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Octavia Spencer’s passions guide her to ‘Truth Be Told’ and ‘Self Made’

Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer
Octavia Spencer has two projects out this season, the crime drama “Truth Be Told” and the biopic “Self Made: The Life of Madam C.J. Walker.” “Madam C.J. was someone I revered,” Spencer says.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

After winning an Oscar for “The Help” and being nominated two years in a row for “Hidden Figures” (2016) and “The Shape of Water” (2017), Octavia Spencer executive produced the best picture winner “Green Book,” then starred in and executive produced the quirky horror film “Ma.” She also provided the voices for the duck Dab Dab in “Doolittle” and a tavern-owning mythical creature in Pixar’s “Onward.”

But why stop there? Now there are two dramatic roles — in the Netflix four-hour biopic “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” and the Apple TV+ crime thriller “Truth Be Told” (both of which she also executive produced) — that she has top of mind.

Spencer says she was drawn to “Truth Be Told” because she has always been a mystery buff. The crime drama centers on a former New York Times journalist who starts a podcast to exonerate a wrongly convicted man.

“My producing partner, Brian Clisham, knows that I’m a huge true crime and mystery fan,” she says. “We were looking for a project that could have a fighting chance in the premium world of cable and streaming, and we came across this project from Reese Witherspoon and Peter Chernin’s companies. They sent me the manuscript of the book by Kathleen Barber before it was published, and I just loved it.”

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The project took five months to shoot in Los Angeles last year and was quite demanding. Spencer explains, “I had to go back and learn about some of the basic tenets of journalism as well as podcasting. I am a big fan of podcasts like ‘Serial’ and ‘S-Town.’ Playing Poppy was challenging because when we first meet her, she is full of good intentions, but I was grappling with her moral compass. The show kept it all very suspenseful until the very last episode. I had no clue who the killer was, and I won’t reveal it in case people want to catch up!”

Spencer plays a real-life character in Netflix’s four-part series “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madame C.J. Walker,” which tells the inspiring story of the African American hair-care entrepreneur. “Madam’s story was always part of my upbringing. My mom used her as a standard bearer in our household to teach us that you can achieve anything you can dare to dream of.

Netflix’s new limited series “Self Made” stars the dazzling Octavia Spencer as black hair care specialist and business pioneer Madam C.J. Walker.

“We came from very humble beginnings, so it was important for us to learn about this woman. Her siblings and parents were slaves yet she never allowed anyone to limit her. She was able to become the first self-made female millionaire in America, across all racial and ethnic divides, at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote.”

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The Alabama-born actress says she strove to do justice to Walker’s life story, although some characters and timelines were changed to fit everything into four hours. “Madam C.J. was someone I revered, so I felt this great responsibility to get it right. Fortunately, the series was based on the book written by her great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, and she was also involved and a wonderful part of the process.”

The drama also stars Tiffany Haddish, Carmen Ejogo, Blair Underwood and Kevin Carrol. Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet,” “Eve’s Bayou”) executive produced and directed two of the limited series’ episodes. “From the beginning, I knew that because this was a very intimate, clearly African American female story, we were going to need African American female storytellers,” Spencer notes. “Of course, Kasi Lemmons was on top of our wish list for directors.”

“Self Made” was shot in Canada over two months, and Spencer worked 59 of those 60 days since she was in most of the scenes. “It was a very demanding role physically, and I was experiencing some vertigo and nausea during the shoot,” she says. “Interestingly, Madam C.J. also had some physical ailments: She suffered from fainting spells and had high blood pressure and diabetes, so I incorporated all of that!”

The actress says she’s happy to see more diversity both on and off the screen.

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“When I was working on ‘Fruitvale Station,’ our director, Ryan Coogler, had all of the people he went to film school with working on the movie, and that was the first time I worked with a female [director of photography]. I had never seen so much diversity on the set, and I looked around and thought, ‘Wow, this is how things should be!’

“Now, thanks to women like Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay coming through the ranks, the landscape has slowly changed. I do think it should all be organic. We shouldn’t have to say we need women of all ethnicities to direct and be part of the decision-making process.”

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