Rosie Perez Honors the Women Who Raised Her | 2017 MAKERS Conference
Rosie Perez opens up about living with a mother with a mental illness and enduring years of physical abuse at a Catholic orphanage in an emotional speech that honors the women who saw "a light" in her during her darkest times. The actor and activist delivered her candid monologue as part of Kathy Najimy's series "Real.Life.Stories" at the 2017 MAKERS Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.
2017 MAKERS Conference Recap Video | MAKERS
#BeBold: Welcome to the 2017 MAKERS Conference
The 2017 MAKERS Conference: Dyllan McGee & Samantha Leibovitz DeChiaro
Gloria Steinem & Octavia Spencer | 2017 MAKERS Conference
All About Little League's First Girl, Maria Pepe | 2017 MAKERS Conference
Kathy Najimy Unveils Her New Series "Real.Life.Stories" | 2017 MAKERS Conference
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Rosie Perez Honors the Women Who Raised Her | 2017 MAKERS Conference
Debra Messing on Harassment in Hollywood | 2017 MAKERS Conference
Joanna Barsh on Getting to 50/50 | 2017 MAKERS Conference
Megan Smith on How Tech Drives Change | 2017 MAKERS Conference
Patrice Banks Revs Up Auto Industry For Women | 2017 MAKERS Conference
Eva Longoria on the Power of Female Storytellers | 2017 MAKERS Conference
Cecile Richards on What's Next in the Fight for Women's Rights | 2017 MAKERS Conference
Allie Kline Challenges Women to Be Bold | 2017 MAKERS Conference
Diane von Furstenberg's Top 5 Keys to Confidence | 2017 MAKERS Conference
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Leanne Pittsford on the New Power Network | 2017 MAKERS Conference
Sheryl Sandberg & Lori Goler on Facebook's Pro-Women Policies | 2017 MAKERS Conference
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The 2017 MAKERS Conference: Luvvie Ajayi, Gabby Douglas, & Ibtihaj Muhammad
The 2017 MAKERS Conference: United State of Women Panel
[MUSIC PLAYING] - Ladies and gentlemen, Gloria Steinem and Octavia Spencer.
GLORIA STEINEM: We're going to have a conversation, and we all get to have a conversation, but before, I have to say two things. One is, that I happen to be crazed about Christmas, for all kinds of terrible, traumatic childhood reasons And this year, I spent Christmas Day with a diverse group of women-- from teenage to me-- going to see you, in Hidden Figures."
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Thank you so much.
GLORIA STEINEM: And I just want to say, it was the best Christmas I ever had in my life. I'm serious. Absolutely, the best.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Well, thank you.
GLORIA STEINEM: And also, because of Makers, I think our dearest, deepest hope is, we won't have to wait half a century to know about women, like the ones portrayed.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Oh, wow. Thank you. Thank you so much.
GLORIA STEINEM: But I don't know about you, but I, sitting in East Toledo, never expected to be sitting here like this.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Neither did I, but I'll I'll take it.
GLORIA STEINEM: You knew you wanted to be in the movies.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: I did.
GLORIA STEINEM: But not as an actress. Can you give us a little hint of your journey?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Well, I've been a closeted actress, and I'll tell you why. My mom was a very practical woman. She told us, we could be or do anything we dared to dream. And so I was a little nervous about saying, I wanted to be an actor because I didn't feel that she quite would have supported me on that front.
And I do remember saying, I think I want to be an actor, and she was, oh, not that. But because she wanted me to be able to support myself.
So I then, thought that my route would be as a producer. But it's funny that the acting came first and now, I am pursuing producing. But my mother never wanted to squelch our dreams so I'm glad that I stuck to my guns and followed my own passion.
GLORIA STEINEM: And what about the progression of roles that you've portrayed?
2 Well, they kind of stayed on the same level at first. And it was my friendships and my relationships-- my friends who saw me differently than how the industry painted me-- and they were the ones who, basically, gave me the shot to try something new. To break out of the stereotype and archetype.
