Octavia Spencer discusses diversity within entertainment industry



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Octavia Spencer and IU senior and moderator Alexis Burr talk about how Spencer became an actress during the Union Board's "A Conversation with Octavia Spencer." The two-hour conversation started with Yasmine Raouf, director of lectures, who gave an opening statement, and then Spencer answered questions submitted by the audience. Rose Bythrow Buy Photos

Educate, entertain, enlighten, escape.

These are the qualities that award-winning actress Octavia Spencer defined as her template when picking a role within the 
entertainment industry.

Spencer spoke Sunday in the IU Auditorium as part of Union Board’s lecture series.

As the auditorium filled, many audience members skipped and jumped as they were escorted to their seats.

Her lecture, “Real Honest: An Afternoon with Octavia Spencer,” discussed typecasting in Hollywood.

“I don’t want to constantly be reminded of my race and gender at every turn,” Spencer said.

Attempting to take race out of the mix, Spencer said she thinks if people would allow others to stop labeling them they would find a new peace of mind.

“If the character doesn’t have something about them, if they are too bland on the page, then I’m not going to play it,” Spencer said.

During the lecture Spencer shared some of her own experiences with issues of diversity and gender discrimination while in the acting field. Spencer played the role of a nurse 16 times from 1996 to 2013 and won her 2012 Academy Award for portraying Minny Jackson, a house maid, in the film “The Help.”

“I choose projects rather than roles,” Spencer said.

She said playing roles that tell her she’s black are unnecessary because she already knows her identity. Also, she said she hopes to inspire feeling comfortable in one’s skin rather than just be an inspiration.

“If I don’t treat people the way I want to be treated then I don’t sleep well,” Spencer said. “And I need as much sleep as I can get because I have insomnia.”

Spencer said her favorite part of her job is that it doesn’t feel like one.

“When it starts feeling like a job then I’ll have to stop,” Spencer said.

The event was structured as a question-and-answer, led by the assistant director of lectures, Alexis Burr. Audience members had the opportunity to tweet questions using #realhonest so their particular voices were being heard as well.

The identities that made her up as a woman, African-American, orphan and Oscar winner, among others, were all addressed within the questions asked.

“Even at the university level when you are just starting there can be typecasting in all levels of the arts,” said Jake McCutcheon, an audience member and sophomore at IU.

McCutcheon and friends Michelle Zink and Danielle McKnight arrived at the theater an hour and a half prior to its opening for the lecture to ensure their spots in the front row. They brought a picnic blanket and ate their lunch in line as they waited for the talk to start.

Every answer to the questions ended in either laughter or applause, including from Burr. As the discussion continued, Spencer discussed how every role she has played had taught her something different about both herself and the world around her.

Playing the role of Jackson in “The Help” allowed her to have an altered view of life. She said she was always taught to look at life as if it were a glass half empty or half full.

“For Minny, it wasn’t looking at if the glass was half empty or half full,” Spencer said. “If you are a woman that doesn’t have agency, it’s whether if you have a glass.”

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