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Dev Patel and Octavia Spencer on the Power of ‘Positive Energy and Hope’ in Movies

Variety logo Variety 12/2/2016 Variety Staff

Dev Patel and Octavia Spencer sat down for a chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors.” For more, tune in when “Actors on Actors” debuts its fifth season on PBS SoCal on Jan. 3. 

Dev Patel: Every time I do an interview, everyone’s talking about, “How do you avoid being typecast?” And it makes me cringe. You’ve done such an amazing job of navigating and breathing life into so many roles. How do you do it?

Octavia Spencer: I’ve got to tell you, it isn’t easy. Because, as you know, there aren’t that many great roles that are going to come your way.

Patel: And it’s a feeding frenzy when there are, right? There’s blood in the water!

Spencer: Honey, you can’t even get to the trough! I’m a specific type. And the archetypes that they really want to see are: a woman of zaftig stature with the cute little Cheshire Cat grin as the nurturer, or there’s the “sassy” whatever. Right after I did “The Help,” it was barely in the can, and I was all excited about the possibilities that were to come. But 90% of the roles I was offered were: “We have this wonderful role as a maid!” And I’m thinking, “Here’s the thing: I just played the best damn maid role written! I don’t have a problem playing a maid again, but it has to top this one.” Not one of them did. So for me, it was about just looking in different places, exploring different directors who were great talents. Just sitting it out, waiting for those.

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Patel: I can so relate to that. Straight after “Slumdog Millionaire” — this was my first film, and I was just a kid who didn’t understand the craft. Afterward, I remember doing the red carpet, and I kept seeing Dustin Hoffman. And he would go like this to me.

[Gestures with his hand — first lower, then higher, then lower again.] He’s like, “You’re gonna go here, you’re gonna go there — it’s peaks and valleys.” Straight after that, I looked around for some substantial follow-up, and there wasn’t any. No one knew how to package this big, floppy-eared, gangly Indian dude.

When I see people like you winning Oscars, that’s breaking through the ceiling in such a big way for so many people. We were talking about the American election. I’m a British dude, so I don’t have much to say. But as a global citizen, I was traveling to Napa Valley to do this film festival for “Lion,” and I called up my publicist and I was like, “What are we doing? This doesn’t matter. I can feel a sense of depression in the air — why are we going there trying to promote this film?”

And I went there and looked at the audience: When everyone is sitting in this dark room looking at this screen, there’s no color or race or gender. They were all unanimously moved by this piece of humanity. And I realized, that’s why art’s important. That’s why films like “Hidden Figures” and “Lion” are really important. Because they’re anthems of diversity, they’re anthems of love, and anthems of perseverance.

Spencer: Absolutely. Honey, you hit it on the head for me. I just wrapped a movie in Toronto, and was barely in town for two days before the election. We were on night shoots, so my sleep is all turned around, and everything is just off. And I felt that: After the results came in, half of our country is fine, and the other half is not, and I’m a part of the not.

I kept thinking, “What are we doing?” And last night it dawned on me when I was thinking about the story of Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, the character that I play in “Hidden Figures”: They had it tougher than we do. They had no agency whatsoever, but they persevered. There was de facto segregation, sexism, racism, and in spite of all that, they took us to space and back.

And there were no pats on the back, no million-dollar paychecks, or all the different things that come with accolades these days for people. And I thought, “Those women could withstand all of that and be unsung heroes.” I saw my castmates from “The Help” last night — Viola Davis and Emma Stone — and it just lifted my spirits. I realized that we have to put this type of positive energy and hope in these stories out into the world. Playing a real person, it’s a responsibility now more than ever. The impact of it felt really at my core this week.

Patel: So, unfortunately, Dorothy Vaughan passed away? There was no one there to really talk to?

Spencer: But the wonderful thing was, Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote the book “Hidden Figures,” had done all of this extensive research. Her book is basically a comprehensive document. And when I saw who my character was on paper, I realized what I needed to do. Did you meet your character, Saroo?

Patel: I did get to meet Saroo, which was pretty amazing. He’s such an incredible guy — he’s the epitome of a fiercely driven young man, fierce like the characters you play. I think there’s a kind of parallel to both these films: There’s this ferocious drive, this resilience. And that’s him.

Click here to watch the full interview.

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