GLORIA STEINEM: --really think you were going to make it as an actress? Was there a moment?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: I never thought that I wouldn't make it, but the thing is--
GLORIA STEINEM: How great is that?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: I must clarify. But see, to me, making it, is just being paid to do what you love to do. Now that could have been dinner theater, and I would have been happy with that.
Quite honestly, I think we have to change the scope of how we dream. You can dream big, crazy, wild, wonderful dreams is what I want every child to do, but at the same time, it should be something for you to aspire to and be able to work towards. But for me, I honestly, I was happy the first time someone ever paid me to act, and it was, I think, $500, and I felt like the richest woman in the world.
GLORIA STEINEM: And in the beginning, or toward the beginning, anyway, you were having to play women who were whole people, but couldn't be whole people, like in "The Help," because they were in particular roles and so on.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Absolutely. Subjugation, women who were subordinate in every way. But it's interesting because until you say, no, no is the most powerful word that you have in your vocabulary. And literally, it was usually, I was asked to be the prostitute a lot. And I did one, and I loved it in "Bad Santa," and that was the only one that I did.
And I was asked to play a nurse a lot, and I did that about 50 times. I honestly, feel as if I can take a blood pressure right now.
But the progression, really, it was slow going. So while I was waiting to progress within the industry, I also kept time for myself, and I wrote to keep my wits about me because--
GLORIA STEINEM: What were you writing?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: My children's books-- that's the other thing, having a southern mom. Idle hands are the devil's workshop so you have to keep yourself busy. And it was about learning. Meeting people. Learning from my experiences. And knowing what to do, and how to make those decisions when the time was right to say, I think I've had my share of maids. And I've had my share of prostitutes. And I've had my share of nurses.
GLORIA STEINEM: So how did "Hidden Figures" come into your life?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Well, Donna Gigliotti-- who is a brilliant producer-- she always does wonderful work for women. The roles for women are very strong in her her films. And she did "Silver Linings Playbook," "Shakespeare in Love," "Hidden Figures."
She optioned the book, before it was actually-- it was just a book proposal. And I was going to New York to watch a lot of theater, and my agent set up a meeting with her. And I remember getting the email saying, she's doing a movie about three mathematicians that help get our first man into space. And I thought, OK, so it's historical fiction because I had just done "The Help."
And it was historical fiction because otherwise, we would have known about these women. We would have known about their contributions. And I tell you, I can't explain, or articulate, how it felt to know that two of the women-- who are no longer with us-- never got the recognition on the world stage, that they should've. But I'm really grateful that Katherine Johnson is still around, to see how well their story is being received.
But Donna, I met with her, and I told her, I wanted to be a part of it because if my involvement in any way, meant that it would get greenlit and filmed, then I had to do that. I felt compelled to do it.
GLORIA STEINEM: And did you meet their families? Or what were the backstage stories, here?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Well, there were many backstage stories. It was a very truncated prep period. I had three weeks from the moment that I signed on, until we were filming, which is no time for a dyslexic to get ready for a film.
So we did a lot of research. Her family was available to us, but for me, I first, need to know the things, what I call the intangibles. That if the person is no longer with us, I kind of feel like it would be an intrusion on the family, to find out what those intangibles were. Now if I didn't have any information, I would have gone directly to the family, but it was great because Margaret Shetterly had interviewed all of these women, and so many more that aren't in the film, that we're focused on in the book.
And we also had her family. Her father worked with all of these women at NASA. So he was a resource. And Ted Melfi-- and we had people at NASA who helped us, But I tend to shy away because I don't want to insult, and I don't want to make the person that I'm playing, a caricature. And because there was not a lot of footage of her, I felt that the person that I wanted to play, was the person that you guys saw at work.
And if her home life had been explored more, then I would have spent a lot more time with the family, but it was her work life-- my character's work life-- that was explored more so that's where I focused the majority of my research.
GLORIA STEINEM: It was so amazing to see it because-- here's how old I am-- I remember doing interviews in Virginia, at the same time, really, that this was going on. And it was among the most segregated of states because the state legislature had responded to school segregation, by financing segregated schools.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Yes.
