Several of Octavia Spencer’s most prominent movie roles embody a unique blend of wit, wisdom, drive and compassion, and much of her work has a Georgia connection.
She won a best supporting actress Academy Award for her role as Minny Jackson, a domestic worker who combats institutional racism with devastating brilliance in “The Help,” based on the novel by Atlanta author Kathryn Stockett. She was nominated in the same category for her role as Dorothy Vaughan in “Hidden Figures,” which was filmed here. (Viola Davis, Spencer’s “Help” co-star, won for the Oscar for her role in “Fences.”)
Spencer’s next role is a characteristically compelling one. She appears as shrewd, funny and nurturing Roberta in “Gifted,” which filmed on the Georgia coast. The film about a boat engine repairman named Frank, played by Chris Evans, raising his extraordinarily skilled young niece Mary, played by Mckenna Grace, is due out in wide release Wednesday after hitting some theaters early.
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“When I read the script it was a small role but a big movie in my eyes, an important movie about unconventional families,” Spencer said. “I loved my character’s role in (Mary’s) life. I have so many friends with unconventional families.”
Her role is in no way small, as her character delivers some key lines and appears in some of the most memorable scenes. She and Grace, a 10-year-old acting phenom whose work includes roles in “Designated Survivor,” have touching chemistry.
“We had a lot of fun doing this movie,” she said. “I fell in love with Mckenna.”
Spencer also loved spending time in Savannah and Tybee Island, where the movie filmed.
“I had a lot of downtime. It was great,” she said. “I got to see a lot. It’s a great, walkable city.”
Her favorite haunts in Atlanta, where she also filmed her role as nurse Dena Jackson in “Red Band Society,” a teen medical drama that aired one season on Fox, include The Optimist.
“I think I ate there every other week,” she said. “Atlanta can be the death of you because it has the best restaurants.”
“Gifted” is set in central Florida, where Frank has been raising Mary following the death of his sister, Mary’s mom. Because Mary is light years ahead of her peers in math, Roberta warns Frank not to enroll her in the local elementary school, worried that her skills will attract unwanted attention. Sure enough, before long Mary’s estranged grandmother rolls into town with her lawyer, seeking custody so she can place the young prodigy in an academic environment befitting her gifts.
Fans who have admired Evans as Captain America in Atlanta-filmed “Captain America: Civil War,” a role he’ll play in two upcoming “Avengers” movies that start filming here later this spring, will appreciate a new meaning of the word “superhero” after seeing him as Frank in “Gifted.”
Spencer drew on her own experiences in bringing Frank’s friend and confidant Roberta to life.
“I can relate to having empathy and compassion for people. I can also relate to the legal side of things,” Spencer said. “I don’t know that I’m the person who has that type of wisdom. I’m just a purveyor of life. That’s where wisdom comes from.”