Stay Tuned: Octavia Spencer talks about ‘life-altering’ ‘Red Band Society’
By Melissa Crawley
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A show about sick kids living in a hospital doesn’t scream “must-watch TV!” except when the name Octavia Spencer is added to the mix. “Red Band Society,” featuring Academy Award winner Spencer as a pediatric nurse, is a different take on the medical dramedy formula — think coming-of-age story with illness as a backdrop.
I recently asked Octavia Spencer a few questions about being part of a show she calls “life-altering,” playing a nurse who is one part mom and one part “scary bitch” and working with a group of young actors.
Q. The members of the “red band society” are kids and teens with serious illnesses — not exactly an uplifting topic. What about the story made you want to be part of it?
A. I read a few pilots and I just – Steven Spielberg is my favorite director — so, when his name is on anything, of course I’m going to take it seriously. It’s a special project and it actually was the best pilot script that I had read. I had been offered so much and I just read that one and I just felt a connection to the work.
It was a huge, huge undertaking to make that kind of decision. But it’s one that you have to take seriously. The material had to be good and the people that I would be working with had to be people that I wanted to be working with so it was not any one thing. It was quite a few mitigating circumstances that made me want to be a part of this project.
Q. Your character, Nurse Jackson is introduced yelling at an inconsiderate driver and holding a coffee cup that says “scary bitch” on it, setting the audience up for a very specific first impression. How would you describe her?
A. Well, I think that it’s so interesting because there are so many series regulars on the show, largely the teens who are in the hospital. Then, Dave Annable and I are kind of like the mom and pop of the situation with Griffin Dunne being the great uncle. I think our stories unfold. I don’t know how much I can tell you except that just like in your regular life you’re not one way all the time. That would just be so dull.
I think that Nurse Jackson being a woman who is taking care of people who have, some of them, very serious illnesses, there’s just no time for tomfoolery. There’s a lot that you have to do and she maintains that type of bravado, especially with the patients because you can’t give an inch sometimes, because people will probably likely try to take a mile.
She’s also a bit of a mystery in the pilot. What will we learn about her as the season progresses?
I think what you’ll learn is why she chose this line of work. You will determine whether or not she has a heart of gold or if she has a cold, cold heart, I guess.
Q. You’ve played a lot of nurses. (IMDB has it listed as 16 times). What is it about the character of a nurse that interests you? How is Nurse Jackson different than others that you’ve played?
A. What appealed to me about the project was the fact that it’s a very fresh perspective on a show set in hospital, and it’s a very fresh perspective on a show that’s centered around teens. The fact that she was a nurse might have been a drawback because I’ve played a nurse so many times.
It was basically just finding a project that resonated with me and a group of people that I wanted to work with and see every day because you also want to like the people that you work with.
It was a win-win situation for me because I have a wonderful relationship with everyone over at DreamWorks, the fact that Steven Spielberg and Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank are producing this, and Fox I think is really one of the most forward thinking networks out there, to be a part of that family and ABC.
Q. What is it like working with a group of young actors?
A. This is an amazing group of professionals. They’re really brilliant, very hard working, very, very intuitive young actors. You know, a lot of them have worked a lot, maybe not a lot in television, not a lot in film but, they do have great work ethics. What I learn from them is to continue to enjoy the process and have that free spirit about approaching the work and to not be so rigid.
I think if they learn anything from me it’s professionalism. But, again, they’re all quite professional. They show up ready to work. I feel very blessed because even though I’m the oldest person on this show, older than Dave Annable, and all the kids combined, I feel lucky because it’s a very familial atmosphere. We are a very good unit. I feel lucky that I get to work with these guys every day.
Q. I see the show as a coming-of-age story with medicine as a backdrop, but there is a scene in the pilot that addresses the harsh realities (and politics) of being placed on a donor list. Do you see the show as a platform to launch these types of conversations?
A. I think coming into it I thought I knew a lot about hospitals because, again, I’ve played a nurse a good many times, but I never played a pediatric nurse and didn’t realize that the hospitals are so different, and thankfully they are. The services they provide are more than just even the sick. I think it’s about giving kids a well-rounded atmosphere so that they can continue to be kids. As we’ve been doing promotion for the show, we’ve been able to go to several hospitals all over the country. So it’s a very unique environment. It’s been life altering actually.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a PhD in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.