Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer is starring in the new film "Hidden Figures" about three African-American women who were crucial to the nation's first space mission. It's a real-life story that very few people knew about, including Spencer.
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"When I first heard of it, I thought it was historical fiction like 'The Help,'" Spencer said on a recent appearance on "Popcorn with Peter Travers."
"Throughout the 46, 43, 42, 40 years of my life, I'd never heard this story," she said. "So to be able to be a part of the telling of it, is one of those things that I'm very excited about."
Spencer portrays Dorothy Vaughan, NASA's first African-American manager. She's joined on-screen by Taraji P. Henson, who plays mathematician Katherine Johnson, and Janelle Monáe, who stars as mathematician Mary Jackson.
Spencer said Dorothy was a crucial part of the mission.
"Can you imagine this machine that fills a room and they are paying all of these men who are from the company to chart the trajectories and everything but they couldn't get it to work. And you have this woman, she could fix anything mechanical. And she went in there, sneaked in there on her off time to figure it out and she did," Spencer, 46, told Travers.
She added, "Dorothy can be credited as the mother of the women who code. She figured out the IBM and then taught herself to program it. Then taught the other women."
Spencer said she and the other actors had an opportunity to screen the film with the women they portrayed.
"They were all very happy with the telling of the stories," said Spencer.
Spencer has also recently appeared in the comedy-series "Mom" opposite Allison Janney.
"She's really one of the funniest people on the planet," said Spencer. "I feel grateful that I'm afforded opportunities that I never would have. I feel like there's a rebirth just redefining who I am as an actress is wonderful."
The two first appeared together in the 2011 film "The Help," for which Spencer won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. That night, Christian Bale presented the award. Spencer said it was almost as if he was reading in slow motion.
"I remember it felt like an eternity from him walking out. It's like he's talking in slow motion," she said mimicking a slow motion voice. "I honestly don't have a clear recollection because I know it was about getting my knees to move. They locked up. They just locked up. I couldn't stand up. And I was like, 'Oh God, I've got to get up there. How am I going to get up there?' And I couldn't get up the stairs. So it was about not falling down."
Be sure to watch the complete interview to learn how Whoopi Goldberg helped launch and guide Spencer's career.