Octavia Spencer plays Madam C. J. Walker, pioneer of Black hair care, on the Netflix limited series “Self Made.” The Academy Award-winning actress also stars in the Apple TV+ drama series “Truth Be Told.”
Spencer recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Charlie Bright about what brought her to “Self Made,” what excited her about “Truth Be Told” and how she has made a positive impact during quarantine. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Octavia, the first thing I want to ask is what excited you the most about getting to portray Madam Walker?
Octavia Spencer: What excited me the most about playing Madam Walker is I’ve always known about Madam Walker. My mom used her as a standard-bearer of what we could become if we applied ourselves. So I just felt that the time had come for her story to be told. That was exciting to be a part of it.
GD: And I know that you also not only acted in it, but you’re also serving as an executive producer. Did that come about before or after you were cast? I’m just curious, did that impact how you played everything?
OS: For me now, there are very few things that I participate in where I don’t have an active voice as a producer. Basically how this came about for me, the producers of “Ozark,” Mark [Holder] and Christine Holder, brought the project to me and wanted to produce it together and after I voiced my concerns about what I would need, since it’s a Black female story, I wanted to make sure we had some Black female storytellers and they realized how important that was. Then we teamed up with LeBron James’s company, SpringHill and Warner Bros., and then sold it to Netflix. But at the very beginning, I was always going to be an executive producer.
GD: There’s so many great scenes that you have in there of portraying this woman who is just trying to get her foot in the door and find her place and get her bearings there. I’m curious, was there any scene in the series that was particularly hard for you to portray?
OS: All of the scenes were hard for me to portray. We had an eight-week shooting schedule and we shot four scripts, 60-page scripts. So it was a lot of memorizing. And my weekends basically, memorizing, memorizing. For the first few weeks of shooting, I had vertigo and didn’t know why I was so nauseous and dizzy all the time. And I had to use it because Madam C. J. suffered from high blood pressure and would have fainting dizzy spells. It’s not anything I would wish on anyone to have to function with vertigo. So the first few weeks, I would say everything was difficult. But I had a great supporting cast and we had an amazing crew. They stuck it out with me and then when we finally realized it was vertigo, I was able to get it treated.
GD: You mentioned the supporting crew, the supporting cast that you had there and I’m just curious, what was it like on that set when you have people like Blair Underwood, Tiffany Haddish, Bill Bellamy and the great Garrett Morris?
OS: Carmen Ejogo, Kevin Carroll, yeah.
GD: I mean, what was the energy like having all that talent together in one place?
OS: I mean, it was an embarrassment of riches. I love working with Blair and it was so wonderful because we’ve known each other for almost 20 years. So to play husband and wife with history and to do it with such a truncated shooting schedule, it was imperative that I have chemistry with my husband and there was no time for us to play getting to know you because I was coming off of a film and then maybe there was a two-week prep period. So it was always wonderful working with him. And I enjoyed working with everyone but my other favorite… it’s hard to say because Carmen brought so much, Tiffany brought so much, Kevin Carroll, just amazing. It’s an embarrassment of riches with that talent pool.
GD: Skirting over to something a little different. You’re also on the Apple TV+ series, “Truth Be Told.” I’m curious as to what about that series made you interested in being a part of it?
OS: Everything about that series made me interested in being a part of it, but how it was brought to me. Kristen Campo, one of the executive producers, brought it to my agent and I read the book. It was before the book was published and Poppy was more of a minor character in the book and I met Nichelle Tramble Spellman, our showrunner, at Peter Chernin’s office with Jenno Topping and Lauren Neustadter of Hello Sunshine. And it was just kismet because I’m a true crime buff. I read a lot of mysteries. Most of them are true crime. I watch a lot of true crime TV. So to be a part of a show that examines how we consume crime in this strange way was something that I thought would be interesting and it’s one of my favorite roles that I’ve ever played.
