- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
An Oscar-winning actress with a perennially full plate, Octavia Spencer has earned the right to be jaded. But after more than two decades in the business, Spencer remains unabashedly enthusiastic about her job and, more telling, the work of her peers. “This is not something to be taken for granted,” she says in late December, reflecting on the Hollywood Walk of Fame star she received just days earlier. “There are things that you dream for yourself and things that you can’t even imagine.”
Her production company, Orit Entertainment, has nine scripted projects in various stages of development and, come Jan. 20, a third season for her Apple TV+ true-crime drama Truth Be Told, in which she also stars. The prolific shingle recently inked a first-look deal with Skydance TV for scripted projects; it has a similar pact for unscripted with ID, Discovery+ and October Films.
Zooming from her home in the San Fernando Valley, the three-time Oscar nominee (and winner for her breakthrough role in 2011’s The Help) spoke about her true-crime obsession, her negotiating philosophy and how her “sweet face” relegated her to playing nurses for, well, way too long.
You were once attached to star in a Murder, She Wrote reboot, which never went forward. Does Truth Be Told scratch that itch for you?
In a way. Truth Be Told is definitely darker. It deals with our fascination with and consumption of true crime. I’ve always loved true crime, so this is kind of like me getting to do a little bit of investigative work. But I can’t wait to find that role where I get to do something procedural. [The Murder, She Wrote pilot], that was all miscommunication. [Original star Angela Lansbury publicly blasted the project.] I think Angela Lansbury thought that we wanted to do a remake and have me play her. What we really wanted was for her to live on as Jessica Fletcher, to offer her any chance she wanted to do something on the show. It was ultimately better that it didn’t go. I don’t necessarily like remakes.
You’re also producing true crime unscripted series and docs. What about the genre grabs you?
If I weren’t in the entertainment business, I’d more than likely be a criminal trial attorney. I treat it very seriously. I live on Discovery ID, and the one thing that’s often missing for me is hope for cases that have gone unsolved. All the projects that I do, there’s always a bit of hope. I wanted to add that to the true-crime space.
It’s not easy to articulate the appeal of the genre without sounding like a ghoul.
OK, this is the crazy: I feel like I’m a detective. When I walk into a room, I have to know that I’d be able to pick out the scary person. In my real life, I’m trying to assess the situations that I need to stay away from. I know that sounds nuts, but it’s one of the things that compels me to watch true crime.
When actors have production companies, there’s a line between flattery and frustration in terms of expectations for you to appear on camera. How do you navigate that?
I’m a fan first. I am John Q. Public. If I sit down to read your book and love it, I’m going to check all over town to see if those rights are available. It’s a varied slate because I want to be entertained in my downtime. I know if it resonates with me, it will resonate with society at large — with or without a possible role for me. It’s pretty obvious that we’re not just looking for vehicles for me.
I think of you as a fan of the industry. You’re out there ringing the bell for a lot of projects you’re not involved with, like Yellowstone.
I’ve seen every Yellowstone offshoot! I think people who don’t admire their colleagues’ work become cynical and unable to produce great stuff themselves. And if you get cynical in this business, you’re hard to be around. You lose perspective. How can you not love Yellowstone or what Steven Spielberg does? If I turn on a Shonda Rhimes show or something Reese Witherspoon is producing, I know I’m going to be entertained.
You and Jessica Chastain drew a lot of attention in 2018 for discussing how much you were lowballed, compared with her, for a project that you were both to star in — and how it spoke to the lack of parity between white and Black women in the industry. Five years later, do you feel that’s had an impact?
I’m an egalitarian. Period. Women and women of color have always lagged. When they start casting movies, they put all the money on the white male or Black male leads. They come to you when they’ve given out all the dollars and they only have cents. I don’t need you to tell me how much you love me and how much you want to work with me. That’s not going to put my nieces and nephews through Harvard. Love is not going to take care of my godkids. So, I’ve always been a proponent of making sure that there’s equal pay. It’s still not equal, but it’s certainly getting better.
Do you at least feel that you’re being offered what you’re worth?
Nobody’s going to offer you what you’re worth. But I’m also not that negotiator who’s going to go back and forth. If you can’t come up to my price, there are so many other people that you can go to who probably will accept what you’re offering. I’m not one of them. And it’s not that I’d walk into a situation and say, “I need to make what Denzel [Washington] is making.” I haven’t had the opportunity to create box office the way that Denzel has. But if you’re offering me the same thing that you would’ve before I received my bona fides, if you will, then it shows that you’re not paying attention — or that you think it’s OK to lowball people.
What is your negotiating advice to actors without the leverage of being an Oscar winner?
You should always get more money than they’re offering you. I always get a raise. So, start there. It’s not about turning down work, it’s about understanding your value. How many more years am I going to be running around on sets? I want the same respect and pay that they’re offering my white counterparts.
In terms of for-hire work, what are the parts that you’re not being offered that you’d like to be considered for?
I’m often asked, “What role are you dying to play?” The most important role for me is producer because I can generate my own work. Anything that I’m not being offered, I can find someone to write. But a good rom-com would be fun. I’m doing a project with Taraji [P. Henson], a buddy cop comedy. It’s an idea I had that we just paid a writer to write for us. But I was pleasantly surprised by my friend Sean Anders, who [put me in] Spirited for Apple TV+ with Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell. My character is basically the romantic lead opposite Will, and I love that because that’s true to my world. I’m the romantic lead in my world.
Looking at your early credits, it’s truly shocking just how many times you played …
The nurse, the nurse, the nurse! My very first role was playing Sandra Bullock’s nurse in [1996’s] A Time to Kill. I asked [director] Joel Schumacher if I could play the woman who started this clash between protesters and the Klan, this woman who started a fight, and Joel said to me, “No, no, no, your face is too sweet.” I didn’t understand it at the time, but I kept being cast as the nurse. I guess nurses have sweet faces? (Laughs.) I dropped so many nurses from my résumé.
Speaking of résumés, you’re celebrating IMDb finally conceding to drop mandatory age listings for actors on your Instagram. Was that something that really irked you?
Oh, I did care. I feel for people who are actually held to the “beauty standard” — if they look younger than they are or are older than they appear to be — ageist things that still happen in our industry. I haven’t been a slave to it, but for my own personal life, I wouldn’t have minded having that two years that I was giving myself.
So then, did you ever try to lie about your age on IMDb?
Originally there was no age, and then they started putting [ages] on there. So … I put the age I wanted it to be, which was two years younger. (Laughs.) And then they changed it. It’s a joke to me now, but I was angry at the time. I was only giving myself two years. Let me be me!
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day