Q&A With Octavia Spencer

'The Help' star dishes about health, weight, her new book, and the fabulous 40s.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on August 12, 2013

Best known for her Academy Award-winning work as Minny in the 2011 film The Help, Octavia Spencer most recently starred in the 2013 feature Fruitvale Station. This month, her children's book is being published, and next February, Black and White, a Kevin Costner film in which she stars, is due in theaters. She talked with WebMD Magazine about how she stays healthy, inspired, and calm in the midst of a soaring career.

Your first book, Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit, features a 12-year-old crime solver with a Tae Kwon Do black belt. Where did you get the inspiration for the character?

I have always been a mystery buff. Randi's character and all the other kids are an amalgam of different people, but each has some element of my own personality. She's kind of like the neighborhood vigilante, capturing criminals and solving crimes. And while I really imagined myself wanting to do that as a kid, I definitely didn't have that type of outlet.

Your book features what you've called a "multicultural cast of characters." Why was it important for you to include children of different ethnic backgrounds?

I wanted to do something multicultural to promote the fact that kids don't have to look alike to befriend each other and to have a mutual admiration and love for each other.

You're an Alabama native. What's your favorite Southern food?

Collard greens or butter beans, black-eyed peas, cornbread. I can live on that stuff.

How has your diet changed since you moved to L.A.?

Before moving here I couldn't turn down anything that was fried. Fried pickles. Everything. And now I rarely have anything fried at all. I'm kind of glad because I don't need to have anything fried. It's completely different now that I realize each decade that you rack up and that you're fortunate enough to be living, it's even harder to trim down.

You've voiced frustrations about the way the media obsess over women's weight. What message do you think they should be getting out?

I do believe that we should be paying more attention to health instead of body types. I know that women who are way too thin don't get the same type of treatment compared to women who are overweight. I know that I'm heavy and I know that I'm working toward changing it, but not because of an ideal that people think I should be meeting, but because I want to be healthier.

You have several film projects in the works as well as your new book. With so much going on at once, what do you do to stay relaxed and grounded?

I meditate as much as I can in the morning. You always have to be centered in this industry. I realize that I start focusing on things that I don't have any control over. You lose sight of the things you need to be grateful for. So I don't ever want to lose sight of any of that. One thing that playing the character Minny [in The Help] taught me is she had so much less than I did and I needed to be grateful. I learned that it wasn't about your glass being half empty or half full. It was really and truly about the fact that you have a glass.

Celebrities get both positive and negative attention from the media. How do you handle the criticism?

I realize that you can't believe everything that people say about you or the perception of yourself in the media. Because if you believe the good things that people say, then you have to believe the bad things. And I know I beat myself up more than I would allow anybody else to. So I'm at peace with that. I'm at peace with being my own worst critic and not allowing anyone else that luxury.

What do you do for exercise?

For the past 3 months I've been learning Pilates. I want to try yoga. And if that doesn't work I'm going to try [indoor cycling]. But I want to at least try many things and see which one fits better. But walking is the thing that has been my saving grace.

What is your best health habit?

If I am having a hamburger or something like that I never eat the whole bun. I eat the thin layer -- the bottom bun. I don't ever add cheese. I don't have mayonnaise on it. And I try now to stay away from mayonnaise-type dressings because that's just like eating three slices of cheese. Just those little minimal things.

What is your worst health habit?

Popcorn is my Achilles' heel. I cannot go to a movie and not have popcorn. I know this about myself. But I don't ever have them put the extra butter on it. I try to do it as dry as possible. And now I do the smallest bag possible and I always tell them not to fill it up, because I know that I'm going to eat what they put in there.

You star in the upcoming film, Fruitvale Station, about the controversial shooting of 22-year-old Oscar Grant by police at a Bay Area train station. Why did you feel this film was important to make?

I loved it because it really was just a way to restore some of Oscar's humanity that was lost in all the recriminations that occurred on both sides with this issue. It's really and truly about how we interact with people that we deem different from ourselves. And learning to empathize with people we deem different from ourselves.

How do you feel about portraying a grandmother in both Fruitvale Station and the upcoming Kevin Costner movie, Black and White?

I almost didn't take Fruitvale because the thought of playing a grandmother -- it doesn't appeal to me. Because I feel like there is an experience of life that a grandparent has that you can tell that I don't have. I told the director, if I play a grandmother it's going to have to be one who is 41 or 42 -- my own age. It's all I can really bring to the role. I can't play something that I have no knowledge of.

What do you like most about being in your 40s?

There's a banner that women in their 40s wear, that they've been through all of the people-pleasing that they ever intended to do, all of the self-deprecating, self-effacing that we do to ourselves privately. But when you reach 40, what I've noticed is all of that falls away. You become fearless in what you want, in going after what you want.

What's the worst thing about being in your 40s?

I have been so career-oriented. I know advances have been made with women and having children, but there is a clock. It's the one drawback of knowing that your eggs have a shelf life. I know when I meet Mr. Right, if I'm meant to give birth to a child I will. If I'm not meant to give birth to a child then we will either adopt or we will have wonderful pets.

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Octavia Spencer, actress; author, Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit, Simon & Schuster, 2013.

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