Interview: Octavia Spencer Talks ‘The Shack’
Octavia Spencer takes Morgan Freeman’s place as God in the adaptation of Paul Young’s bestselling book, The Shack.
After the abduction and murder of Mackenzie’s (Sam Worthington) youngest daughter, he receives a letter that he suspects may be from God asking him to return to The Shack where his daughter was murdered. Mack decides to take the journey and what he encounters along the way will change his life forever. The Shack, while carrying strong Christian undertones, is a remarkable story about overcoming great sadness and the ultimate power of forgiveness.
At a recent press day, ScreenPicks spoke with Octavia Spencer and writer Paul Young about making The Shack. Here is what we learned.
Octavia, are you drawn to more spiritual roles?
Octavia Spencer: This is actually the first one. I am drawn to material. It has to resonate with me on some level.
What attracted you to this role?
Spencer: I read the book independent of any movie talk. I read the book two years ago before they were even talking about making a movie. So, I am one of the legion fans. Then when I heard that Gil and Lani Netter were making a movie about it. I went there to convince Gill why I needed to be Papa.
It’s not the role, it’s the material as a whole. I loved the message of the book. I love the fact that Paul wrote this book where a regular man has a conversation with God. And he asks God some very hard hitting questions and I like the way God answered them. I thought it was a really unique way to look at religion and how regular people can influence their environment.
When you read the book, what impacted you?
Spencer: Well, I don’t like to go too much into specifics. But after the read the book, I learned something very different. When you realize that you have to prepare to play God, when you walk away from that, you realize how hard God’s job actually is. And I don’t want that job.
While there are significant religious undertones in the film, what does it say about humans not being able to get through grief or great sadness alone?
Spencer: I hate to tell people what they are supposed to think because I have a real aversion when people tell me what to think. I like to present the material and let you draw from it what you need. I just know the one thing we all have in common is challenges. No human lives a challenge free life. And Mac is definitely someone who experiences a lot of challenges, both as a young boy and as an adult and I think we can all relate to that. So, there definitely some universal themes in it. But I also believe our challenges make us unique and how we deal with them makes us unique. And some of us can identify with depression and guilt and how grief can be a paralytic. I think even agnostics can draw from this film.
Do you believe in some of the philosophical things your character believes in this film?
Spencer: Absolutely. I wouldn’t be doing a movie if I didn’t like the message.
How does it feel to be the first African-American woman to win an Oscar and then be nominated again?
Spencer: Ya’ know, it’s wonderful. I’m excited because this will be my five-year anniversary with Oscar on February 26th. And the fact that I am being recognized for a woman who wasn’t recognized in her career. It’s humbling and I’m excited to be there for Dorothy, Mary and Catherine.
What were your thoughts on #OscarsSoWhite and do you think the Academy has learned anything from that?
Spencer: I’m not one of those people who believed in the #OscarsSoWhite campaign in that way. Because when you say diversity and then people only refer to black people, you’re only seeing two representations. There are Asians, Latinas, there are gender issues, people with disabilities. To me, that’s what diversity means. So, am I excited that there are more black nominees this year? Yes. I am happy. I am happy that more films were made that warranted the Academy’s attention. But to me, the problem didn’t being with the Oscar’s. That’s the very end of the season. To me, it’s begin with how you green light movie. And how diverse those movies are in their casting. It’s definitely more diverse this year, but I would love to see some more females represented in cinematography, directing and producing. So there is a lot of unrepresentation. But I think we need to start with the people who green light movies. Start with them. But we need to focus on inclusion based on merit.
Did you go to Morgan Freeman and ask for advice?
Spencer: No. (laughs) We play different incarnations of God. Mine was more philosophical, and his was more fun. For me, it was huge undertaking and I had to figure out a way into the character. So, basically, what I did, was boil it down to the relationship between Mac and Papa and it felt very parental. And it was basically about me being a parent trying to make him trust me again.
Paul, tell us a little bit about your history.
Young: I’m a missionary kid who grew up in the highlands of new Guinea, pretty difficult relationship with my dad. Being able to slide in and out of cultures. Then there’s the dark side. Not knowing where you belong, or if you fit anywhere. Then all this stuff that happens along the way. The becomes ‘The Shack.” The broken heart. The house on the inside that people helped you build, and you work at it. And at 50 years old you finally feel like a healthy human being and write a story for your kids at Christmas. Make fifteen copies that do everything you wanted them to do. And you go back to your three jobs, and your friends start giving it away and it becomes this phenomenon that I am thrilled to participate in.
What messages did you want to portray in the book and film?
Young: If you don’t find someone to belong to, you won’t belong anywhere when you come from a history like mine. I am trying to say that everyone deserves the embrace of the father and Jesus and the holy spirit. All of creation is created around a circle of self-giving love and we are created in the image of that. Then somewhere along the lines, we lost it. We lost the truth of our being. That we are kind, worthy, beautiful, and generous.
What was your initial inspiration for writing the book:
Young: I’ve always been a writer. And like anybody, you write stuff for your friends and family, such as poetry, songs and short stories and stuff. They love it. My wife just asked to write something for the kids that just put how I think in one place. She said that because I think outside the box. I wrote it mostly on a train commuting to three jobs, over the course of 6 months.
So, when I wrote this it was simply about the God that healed my heart and not necessarily about the religious God I grew up with.
Why did you choose a shack?
Young: Well I wrote it for my kids and I wanted to use what they would know. We used to go up to this cabin, that was more like a shack. And the more I thought about it, The Shack made perfect sense. That’s where we all keep our hurt in the inside. Everyone has a “shack.” However, God has inhabited the entire time. So, it’s just his broken-down place that we don’t want to go back to. But in healing, you have to go back to that place. It is your soul. And that is who God loves.
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