"Wait. She was in that?" is a comment you're almost certain to make if you take a look at Octavia Spencer's credits.
You may not recall her in "Being John Malkovich" or "Miss Congeniality 2" because she has had one of the most unusual career paths of anyone working in Hollywood today. Spencer studied acting at Auburn University, but she started out behind the scenes in the movie business, interning on "A Time to Kill" in 1996, where she met actor/director Tate Taylor, who would become her most frequent collaborator. She began auditioning for roles right away but mostly landed walk-ons or background gigs. They earned her credits you'll find listed on the Internet Movie Database, but often simply as "Woman," "Ticket Woman," "Cashier" or — really, really often — "Nurse."
"I played a nurse 16 times. I did it so many times that when I played a maid, they gave me an Oscar," Spencer joked when she hosted "Saturday Night Live" in 2017.
The "maid" was Minny Jackson in "The Help," the movie that finally broke her career open. Spencer had a history with the story, since "The Help" novelist Kathryn Stockett — a friend of director Taylor — had used her as the inspiration for Minny and had even suggested her to read the audiobook. Taylor then lobbied for Spencer to get the movie part, which went to her instead of a bigger name.
The role came with uncomfortable associations — for too long, maids were among the only parts offered to Black actors — but Spencer brought deep humanity to Minny, even if we don't know much about her nonwork life. Maybe it was all those years of her trying to fill in who "Nurse Berenice" or "Nurse Jackson" were, but Spencer has the ability to make even tiny moments feel real and potent with meaning. She has only a couple of scenes in "Seven Pounds," for instance, but her character — yep, "Kate, Home Health Care Nurse" — glows with compassion and humor.
Humor is a mainstay for Spencer. She hasn't made a ton of movie comedies, but she logged enough time on TV sitcoms for Entertainment Weekly to dub her one of the "25 Funniest Actresses" in 2009. That humor serves her just as well in her Oscar-nominated role in the fairly serious "The Shape of Water" as it does in her brief vocal appearance in last year's wan sci-fi comedy "Superintelligence."
Spencer has said she's eager to try lots of different things. That may be one of the advantages of playing the sort of supporting roles she usually gets: Even if she's often called on to fill out an underwritten character who needs oomph, she has the opportunity to do it in many different kinds of movies with directors who know that she can do a lot with a little.
Her latest, "Thunderforce," debuts Friday on Netflix. It's another comedy but also a superhero movie, opening up a whole new genre for Spencer, whose best films show why she's one of our finest character actors.
Directed by her pal Taylor, the horror comedy plays like it was designed to let Spencer do all the things her other roles don't. She's the lead, and she gets a rare-for-her love scene as a veterinary nurse (possibly an in-joke?) who befriends high school students looking for someone to buy them booze. The movie's ideas about race and bullying don't quite land because Taylor doesn't take enough risks, but Spencer's performance is all risk. When her title character finally reveals herself, the Alabama native shifts on a dime, sometimes within the same sentence, from comedy to madness to heartbreak to terror.
Spencer's subtle code-shifting is the key to the inspirational drama about pioneering NASA mathematicians. With her peers, she's authoritative and a little brassy. With the white guys who run NASA, she's almost shy but her knowing smile seems to suggest that she has decided the way to cope with the men who control her career is to convince herself they're amusing, not toxic.
Spencer has said that she based Minny, in part, on her own mother. She won her Oscar for lending dignity and resolve to a much-abused woman who determines that revenge is a dish best served in a pie crust.
Yes, Spencer's third Oscar nomination is for playing another maid, but again, she's no Hattie McDaniel in "Gone With the Wind." Her strong-willed Zelda is crucial to the narrative because she protects Sally Hawkins' mute protagonist and translates her thoughts to the rest of the characters.
Spencer said yes to Bong Joon-ho's bizarre apocalyptic vision — in which civilization is divided by class on a speeding train — because it was a chance to do something other than being a "walk-and-talk actor." Again, she's sort of a translator, but for the audience this time. Spencer plays the most recognizably human character on the train, an impoverished woman who is as startled as we are by the violence and cruelty swirling around her.
Spencer also coproduced this searing, fact-based drama, which launched Michael B. Jordan to movie stardom. She plays Wanda, whose unarmed son Oscar (Jordan) was shot to death by San Francisco transit officers. In keeping with the rest of the unnervingly calm film, Spencer underplays her role. That's most evident when Wanda is informed of her son's death and Spencer chooses to have her maternal instincts kick in before grief or reason, quietly insisting, "I need to see him."
Spencer isn't even in the trailer and she only has five lines in the ribald, oddly heartwarming comedy (she has a few more in 2016's "Bad Santa 2"), but she makes every word count as a hilariously ill-tempered prostitute who has no time for the title character's (Billy Bob Thornton) nonsense.
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367