TORONTO—It was clear that Octavia Spencer is a fearless performer when she belted out a pop hit during her 20-minute roundtable interview for Smashed, the new indie feature about a teacher crossing the line between partying and alcoholism.
Due to a quirk of scheduling, there were only three reporters at the table at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, so the wacky radio guy from the wacky radio station asked Spencer what she sings in the shower. Instead of just answering, she belted out the chorus for “Titanium” in a voice that’s unlikely to land her roles in any musicals. But Spencer had big fun singing her shower song, and she seems to be having fun with her life and career since winning the supporting-actress Oscar in February for her performance in The Help.
Smashed (which opens October 26 in Vancouver) is already picking up buzz as an Oscar contender. This time, though, it’s not Spencer who is in the golden boy’s crosshairs but the film’s star, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), playing the kind of character that is always awards bait: an alcoholic hitting rock bottom, then attempting to climb out of the bottle toward redemption.
The movie, directed and cowritten by James Ponsoldt (whose only previous feature, Off the Black, also explored issues around alcoholism), won a special jury prize for independent-film producing at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad ) also stars as Winstead’s drinking-partner, music-critic husband/enabler; Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) is the principal who gets played by the hard-drinking teacher. Spencer is her AA sponsor—a key role but not a flashy one, and she is delighted to fuel buzz for the rest of Team Smashed.
“I’m thrilled I got to work with James Ponsoldt, who is going to make his mark on this industry,” Spencer said. “And Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives a brilliant performance. This whole cast: have you ever seen Megan Mullally in the type of role that she’s playing in this film? You love her, you feel bad for her, you root for her in a way you didn’t in Will & Grace.…I would love to see Aaron Paul and Mary and Nick [Offerman] and Megan up for awards.”
Spencer said that for everyone involved, Smashed was a labour of love. “To say we did it on a shoestring budget would be putting it mildly. We did it on a dental-floss budget.”
Asked about winning her Oscar, Spencer said the experience is still “a blur…The thing is, you have a one-in-five chance of winning. There are four other performances that are brilliant in every regard; otherwise, they wouldn’t be in the same category. Hey, I am grateful, but it was always a shock because I’m thinking, ‘You picked me! You like me! Thank you!’ That sort of thing.” Then she joked that to make sure the statuette is always close, she carries it in her bra.
Spencer is still getting used to the shifts in her life since winning. “Recently, people have been bringing me roles versus parts, and that’s a big difference.”
Acting was always her dream, Spencer said, but her mother always wanted to make sure she kept things real. “I was always a closet lover of acting. My mom was very practical. She never, ever, restricted our dreams, always told us we could do or be anything. Then I said, ‘Maybe I want to be an actor.’ And she said, ‘Maybe not that.’ Because she wanted us to earn a living and be able to pay our own way and depend on no one else but ourselves.”
Asked to recall her influences, Spencer said: “There’s so many. I’m one of those people if you ask, ‘What’s your favourite song?’ I’m going to give you five. I don’t have just one favourite. But, of course, Steven Spielberg movies always moved me. Watching sitcoms growing up moved me. I mean, Jessica Tandy movies move me. I probably wanted to be Pam Grier growing up.”
But Spencer is less intrigued by the idea of Smashed connecting with awards voters than audiences. “The subject matter is so relevant. People have been having issues with substance abuse since the dawn of time, I imagine, since they started fermenting fruit and vegetables, for God’s sake. It was definitely an enlightening part to play, I’ll say that. I don’t think you can throw a stone and not come in contact with someone who knows someone or who has problems with substance abuse,” Spencer said. “I’m just thrilled I got to be a part of this movie that is socially relevant. I feel like a lot of young people will migrate to this movie.”
Spencer said that because her personal vice is snacks, she tried a 12-step approach to dieting to get a sense of what AA life would be like. “It may sound funny, but it’s true; I tried to put myself through the 12-step program. I didn’t want to attend a real meeting; my role didn’t really require that, and I feel those meetings are sort of sacred, and they’re anonymous for a reason. I tried to deal with some of my love of snacks—and I relapsed a lot. I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, this is tough.’ ”
But Smith can handle tough—she’s not just an Oscar golden girl, she is titanium.