Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a film so exquisite and beautiful it will leave you breathless. Sally Hawkins is heartbreaking as Eliza, the mute girl who befriends an intriguing “creature” being held captive at the government lab where she works. Octavia Spencer plays Zelda, her colleague and friend, assigned to work in the classified room.
Spencer is brilliant as Zelda, as the two friends find strength in each other’s empowerment. There’s no sentiment of backstabbing or jealousy. It’s simply a great female role. Even more powerful, is seeing Spencer in a film where racism or sexism aren’t central to her performance (though of course, in the 1960s, such attitudes were virtually inherent.) Spencer tells me this was something she found so refreshing to take on and through playing Zelda and working with Del Toro, she realized what she was looking for in roles.
Read our chat below and be sure to see her terrific performance when The Shape Of Water is released on December 1.
I went into this not really knowing what to expect and then I left, believing. It’s just one of the most exquisite films I’ve seen. What was your first meeting like with Del Toro — because aren’t you a massive fan of his?
I found out about the project in the same way you did. My agent told me I’d be meeting with Guillermo and that it was going to be a thirty-minute meeting over coffee and breakfast. We met and fell in love with each other and it turned into a three-hour meeting and we talked about everything except for the movie. It was only in the last five minutes we discussed it. He told me he wrote the part for me and he said, “I’m not going to tell you anything about it. I just want for you to read it and tell me what you think.”
I raced home and read it. I was on page one. The very first scene is Eliza dreaming she’s underwater and he describes what we see, the furniture floating, and I said I have to be a part of this because I have to see what he does.
I texted him back and said I was in. I knew it was going to be a fairy tale and thought it was going to be more of what we’ve seen before, but this was unlike anything he’s ever done.
There’s no horror aspect to it at all.
Not at all.
How long did it take from that first meeting to being on a Del Toro set?
I filmed it before I went to film Hidden Figures. Sally and I had met with our American ASL coach and we started learning sign language and we took videos. I’d look at it while working on Hidden Figures.
I love your character. She has this nice power to her and it’s nice to see as a female. We’re also in the ’60s and generally, there’s an expectation of a racial aspect. The beauty is there’s none of that. What did he tell you about her?
It was interesting because this would be my third time playing a woman from that era. Each time before, I’ve played Minny Jackson in The Help, Dorothy Vaughan from Hidden Figures. The circumstances are the same, the women had no agency and no civil rights and were second class citizens. Zelda would have the same and those are the circumstances with which she’s living.
I found it refreshing that Guillermo wrote this role that I’m only confronted by those realities once or twice and that’s through Michael Shannon’s character, but I don’t have to play to it at all. Once I read the script, he told me he wanted my character to be empowered because never had I played a woman of that era who was empowered in that way. She always had to persevere. In this movie, it’s Eliza’s character who has to persevere. My narrative felt very contemporary because she was complaining about her husband who didn’t value her and complaining about her job. It was so refreshing to not to have to play anything that had to do with my ethnicity and the circumstances under which I was living.
What was it like being on set and learning ASL for the role?
For every scene that I was in with Sally, I learned all of the dialogue that she was saying. I learned both our parts in ASL because at some point we thought Zelda would speak using sign language. However, as we were shooting we realized the only time we would ever use sign language was to have a conversation in front of people where we didn’t want them to know what we were talking about. When we were in the locker room and it’s the two of us, remember her character can hear so there’s no need to learn. I could understand what she was saying but I would not have to use sign language because she could hear what I was saying.
The only other time is when we’re in front of Strickland, Michael Shannon’s character, and there’s no way he would let us have a conversation without him knowing what we were talking about.
It was a great tool to have in the arsenal in case we needed it.
What was it like seeing the film for the first time with the music and everything added in?
I was swept up in the romance and his love of cinema. Maybe people don’t know this, but he is a true cinephile. He has probably seen every movie ever made. He’s probably read every book about cinema and he is that guy. To see the footage of the movie and to hear the music. You walk away with that sense of hope. You’re walking away thinking, “I can’t believe I feel this way about a love story that involves a merman and a woman falling in love. What does this say about me? But I can’t get away from the musicality of it all.” The color palette and everything is beautiful. I was as mesmerized as anyone who didn’t know anything about the music again.
What about seeing the merman for the first time?
It’s so funny because Guillermo loves creatures and monsters. We were in the last week of rehearsal and he said we were shooting the tests on the fish. Everyone was up for it and wanted to see. I thought to myself that I wanted to keep it as pure as possible. For me, it’s all about knowing what the character knows at the time and living within the confines of that.
I wanted the first time I saw Doug in that suit to be a natural reaction and for it to be real. I didn’t want Octavia to spoil Zelda’s reveal and I waited.
It was ooh.
What do you look for in a role? Have you seen a change since winning the Oscar?
They don’t write many substantive roles for women of color. That’s for women at all, but definitely for women of color. I get the pick of the litter with regards to roles for women like me. I also have to be proactive and create the things that I want to do.
What Guillermo made me realize that I hunger for is a story where my character is completely fleshed out. Every character in the film is shown outside of work so we got to see what their lives are like. My character talks about Brewster on every other page. In any other movie, you never would have seen him, but in this, we had our moment. I realized I wanted to be at the center of stories myself and not support other people. It’s made me a very active producer. We’ve sold a few things and it’s exciting to know I’ve made that transition.
Your friendship with Sally and Eliza is another beautiful thing about the film. It’s nice to see women not being bitchy or fighting. Did you two know each other before coming into this?
I knew her work. I was a die-hard and still am a die-hard Sally Hawkins fan. What people don’t know about Sally as a woman, is that she is painfully shy. She does these larger than life characters and she puts them out there. She doesn’t like being the center of attention. This stuff where we do press is anxiety-inducing for her. Knowing she is an actor who does it for the craft and is not self-promoting, you fall madly in love with her art and who she is as a person, and you become protective of her.
We’re not the best sleepers and we text each other and are overly motherly to each other. So, our friendship was born out of that time together in rehearsal and spending time learning sign language.
There wasn’t a lot of time because she was in dance, ASL, and swimming lessons. Her days were filled with that and I was cognizant of that and constantly checking up on her. It was easy to fall in love with her.
Do you have a favorite scene in the movie?
I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but you know that big…. moment.
The scene they’ve shown in trailers, I love the getting to know you phase where she gives Doug’s character eggs and is teaching him sign language, and playing him music. I didn’t realize I’d have an emotional response to it.
What are you up to next?
I’ve just wrapped a movie with Tim Roth and Naomi Watts and I’m just trying to catch up on my sleep. I did a movie this past summer with Jim Parsons and Claire Danes about a couple who have a gender fluid son.
I’ve been busy with the producing and optioning. Having that all come to fruition is something I’m excited about. I’m excited about what’s coming around the bend for me.