His mission was to convince an auditorium full of mostly adolescent girl “Twilight” fans, waiting impatiently for him with readied flash cameras and video recorders, that he had something deeper to say — some useful advice to convey, derived from a life of drug abuse, poverty and jail that eventually transformed to money, success and stardom.
That was a lot of pressure for the 37-year old actor, who claims to still get nervous while speaking in public.
“I could talk until I’m blue in the face, but in the end, most of the kids just want to know about “Twilight” and me taking my shirt off,” the chiseled teen idol kidded. While preparing for a “Twilight” shoot he works out daily to maintain his man-wolf physique.
Spencer’s stop in Cherokee last Thursday was part of a personal talking circuit called “Be The Shift.” It’s an offshoot of a larger social movement called United Global Shift, meant to be a source of empowerment for youth and concerned citizens hoping to better society from the ground up.
Over the last several years, Spencer, a Lakota Sioux, has made visits to reservations and college campuses across the United States, preaching his message through sharing his personal trials and tribulations and pushing young people to go after their own goals and dreams.
It was his first time visiting Cherokee, and he was impressed by the school’s top-notch facilities.
“Are we on a reservation?” Spencer joked as he first took the stage.
Although many in the crowd that night were Twilight fans with hopes of catching a more personal glimpse of the werewolf heartthrob, Spencer’s success as an actor in the popular movie series is in many ways inseparable from his mission. And it also helps draw the crowds.
Spencer believes people in any situation can take control of their lives and make positive and lasting change. And he knows it from experience.
After living on a number of reservations in his youth, Spencer moved to New York City when he was 21, with only $100, a one-way bus ticket and the dream of being a photographer. That dream later changed after he began hanging out with actors.
But before making it big, he held a number of jobs such as a video clerk, garbage man and as a waiter in countless restaurants. Over time, he was cast in a series of plays, strangely his first role was not as a werewolf but as Dracula in an off-Broadway production. He received horrible reviews, he said.
Later, he was hired to act in several film productions, landing a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and a contract with ABC. But interestingly enough, the lowest point in his career came after he achieved his first taste of success.
“I started dabbling in heroin and cocaine,” Spencer said to the crowd at Cherokee. “That’s when the downfall started happening. Next thing you know it I’m broke and I’ve burned every friend and I’ve stolen from everybody.”
His life shifted from living in a $3,000 per month apartment with a model girlfriend on the upper Westside, to sleeping on a pee-soaked mattress, talking to himself and drinking alone at local bars. He went without an acting job for several years, showing up at auditions drunk or stoned.
Then, in 2008, Spencer checked himself into a Washington state drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic geared toward treating Native Americans. Spencer said it was there that he reconnected with his Native culture and began to understand the history of drug and alcohol addiction that has plagued reservations and their residents for years.
“I began to see the whole pattern of my life — my uncles, my dad, me — drinking and drugs,” he said. “I come from a long line of drugs and alcohol.”
Through rehabilitation he learned how drugs and alcohol on reservations are closely tied to a slew of social problems like domestic abuse, violence and poverty.
After graduating out of the clinic, Spencer vowed a life of sobriety. He said he wanted to help the Native American community and contemplated becoming a drug and alcohol counselor, but instead made the decision to return to New York City and face his demons.
“The scariest day of my life was coming back to New York fresh out of rehab,” Spencer said. “I knew all the drug dealers. I knew where to go to score.”
There he took a job as a garbage collector. He was ready to give up on acting until he got a call from a casting director inviting him to an audition. He was told he would be auditioning for a werewolf in a movie called “Twilight.” At that point he had never heard of the saga, but when they called him in back for a second audition he thought he had better find out what “Twilight” was. So he asked a 12-year-old girl. According to Spencer that girl “schooled him on everything” “Twilight” related, including exactly who his character Sam Uley was.
He signed the contract to act the part on March 5, 2009, exactly a year after he became sober.
But, it wasn’t until his drug addiction story was sold to the National Enquirer by another patient at the rehabilitation clinic that he decided to confront the bad publicity. He began speaking about the problems of drugs and alcohol to crowds around the country.
Spencer said if he can get through to at least one person in each crowd, that he or she hears his message and is moved, he considers it a success.
“If you want to do something in life,” Spencer said in his closing remarks to the young crowd in Cherokee, “Be a doctor, lawyer, actor photographer, whatever you want to do — there’s nothing stopping you except what’s in your head.”
He was given a generous round of applause then began taking questions from the crowd. The microphone was handed to a senior high school student from Swain County.
“Are you single?” she asked. He is not.
Other questions ranged from what types of traditional Native dances he could do to advice he could give to aspiring actors or young people leaving the reservation for the first time.
After the talk, Spencer signed autographs for a snaking line of fans in the lobby.