GLORIA STEINEM: And I was interviewing some little eight-year-old girl who decided she was going to integrate her school, and she was like a premature organizer. So I was-- needless to say, I couldn't sell this story, but anyway.
It was such a huge leap of imagination.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Indeed.
GLORIA STEINEM: To get to the space. And of course, you're a little bit on the other side of it. You're having to imagine the past.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: It's not fun doing period movies because period movies haven't been-- that period in our history hasn't been kind to people of color and certainly, women of color. So there is that. And for me, I don't like any anachronistic moments in a period piece, and I know people always say, well I wanted her to get in her face and tell her, no. And I'm thinking, there were reprisals. These women had to be very concerned about reprisals.
So I just like to immerse myself in the period, which is, again, not fun because the fashion wasn't really great for a woman my size. Beautiful, beautiful fashion, but women my size, it just was not great.
GLORIA STEINEM: But the other gift that you've given us, is the understanding that what we know as history, is not history.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Absolutely.
GLORIA STEINEM: There is a book called, "The History of History." And we have been so deprived of knowing. I was just reading in the "New York Times," last week, there's a whole book about the fact that the entirety of Africa was decreed not to have had history in the '60s, by serious historians.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: That's just scary.
GLORIA STEINEM: So I think the gift of the reality of this movie, we need to understand in the present. We still do not know history. It still is a political history that we are learning.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Absolutely.
GLORIA STEINEM: And if we can look-- and makers is trying to fill in there, as much as we can.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Well, this is such a wonderful, wonderful movement that you guys have created. And my God, we definitely need to keep the momentum because four years is a long time so let's make it two. Let's make it two.
GLORIA STEINEM: Well let's see, are we ready for a Q&A?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Yes.
GLORIA STEINEM: I'm looking at my signals here. Are we ready? There's mics, I see, here.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: I guess you guys can ask questions, is the thing.
GLORIA STEINEM: You can give us answers. We could use some answers.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Well I have a question for these young ladies here. I am just impressed that two young ladies are front and center. What brings you guys out tonight? Basketball. That's a very good thing to be brought out. That's wonderful. How old are you? Nine. And how old are you? You're in the right place. You're in the right place.
KELLY EDWARDS: Hi. I'm Kelly Edwards, I work for HBO. You alluded a little bit about producing, can you talk a little bit about what kinds of things you want to produce? What your hope is for your company?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: I am looking for projects-- here I am saying I hate doing period movies, but I am really drawn to stories that haven't really been told. I'm not limiting myself to that, but I also want the movies that I produce, to show a broader spectrum of the people in the world. I want to see all shapes and sizes. All ages. All religions because that's what our society is comprised of.
But also, compelling stories because it is called, show business. So I'm looking-- I have always been fascinated about the Jonestown massacre because I'm just dark. And I optioned a book that I'm doing-- Vince Gilligan is writing, and Michelle MacLaren is-- we're actually doing it for HBO. There you go.
KELLY EDWARDS: Fantastic. Thank you.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Thank you.
ANNA PATTERSON: Hi. I'm [? Anna ?] Patterson, with Google. And as she knows, my dad worked for NASA so he actually knew the women so thank you very much for making the film.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Thank you.
ANNA PATTERSON: But since I work at Google, I have to ask the question, so did you learn a lot of math during the film?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Well, I knew a lot of math, let's just be clear. It's rocket science and rocket math. And I won't be using it in any part of my life.
So when I realized that my character wasn't going to be doing any of that math, I just kindly took myself out of those tutoring sessions. But I didn't learn how to work with an IBM person. And here's the thing. I'm not mechanically inclined in any way so to be underneath a car and I'm claustrophobic, I actually had to work with a mechanic because when you jump start a car, it sparks. And when you jump start those old cars, not only do they spark, but they can catch on fire. So I was terrified of that. But no math. I left that.
SARAH CHRISTIANSEN: Hi.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Hi.
