‘Parks and Recreation’: Oscar-Winner Octavia Spencer Auditioned for This Role and Almost Got It

Parks and Recreation’s cast is so indelible, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in those roles. However, many of the actors had stiff competition. Everything happens for a reason, so the right actors go the roles they were meant for. But, could you imagine if Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer has been in the cast since season 1? If she had, she might not have been free to make The Help.

Octavia Spencer Zooms on Watch What Happens Live
Octavia Spencer | Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank

Casting director Ben Harris revealed that Spencer was in the running for a key role on the fourth episode of the Parks and Recollection podcast. Parks and Recreation writer Alan Yang and star Rob Lowe host the podcast looking back on the series. Here’s who Octavia Spencer almost played. 

Octavia Spencer was the first runner up for this ‘Parks and Recreation’ role 

When Parks and Recreation was casting in 2009, Spencer was still working the audition circuit. The role of Pawnee, Indiana Parks and Recreation office manager Donna was still up for grabs.

“Octavia Spencer auditioned for Donna,” Harris said.

Again, Retta was meant to be Donna. But, Yang remembered seeing both of their auditions, and they were neck and neck. 

Parks and Recreation star Retta smiles while sitting in a chair
Retta | Colleen Hayes/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

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“That’s right and I believe she got really far because I remember watching Octavia Spencer’s audition,” Yang said. “We were like, ‘This is sensational. We love both of them. Retta’s pretty comedy forward and really funny, we’re going to cast Retta.’ Again, I didn’t make that decision.”

Octavia Spencer was known for comedy when she auditioned for ‘Parks and Recreation’

After winning her Oscar for The Help, Spencer starred in hard hitting dramas like Fruitvale Station, Hidden Figures and The Shape of Water. Prior to The Help, Spencer was known for comedy. She had a raunchy role in Bad Santa, and roles on TV comedies Ugly Betty, The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman, and Wizards of Waverly Place.

“I believe Octavia Spencer was still doing comedy stuff,” Yang confirmed. “She did a comedy pilot for [Parks writer] Dan Goor.”

Casting director Allison Jones also chimed in with Spencer’s comedy credentials.

“She was in The Groundlings,” Jones said.

Yang reflected on how difficult a decision it was, even though they ultimately made the right choice for Parks and Recreation and Spencer did okay on her own. 

“Loaded stocked pool for the Donna auditions,” Yang said. “That’s a diffficult decision to make. 

Other near misses in casting 

Ellie Kemper has discussed being rejected by Parks and Recreation before. Jones and Yang discussed her again, and Kemper was another contender for Donna. Jim O’Heir first read for Ron Swanson, but at least he ended up on the show as Jerry. Harris listed some more. 

“I think Ike Barinholtz for Andy,” Harris said. “Mark Duplass read. Bobby Lee read for Ron or something.”

Yang remembered Nick Thune and Jones listed a few more. 

Parks and Recreation: Donna stares at Leslie Knope holding a basket of muffins
L-R: Amy Poehler and Retta | Colleen Hayes/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

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“Joel McHale, Rob Corddry, Will Sasso, all these guys,” Jones said. “And then I have here Aubrey [Plaza]  for Aubrey. It was actually Dianna McGunigle, her manager, was an agent at CAA at the time. She was great. She sent us Aubrey and quite a few other people.”

Yang remembered their auditions. There was a character named Josh that even Chris Pratt read for before he became Andy Dwyer.

“Some of those guys were Ron,” Yang said. “Some of them were for the Josh character who ended up being Mark and some of them for Andy. Then it was kind of a mixing and matching too.”

Source: Parks and Recollection podcast