrified, because that car was like a tank. There was no power steering and I was basically standing up. It was terrifying. In The Help I only had one driving scene, and they were pulling me along on a trailer. That’s what I prefer. Because, and I’m gonna be really honest with you, I’m not the world’s best driver.

Can you jump-start one now, though?

No way. Those scenes where I had to be fixing the car on screen, there were sparks flying out. Ted would say, “Octavia, Dorothy does this once or twice a week. She’s not afraid of the sparks.” I’d go, “Okay.” But then I’d be thinking, “I’m gonna catch fire. I’m wearing polyester, and if a spark hits this, I’m going up in flames.” But I had to be steely-eyed and not flinch. That’s the difference between me and Dorothy — she could do that and not bat an eye.

This is your second time working with Kirsten Dunst — you were Check-In Girl in Spider-Man. You spent quite a few years playing characters with no names…

I did. I did a lot of that. That was the first ten years of my being in this industry. Troubled Woman, Check-In Girl, Nurse, Nurse, Nurse, Nurse, Head Nurse, Nurse… (Laughs)

That’s a lot of nurses.

Absolutely. But if you stay in any industry long enough and become an expert at what you do, hopefully there’s an ascent to better and bigger things. So I’m grateful for everything. In my early days I worked as a market-research person, but it was always to facilitate the acting. If I’d had to work in McDonald’s to pay my bills and still do what I love to do, I would have done it gladly.

Besides acting, you’re also a writer. Your book series has a pretty excellent name — Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective.

That’s me living out my childhood fantasy. I’m a huge martial-arts enthusiast. But I’m afraid of being hit. So I learned Taekwondo but blended it with Ninjutsu to make it a little easier. And I’ve always loved mysteries. My second-grade teacher would get frustrated because I would pick up a book and keep putting it down. I’m ADD. But then he introduced me to Encyclopedia Brown books and other ones where you had to pay attention, or you’d miss a clue. So that’s why I wanted to write an interactive series for kids.

Hidden Figures is in cinemas from Friday 17 February.