Chances are you’ve seen Abigail Spencer in something over the last decade, though you might not know what. Patrons at nearby tables at Newsroom feel this and keep glancing over, trying to place her. Of course, people tend to do that habitually in L.A., especially on a hoity-toity street like Roberston Boulevard, across from The Ivy, where paparazzi post-up like snipers and celebs both pose on the sidewalk and scatter into big black cars, like gazelle. It’s the natural order around these parts. But there’s something different about Spencer’s charm and carefree spirit, especially when it comes to something as arbitrary as Hollywood notoriety. With lead roles in six films over the next two years — beginning with this Valentine’s Day’s This Means War — she’s going to be receiving a lot of it.
“I’m used to being ignored,” Spencer laughs. “I’ve been doing this for more than ten years now. I’d rather be recognized for my work anyway.”
It’d be a cliché to say that Spencer came from humble beginnings, but the truth is she didn’t. Her family was remarkably creative: her father Yancy Spencer was a renowned professional surfer on the East Coast who owned the chain of Innerlight surf shops throughout Florida; her brothers followed in his footsteps, surfing for their own livelihoods. Her mother Lydia was a folk singer who played seven different instruments. So when a 15-year-old Spencer announced she had landed an apprenticeship with Bob Fosse disciple Anne Reinking, her parents weren’t surprised.
“After that summer with her, I knew I wanted to be an actor and a storyteller,” Spencer explains. There is some minor melee down the street now, a couple guys in shorts, hiking boots and long lenses are snapping away at someone. Spencer continues, beautifully oblivious. “I wanted to be on Broadway.”
Auditioning at theater schools in New York City was the obvious next step, and on that daddy-daughter trip, Kathie Lee Gifford forever changed the starry-eyed teenager’s life. Decades before, Gifford and Spencer’s father had met one memorable American summer in Republic Beach, Maryland when they were teenagers — Yancy was the East Coast surfing champ and Kathie Lee was Junior Miss at the time. Kathie Lee always spoke highly of Spencer’s father, even claiming he was her “first love,” she says. Despite their vastly different career paths, Gifford had stayed in touch with the Spencer family, which is how Abigail and her dad ended up sitting in the dark studio audience for a taping of her. When Kathie Lee walked out to warm-up the crowd, Abigail remembers the swell of energy that washed over her, the palpable rush that makes so many instant junkies for show business. Ten minutes into the morning banter with Regis, Kathie Lee announced they had a “very special guest” in the audience and the massive cameras spun around, targeting the young, pretty Spencer in her favorite red shirt and pinstripe pants. Kathie Lee Gifford had broken Spencer’s television cherry.
“Abigail, tell everyone what you are doing in New York!” Gifford demanded and the sweet, young teen from Gulf Breeze rattled off her naïve dreams of acting, directing, dancing, and singing to tens of millions of Americans waking up over their coffee (and probably rolling their eyes). One of those people, however happened to be the casting director for All My Children, and, in storybook Hollywood fashion, the lucky teenager became a series regular on the show a few months later.
“Soap operas are like boot camp for actors,” Spencer explains. The brief commotion outside The Ivy has subsided now. She received the full basic training over three years before entering the steady rotating line of television actors. Then she channel surfed through guest spots on Gilmore Girls, How I Met Your Mother, Bones, Private Practice — even one season of her own crime drama on Lifetime called Angela’s Eyes. It wasn’t until her six-episode turn as the angelic school teacher who runs in the dark of morning and has an affair with Don Draper in the third season of Mad Men that everything finally seemed to have focus. Spencer attributes this, in part, to the birth of her son a year earlier and the self-imposed acting sabbatical that came while she nursed him from infancy.
“When I felt my body working out its true purpose on the planet, it made me a little fearless,” she explains. Major film roles suddenly became a reality, as she was cast in Universal’s Cowboys & Aliens, Fox’s This Means War and Disney’s Wizard of Oz prequel Oz: The Great and the Powerful, due out next summer. Then last February, her father and arguably her biggest fan, came to L.A. to see his grandson, celebrate with his daughter, and surf in Malibu. On Valentine’s Day, he cruised up the coast to County Line in the beautiful California sunshine to surf away the afternoon, telling Spencer to make plans that night for dinner.
“An hour and a half later he called to calmly tell me he was having a heart attack and that he loved me,” Spencer says. Her father had managed to crawl from the ocean as it was happening — he was almost gone when the fire chief got to him, holding his wife’s Valentine’s Day card and staring out at the roiling ocean. Spencer would channel the shock and sadness of her father’s tragic death in a number of different ways over 2011. Six months later she was cast in Curtis Hanson’s Of Men and Mavericks due out later this year — as surfer Frosty Hesson’s wife.
“I didn’t tell anyone in the movie about my history until I showed up on set,” Spencer says. “I wanted it to happen naturally, if it was going to happen.”
A year to the day after her father’s death, This Means War will open, the first of six films you will see Spencer in over the next two years. Outside the restaurant, Robertson Boulevard is still for now, the paparazzi dispersing to new hunting grounds. Unbeknownst to them, to just about everyone right now, Spencer is already riding peacefully along on her next wave.
Photo by Jeremy Cowart