GD: Getting back to the scope of what you did in “Self Made,” I had no idea, obviously, about who Madam C. J. Walker was up before this. But it was so wonderful to get to learn about not just her, but also the impact she’s had on an entire culture. And I’m curious, are there any other figures that you think deserve a chance to have their story told in that way, who many people may not know, maybe a hidden figure?
OS: Ida B. Wells was just awarded the Pulitzer today. Ida B. Wells would be a great person and she’s known about but her story hasn’t been told. I think it’s about time we tell it.
GD: And also, things have taken such a turn for you in the past decade. After doing “The Help,” winning the Oscar and then also doing films like “The Shape of Water” and “Hidden Figures,” getting to work with directors like Guillermo del Toro and Bong Joon-ho.
OS: And Ryan Coogler for “Fruitvale Station.”
GD: Ryan Coogler. How could I forget? How could I forget him? That was fantastic. What is the most surreal change in your life that you encountered since all of this has happened?
OS: You know, I think it’s strange that people know me, but my face is out there. When you’re in your regular private life, it’s just so strange to be known. I think also with the advent of the internet, people no longer have the luxury of introducing themselves. And so, there’s always a perception about people. People think I’m this great cook. I can’t cook, but people hire me to pretend that I can cook or I’m this caregiver. And I will say that I try to be a person who loves freely my friends and family. But I think that’s the most surreal thing is people know you before they’ve actually met you.
GD: And you also seem to have some fun with it, because I remember earlier last year when the movie “Ma” came out, people started putting these memes up on the internet where they would put Ma it there. It was some of the most bizarre things but then you got in on it.
OS: Oh, they were hysterical!
GD: Does that help you stay grounded becoming a part of that also?
OS: Oh, I don’t need help staying grounded. I came from humble beginnings and I lead a very modest life. I have a perceived glamorous job that takes me all over the world and I get to dress up every now and again with diamonds and all that glittery stuff but at the end of the day, I’m still a little girl from Alabama and my roots are deep and I don’t need help staying grounded.
GD: Well, I wanted to talk about the charity that you’re involved with, Frontline Foods, I was wondering if you could tell us more about them and the services they provide during what’s going on right now?
OS: Well it was maybe the second week that we were in quarantine. My friends Leslee Feldman and her sister, Aimee Carpenter, we were trying to figure out how we could help our community and help the frontline health care workers. They were without the proper protective equipment. That’s not something that I could help them with. But we knew a lot of them were staying away from their families, working long hours to protect the public and care for the public. And I thought, a good warm meal wouldn’t hurt anybody. Like, everybody could use that. And we then decided to somehow patchwork it together where we would contact restaurants because these restaurants are in the communities of the hospitals that they would serve. We wanted to also try to help them keep their lights on, keep their payroll going. And then my friends, Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone and Joel McHale were all kind of doing the same thing and we didn’t realize Frontline Foods was doing the exact same thing at the exact same time, but on a bigger scale. They had at that time about 300 volunteers and now their volunteers have grown to 600. And I think we’ve fed like 250,000 or provided 250,000 meals to health care and frontline workers all across the nation. We’re trying to get Frontline Foods in as many cities as we can get to help those restaurants in those communities, but also feed those on the front line, not just the health care workers, but our first responders, our essential workers. But that’s been one of the things keeping me sane.
The other thing, I was made aware of this company called MikuCare, and they make baby monitors, two-way baby monitors. I think it monitors heart rate, but also respiratory and I just decided to donate some to my hometown, Montgomery, and we’re getting ready to send some to Birmingham and we donated some to a hospital in the Bronx because New York has been so hard hit. But it limits the amount of time that the health care worker has to be in a room with a patient that’s severely ill and they can still communicate and they can communicate with their iPad. They can watch and monitor 10 patients at a time. So it’s just about doing what we can for our brothers and sisters in need across the country.
GD: That’s an amazing thing. Does Frontline Foods have a website?
OS: Yes, frontlinefoods.org.