SARAH CHRISTIANSEN: My name's [? Sarah ?] Christensen. I'm a huge fan-- huge, huge fan. I have two questions-- kind of related. First, what is your dream role? Is there a role that you have always wanted to play? And two, is there a role that you want to play, but that terrifies you?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Actually, the answer to that is one in the same. The role I'm destined to play, is to be one of the greatest producers in Hollywood. It's also quite terrifying. It's terrifying because it's a huge undertaking. But I want to be a conduit for storytellers.
Men, women, gay, straight, black, white, Asian, Latino, Indian, native-- all of those stories deserve to be told, especially if they're compelling. And for me, I choose things that that touch me or resonate within my heart. And that's what I want to put out into the world.
Things that will inspire. Things that will enlighten. Things that will educate. But will also, allow for some escapism because God knows, we need some right now. So that's what I'm most terrified of, but also, excited about because I know that I can get a job as an actor, but can I really put a movie together? Or put a project together? That's where we're learning now.
GLORIA STEINEM: I wonder who's going to play Donald Trump in the movie of his life, which will, of course, only be six months from now.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: I nominate Alec Baldwin.
KATIE COLEMAN: Hi, there. My name's [? Katie Coleman, ?] and I'm an astronaut with NASA.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Well, hello.
KATIE COLEMAN: I've seen the movie five times now,
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Oh, wow. Thank you.
KATIE COLEMAN: And every time, I'm not tired of seeing it yet. And I can't thank you enough, for bringing this piece of history forward. I will tell you, that I did not understand this piece of history, and I'd worked at NASA for more than 20 years.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Wow.
KATIE COLEMAN: And to me, it's not so much about the past. I mean, that sounds bad, but it's a little bit about the future, that by telling the story in the way that you guys told it, where it's such a good movie-- and I've seen nonbelievers like, [? Katie ?] says I have to go see the movie. I'm going to see the movie. And then, they're like, holy, that's like an amazing movie.
But by telling the story in that way, it shows people that everywhere, there are people that are hidden. So actually, first, an easy question which is, what are the stories that didn't get told in the movie that you love? Anything that you wish that we knew.
And the harder question is, there's a part in the movie where you actually look at one of the women and say, we don't like put our mask-- we keep our mask on so we don't let all that out. because if you let it all out, they won't always let you play on the team with them. And so I wondered, how you feel about that. And what you have it for in terms of advice for us.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: I didn't hear the last part of that. The mask-- I only heard the mask.
KATIE COLEMAN: There's a part when, I think, it's Mary Jackson, was so excited about her assignment. And you're like, hey, we keep it down. We keep the mask on. And I think all of us here know that in order to effect change, you can't always just go to 200% or else, you won't get to be on the team to have them understand what it means to change.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Well I can tell you that, quieting Mary down in the scene, was about me promoting my friend. And not rubbing it in the other women's faces.
But the second part-- or in the vein of where you're going with that, I think in that scene, she walks in and her show gets caught in the grate. And they're about to do the test, and nobody stops the test. It's a testament to things will keep moving with or without you. So you want to be on the team. And in order to be on the team, you have to be ready.
And one of the things about Dorothy Vaughn, that a lot of people don't know, the analytical geometry, two women in that room could do that math. One of them, was Katherine Johnson. The other was Dorothy Vaughn, and she could have chosen to advance her own career, but she knew that her place was about advancing all of the women.
So she truly believed in if one of us makes it, we all make it. But she also made sure, the right person was put out in the same job and the right job. So she was that type of remarkable person.
KATIE COLEMAN: That;s the way I think all of us get ahead.
I'll just share real quick, that in that very scene you talked about with the shoe, where Mary sees that capsule for the very first time, and there's a look on her face, like she's just been transported. And I saw this one time with [? Alvin Drew. ?] He's an African-American astronaut, and a friend. And I looked at him, and I just said, Al, did you feel that way? And he's like, oh, yeah. It's how all of us feel, and you guys really showed that in the movie so thanks.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Thank you so much.
GLORIA STEINEM: Maybe just-- we have two more?
