Octavia Spencer: The help behind 'Fruitvale Station'

05:00 AM, Jul 10, 2013

Octavia Spencer as Wanda, mother of Oscar Grant the 22-year-old shot to death by San Francisco-area transit police in 2009, in 'Fruitvale Station,' the film based on the true event. Ron Koeberer, The Weinstein Company/


Written By by Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES — First-time filmmaker Ryan Coogler had to overcome many seemingly insurmountable obstacles to complete Fruitvale Station.

But none seemed as impossible for the 27-year-old as bringing Octavia Spencer onboard just after the actress won the supporting actress Oscar as the sassy Minny Jackson in The Help at the 2012 Academy Awards.

I thought it was kind of crazy to even ask,” says Coogler. “But my agent said she’s a nice lady and she might like the script. I didn’t think in a million years she was going to say yes.”

Spencer stunned him by agreeing to work on the gritty reality-based drama (opening wide on Friday), and he realized that his victory made him even more stressed out. Coogler feared the veteran actress with the new gold statue wouldn’t follow his direction, or would treat the project like a charity.

I had these fears,” says Coogler. “But they melted away the moment I met her. She was 110% in from that moment. She was like a battery that got hooked up to the film, and she took it into hyper-drive.”

Fruitvale Station shot into another orbit thanks to the work of Michael B. Jordan (HBO’s The Wire), who plays Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old shot to death by San Francisco-area transit police in 2009; Spencer, who plays his mother Wanda; and Forest Whitaker, who serves as producer. After winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it made a triumphant international debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May.

The drama’s U.S. release coincidentally occurs in the midst of George Zimmerman’s high-profile trial for the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. While there are key differences in both incidents, the shootings feature “parallels” says Coogler, including young, unarmed African-American victims.

I felt this was an important story to tell,” says Spencer. “We just rolled up our sleeves and did what was necessary.”

Spencer, 43, says she had her doubts about getting involved with the project: She has no children but plays a mother who loses her son. Further, she was concerned about stepping into a racially charged issue. Spencer was angry when she heard about Grant’s death on New Year’s morning in 2009, especially when she thought about her young nephews of color potentially being in the same situation. But she didn’t want to just add anger or “fuel to the fire.”

She changed her mind after reading Coogler’s script, which focused on telling the story of Grant’s final 24 hours, a portrait that showed redeeming qualities and warts of the devoted family man who dealt pot and had spent time in prison.

Ryan wasn’t showing Oscar saving babies. He showed Oscar as good and bad. He’s flawed. It’s a balanced portrayal. That’s what I wanted to be behind,” says Spencer.

She was so drawn to the project that she told Coogler she would pay her own lodging costs during filming.

She has the most intense team mentality,” says Coogler. “She said ‘put that money on the screen. I’ll put myself up.’ ”

When the film lost key funding for its shoestring budget of less than $1 million, Spencer took on an executive-producer role and started raising money.

I shamelessly started calling my friends I knew had deep pockets, friends in which twenty-five grand wouldn’t hurt. And I kicked in some of my own money,” says Spencer. “I didn’t want any of Ryan’s vision to be sacrificed.”

Spencer also tapped her Hollywood pals to appear in the movie, including Ahna O’Reilly, and Kevin Durand and One Tree Hill’s Chad Michael Murray, who were chosen to play the cops most directly involved in the shooting. The 6-foot-5 Durand had to be brought in “on my insistence,” says the relentless Spencer. He didn’t want to be known as the guy responsible for Grant’s death, even on film.

I told him that was why we needed him. We needed someone to bring the humanity to that officer,” she says.

Coogler says Spencer was a “director’s dream,” never complaining during the marathon shoots, which were extended at each location to save money. He recalls putting the actress “through the wringer” in one emotional all-night shoot in which her character finds out about her son’s death.

Rather than take the next day off as scheduled, Spencer was back the next night. Coogler was huddling with Jordan in the company’s tiny trailer when he heard laughter in the parking lot.

I left to see what was going on and Octavia had all of my friends, who are extras in the film, in the parking lot making them all die laughing,” says Coogler. “She was just there supporting. She didn’t need to be. That’s what kind of person she is.”

Jordan says Spencer was undaunted during a scene shot in San Quentin State Prison, where actual prisoners were used as extras. In fact, she reveled in it.

When (Coogler) would say ‘cut,’ they were hollering and hooting at Octavia and rushing over to try to talk to her. She was loving all the attention from the inmates,” says Jordan. “I told her I was jealous because she was my mama and she was supposed to only show me love. They were crazy over her.”

But Jordan admits he was most blown away with the outgoing Spencer’s ability to portray the quieter Wanda’s maternal character without overplaying it.

It would have been easy for her to go over the top in certain points — after all, Wanda loses her son,” says Jordan. “But (Spencer) kept it together. There’s a strong silence about her in this role that’s wonderful.”

Despite Fruitvale’s critical acclaim on the festival circuit, Spencer says it’s too early to even think about its potential for winning awards.

Man, if I had a crystal ball….,” she says. “I don’t know if this will take us down that road again. But I can tell you this, I’m really proud of this film.”