Academy Award winning actress Octavia Spencer sat down with Stephen Colbert on the Late Show to discuss her upcoming film Hidden Figures.
The film tells the untold true story of the African American women mathematicians, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith and Barbara Holley, who worked at NASA during the Civil Rights era. The story revolves around these brilliant African-American women who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in U.S. history, the momentous launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, and his safe return. Glenn flew the Friendship 7 mission in 1962, and became the first American to orbit the Earth.
Spencer will play Dorothy Vaughan, Taraji P. Henson will play Katherine Johnson, and Janelle Monae will play the youngest member of the trio, Mary Jackson.
“It’s a brilliant movie and an extraordinary story of people coming together in the mercury program for NASA and specifically the African American women, who I did not know, were the human computers, the people doing the calculations for launch and reentry,” “Late Show” host explained Thursday night when Spencer guest starred on the show.
“The story tells about getting John Glenn into space, the first American to orbit the Earth… three times in five hours,” he added.
Colbert’s show actually tapes in the afternoon and just as the show began, he learned that John Glenn had just died.
“John Glenn is the touchstone. We always focused on who got to go to space, but he was an honorable man,” Spencer said.
“There’s a moment in the film where he says he doesn’t want to take the flight unless the numbers are checked by Katherine Johnson [played by Taraji P. Henson] and that says a lot because she was a woman of color, and it was hard being in those rooms, and he showed a true act of faith by putting his life in her hands,” she added.
The film also stars Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson. Both Jackson and Johnson’s careers at NASA spanned decades. Jackson died in 2005, at 83 years old, while Johnson currently resides in Hampton, Virginia.
“All of these women were mathematicians. They are what we call polymaths. They can work in any field of mathematical sciences and they were all pretty brilliant… ’cause I can only do one math,” Spencer joked.
Spencer plays Dorothy Vaughn, the acting supervisor of the African American computer specialists, whose role was assigning the polymaths to different jobs.
“I’ve always been fascinated with NASA and I’ve interviewed some of those early astronauts and the Apollo guys, and I was sort of obsessed with them when I was younger. How come I didn’t know this story?” Colbert asked Spencer.
“I didn’t know it either,” Spencer revealed. “When I got the memo that I was going to be meeting with [‘Hidden Figures’ producer] Donna Gigliotti about this project, I thought it was historical fiction, because I had just done ‘The Help’ and it was historical fiction.”
“I think the reason we don’t know is because the arbiters of history are, at that time, the press,” Spencer added. “And they were more focused on who was going, but not how they got there. And these women were the inner mechanisms. They worked behind the scenes; all of the women, African American and white… and so, there was very little regard for their contributions.’