SPEAKER: Hi. I just want to go away from the movie. You mentioned that you wrote children's books.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Yes.
SPEAKER: And I'd like to hear a little bit more about the children's books because I think that's a very special type of storytelling.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Well it is a special type of storytelling. Thank you. I found out I was dyslexic, and I also, could not see at all so my glasses were Coke bottle glasses. So I had I couldn't see the pages, and I couldn't understand them when I saw them because of how my brain works. But then, I got glasses and the whole world opened up.
And for me, I had a wonderful teacher. And one of my favorite groups of people, are educators. They really-- thank you. Because educators shaped my life, and my career, and my understanding of myself, and understanding my own potential.
But what kept me engaged in any narrative, if it were a mystery and my teacher knew that, and she would always say, you're not going to know what's a mystery so pay very close attention to every detail. So of course, as you're reading the books, you're like, is that egg a clue? And I read so many detective novels, that I decided that I would give back.
And I decided that I would write. I wanted the three characters-- I wanted it to be three characters because you can't send kids out by themselves in today's society. So you definitely want them in threes.
And I also knew, that I wanted it to be multicultural. So it's a young white girl, a young African-American boy, and a young Latino boy. And they solve mysteries together. But one of the things that I loved, is in science class, at the end of each chapter, you would have the glossary of vocabulary, and then, you would have experiments.
I really didn't care about what was in the chapter, I always like getting to the glossary and the experiments because that was the most fun in class. So I worked with a crime scene investigator, to break down "Crime Scene Investigation" to make it kid friendly. And we put just an index of cool detective stuff, along with family recipes and those type of things for kids to do. And just married the two.
But it was about three kids who solve mysteries, and I kept it in the mystery genre for kids who were like me, who are challenged readers.
Yes. "Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective." One and two. "The Time Capsule Bandit" and "The Sweetest Heist in History."
GLORIA STEINEM: It sure beats Nancy Drew.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Thank you.
GLORIA STEINEM: Maybe just two more.
ALEX SINCLAIR: Hi, [? Alex Sinclair ?] from IBM. Thank you for making these figures visible. I have a question about visibility. How do we find the other figures in history, or currently, who are invisible? And how do we bring them to the surface?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: How do we find--
ALEX SINCLAIR: The other hidden figures in our midst?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Well, we have to be tenacious, don't we?
ALEX SINCLAIR: And for everybody here, too.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Honestly, it's one of those questions that is-- because if you don't know the story, how can you seek it out? And for me, if it weren't for Margot Lee Shetterly, asking her father when she looked at the photographs of the women of NASA, and she saw these little rows of African-American women and asked, well, who are these women, and what did they do? If she hadn't asked those questions, we wouldn't know who they are.
So I think first, we have to ask questions. And I think secondly, we have to acknowledge every person on a team that contributes to something being done. It's imperative. The fact that women couldn't put their name on reports and the men took the credit for all their work, I mean, come on. I think that's imperative.
GLORIA STEINEM: And there were also 12 women astronauts, who qualified to be in the very first class of astronauts, and were washed out. I really am old, I have to say, because I interviewed the first astronauts, and they were outraged at the idea that there would be women astronauts. They said, well, the Soviets sent up apes, and monkeys, and stuff like that. I'll stop.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Insane, to me.
GLORIA STEINEM: One more.
UNIQUE: Hi, my name is [? Unique. ?] Because [INAUDIBLE] we can, have a question, you talked about producing. And I wanted to know, can you share a little bit about when and what we can expect, from the Madam C.J. Walker miniseries that you're working on?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: There's [? Preston, ?] I can't say. Well, let me just say, we're partnering up with another producer, and it's going to be great. I can't say who but here's the thing. We had a pitch meeting with some very exciting people, and I think you'll like it.
And I think we'll be in production for the fall. It's going to be a limited series, but others will come from that. Other people in history that we've not seen or heard their stories, will be told in the same format.
UNIQUE: Thank you.
GLORIA STEINEM: That is a triumphant note.