When the 27-year-old creator of Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler sought to recruit Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer for a role in his first film, he just knew the odds were against him.
“I thought it was kind of crazy to even ask,” says Coogler. “But my agent said she’s a nice lady and she might like the script. I didn’t think in a million years she was going to say yes.”
However, The Help actress shocked him when she responded she was down to do the micro-budget film. Coogler was astounded, but Spencer’s involvement only increased his stress level as he wondered would the big-time actress take him and the low-budget project seriously.
Once again, Spencer surprised the young director. Not only did the award-winning actress take the project serious enough to bring her A-game acting skills, she insisted on paying her own lodging costs during filming.
“She has the most intense team mentality,” says Coogler. “She said ‘put that money on the screen. I’ll put myself up.’ ”
“I had these fears,” added Coogler. “But they melted away the moment I met her. She was 110% in from that moment. She was like a battery that got hooked up to the film, and she took it into hyper-drive.”
Spencer was so captivated by the project she was willing to go all in when the film was in danger of falling apart due to a loss of part its less than $1 million funding. The actress took on an executive-producer role and started raising money.
“I shamelessly started calling my friends I knew had deep pockets, friends in which twenty-five grand wouldn’t hurt. And I kicked in some of my own money,” says Spencer. “I didn’t want any of Ryan’s vision to be sacrificed.”
“I felt this was an important story to tell,” added Spencer. “We just rolled up our sleeves and did what was necessary.”
Spencer even tapped some of her Hollywood colleagues to appear in the movie, including Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand and One Tree Hill’s Chad Michael Murray, who were chosen to play the cops most directly involved in the shooting.
In theaters this weekend, Fruitvale Station tells the story of Oscar Grant, the 22-year-old shot to death by San Francisco-area transit police in 2009. Michael B. Jordan (The Wire, Chronicle) plays Grant and Spencer plays his mother Wanda.
Forest Whitaker executive produced the film which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January and made a triumphant international debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
Watch the video clip below to see an emotional scene showing Octavia Spencer’s character Wanda giving some tough love to her troubled son Oscar.