Octavia Spencer grew up with the legacy of Madam C.J. Walker, a businesswoman and philanthropist who built an empire selling cosmetics and grooming products to Black women. Walker became known as America’s first self-made female millionaire — hence the title of the Netflix series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, for which Spencer earned her career-first Emmy nomination for lead actress in a limited series.
But it wasn’t Walker’s wealth that inspired Spencer, who also served as an executive producer on the four-episode series. “The fact that this woman, who was born the first free person in her home post-slavery, was able to achieve so much when the world told her that she had no value — that’s what my mother used as the example,” Spencer tells THR. “Your station in life does not dictate your path or your destiny.”
What’s the one thing you learned from playing Madam C.J. Walker that will stick with you in the future?
It’s not that I learned this, because it has always been a part of who I am, but the idea that we can do so much as a community — helping each other, aiding each other, advocating for each other. That’s what she did for Black women; she [worked] for Black women to have agency in their own lives and to help provide for their families. It made me recommit to continuing to be a force in the community, whether it’s my female community, Black community, actor community — just try to be the most contributing person that I can to society.
Self Made suggests that part of Madam C.J. Walker’s legacy was providing Black women grooming and beauty products to help them appear more respectable and rise up in the world. How do you reconcile that legacy with the idea that women, in this case Black women in particular, ought to be respected and valued for more than how they look?
For me, her legacy was about people having ownership and value in who they were. If white women, and other women of different nationalities, had beauty products that empowered them, why shouldn’t Black women? Especially at the end of slavery, when they were treated like animals. It’s about being visible, and for a lot of women, how you look is directly tied to how you feel and how you present yourself. So if you don’t have the means to have your hair be beautiful to you, and then beautiful to other people, how will you gain your place in society? How will you feel emboldened to take the steps that Madam did to become successful? For me, it’s about embracing our inner beauty and having it seen outwardly. The root of it is not about being valued for looks; it is about empowerment and Black women owning who they were and their own place in history.
You’ve said that your willingness to walk away from negotiations has been key to getting paid what you believe you deserve.
Oh, I haven’t gotten paid what I feel I deserve. Not yet. But I always get a raise. Every single job, I get a raise. I don’t think any woman has really gotten what she deserves. But when I ask for something and they don’t meet it, I’m always willing to walk away.
What would you say to women, and perhaps Black women especially, who may not feel that they’re in a position to turn down professional opportunities?
I haven’t always been in this position; there were times when I had to take what was being offered. But I can guaran-damn-tee you that my agent always made sure I got a raise. Always advance your position. Always. Sometimes it means, “Hey, I’m sorry, if I’m not getting what I need, then I’m going to have to move on to a place that does value me.” When you are starting out, show how hard you work. There’s always room for advancement. Educate yourself on what everybody else in the market is getting, and then you ask for what you deserve. You’re not always going to get it, but you also have to be willing to walk away at some point.
What are your hopes for the current reckoning with anti-Black racism? What part can Hollywood play?
It began before us — it’s about equal protection under the law and to be seen as human beings. That’s the struggle. I think entertainment should be an example. There is value in telling stories that we haven’t heard, from marginalized and underserved communities. I think Hollywood has for too long regurgitated things, and now it’s time to tell new and fresh stories. Representation matters. When you see a representation of yourself onscreen, it’s not just for you, it’s for the world at large, so that you can be visible. It’s important to be seen and heard.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.