Octavia Spencer thought Hidden Figures was a "fiction film"
Despite viewing lots of space programme footage, Octavia Spencer came across no mention of women
The Oscar-nominated biographical drama Hidden Figures tells the true story of an elite team of black female scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa).
They helped the US win the space race against the Soviet Union in the 60s, crossing gender, race and professional lines to make their mark in history.
But when cast member Octavia Spencer met the producers, she thought they were offering her a role in a fiction film.
"I've seen so much archival footage of the space age and the space programme," the 44-year-old American actress told The New Paper at our interview at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Toronto.
"You look at all the pictures and there is no mention of women in any of those interviews, in any of that footage, and so I thought it was fiction."
Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the space race, the Jim Crow South and the birth of the Civil Rights movement, the movie centres on the "hidden figures" of the title - Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae).
The trio did advanced calculations that could precisely plot out rocket trajectories and re-entry paths for human space flight.
Yet, they remained segregated at work - eating separately and using separate bathrooms - until that practice was ended.
Opening here tomorrow, Hidden Figures is up for three awards - Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Spencer - at the Academy Awards, which airs live on Feb 27 on HBO (StarHub Ch 601) at 9.30am.
“I feel lucky that my mum taught me that I can do or be anything that I dream.”Octavia Spencer
How did you prepare for the film?
I was freaking out because I searched the Internet, and there was only one line, Dorothy Vaughan, and a picture.
I can tell you I spent hours looking, scouring for any information that I could find on her, and then you would always get redirected to the Nasa archives.
So Margot Lee Shetterly's book (on which the film is based) was invaluable because it gave me everything that I needed to know about who Dorothy was. Our director had the book, which hadn't been published.
Did you meet anyone at Nasa?
I met people once we started working. I didn't want to mimic, I didn't want my idea of who she is to conflict with who she was, and so it was kind of a slippery slope.
You know, I'm being Martin Luther King and I must do his voice. I didn't want to do that.
How did you get on with your female co-stars?
When you're dealing with something this emotionally heavy, you have to laugh.
Taraji is one of the funniest people on the planet, and the three of us gelled instantly. So yes, the make-up trailer was the place to be every morning because we were raucous.
What did you learn from the film?
I am extremely grateful to have been born in this time because there were so many women like Dorothy who paved the way for me. I feel lucky that my mum taught me that I can do or be anything that I dream.
If I never had that upbringing, I wouldn't have known if I could face the type of rejection in this industry.
Were you interested in maths and science as a child?
I love science and I appreciate maths.
I understand maths, but when you start getting into all of those equations and things that don't mean anything to anybody but the people who have to use them, it got a little murky for me.
What I love about science is that it is this great exploration about other worlds and you learn about that through science, so yeah, they go hand in hand, and I definitely sat in the front row in science class. Not so much maths.
Have you ever felt underappreciated for your skills?
Well, being a sex symbol, people totally disregard my brain (laughs). Jokes aside, I am constantly underestimated, and I don't mind it because you're the person who's losing out when you underestimate someone.