‘Ma,’ Octavia Spencer’s true crime obsession and the best friendship behind her horror star turn
Eight years ago director Tate Taylor and actress Octavia Spencer scored the summer’s biggest sleeper hit with “The Help.” (She went on to win an Oscar for the best picture nominee.) Now they’ve reunited for a very different kind of surprise: the deliciously bananas Blumhouse thriller “Ma,” a shockingly gory R-rated thriller about a mild-mannered woman (Spencer) who turns stalker on the teens she befriends.
As the longtime friends and collaborators tell it, Spencer was frustrated with the lack of interesting characters coming her way when Taylor called with an intriguing offer: a twisted tale that would let the Academy Award winner flex her darker impulses and show off a side of herself nobody had seen before.
“He said, ‘I have a horror film for you,’ and I said, ‘Let me stop you, because black people always get killed in the first 15 minutes,’” said Spencer, sitting next to Taylor on a basement couch in a historic West Adams mansion littered with red Solo cups and party detritus, set dressing evoking the ramshackle party pad of “Ma.”
“He said, ‘Not only are you not getting killed in the first 15 minutes — you get to do the killing.’ I said, sign me up!” she said, laughing.
Spencer stars as Sue Ann, a quiet small-town veterinary assistant who buys alcohol for a group of local teens one day then offers her home to her new friends as a place to party. The kids affectionately dub her “Ma” for her welcoming hospitality, including Diana Silvers as Maggie, a newcomer to town who begins to distrust Ma’s outwardly friendly facade.
But as Ma’s becomes the go-to party spot in town, secrets from the past reveal themselves and her obsession reaches a “Fatal Attraction” pitch. Juliette Lewis, Missi Pyle and Luke Evans also costar as former classmates of Sue Ann’s.
“What’s really special about ‘Ma’ is Octavia Spencer,” said producer Jason Blum, comparing her turn to Kathy Bates’ in “Misery.” “It’s very new and very different and hasn’t been done in a long time, to have an actress of that stature in a super fun, super scary R-rated movie.”
It’s a tour-de-force departure from type for Spencer, who was also Oscar-nominated for “Hidden Figures” and “The Shape of Water.” She gleefully cranks up the crazy in “Ma,” scripted by Scotty Landes and Taylor from a story by Landes, while finding surprising humanity in the character — even as she’s teetering on the brink of sanity and, in one of the film’s demented scenes, sewing the lips of a chatty teen together with a needle and thread.
“For a character like this to work you’ve got to have empathy for her,” Taylor leans forward conspiratorially with a wink in his eye. “And feel guilty because you’re kind of … glad she’s doing some of this stuff.”
Alabama native Spencer and Mississippian Taylor first met as production assistants on the set of 1996’s “A Time to Kill” before moving out to L.A. together. The Geminis will be spending their birthdays apart (Taylor turns 50 the day he begins filming his next movie, starring Allison Janney; Spencer, back in L.A. from the U.K. where she’s been working on “The Witches,” jokes that she’ll be celebrating her 41st birthday “again”).
“We did good,” he smiles. “It took 25 years, little PAs driving out here. She’s in London shooting a movie but we’ll still call each other in our underwear, laughing about it.”
The pair talked with The Times about their best friendship, projects and more in an interview that has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Are you two indeed BFFs?
Taylor and Spencer: [Simultaneously] Yes.
Taylor: We were roommates for seven years. I adapted “The Help” while we were roommates and she would scream at me, ‘Minny’s my part!’
Rarely do Oscar-caliber actresses lead movies like this, but rarer still is a genre film in which a woman of color is front and center. How did “Ma” become your first horror collaboration?
Taylor: It’s so serendipitous, how all this happened. It was meant to be. She had expressed frustration to me about being offered the same thing, and that women of color don’t ever get to be the lead of something. Jason [Blum] and I had a general meeting, and I said, “I want to do something f-ed up!”
Regrettably, we can’t print that word in The Times.
Taylor: They can’t, can they? Messed up!
Spencer: Effed up!
What does that mean to you, your idea of “messed up”?
Taylor: What it meant for me was ‘No rules,’ and that’s what’s great about the Blumhouse model. It’s really in many ways an experiment. The budgets are so low. They had just gotten this script and pitched me the idea. I read it and I came back and said, ‘What about Octavia?’
Without spoiling the twists and turns of “Ma,” what was important for you to convey in terms of Sue Ann’s humanity, given the extreme and gory lengths she goes to?
Taylor: Sue Ann needed to be likable and we needed the audience to be really confused, hoping she would stop doing these things. I wanted the audience to wish they could push pause on the movie, somehow walk into the film, and go, “Sue Ann, listen. Let’s go get a coffee.”
Octavia, how did you find the person beneath the monster that Sue Ann becomes?
Spencer: You can’t effectively play a character that you judge, so I had to do a lot of research. She exhibits character traits that are abnormal — I research things, because I live in the true crime world.
Taylor: Murder TV.
What do you consider “Murder TV”?
Spencer: I watch all of the Investigation Channel [ID TV] ... It’s the puzzle. I’m dyslexic and I learned and stayed intrigued with reading by reading a lot of mysteries. The natural progression is to crime, and true crime for me is where I exist. It’s about solving the puzzle every night. Did I get the right man? Was I wrong? Sometimes I’m wrong, but 90% of the time, I’m right.
Taylor: She profiles people! ‘You see how they got that last meatball? That’s an exhibit of a behavior, there’s this one show I watch and this man would always take the last food, and what he’s actually doing is he’s going to poison it, and then he’s going to bring it back to the buffet because he knows the person who saw him take it is going to come back!’
Spencer: [Laughs] I profile, I profile. But I see things other people don’t see, because I watch human interaction and behavior. I’m a huge fan of John Douglas, who started the behavioral science unit at the FBI. Huge fan. And now everybody’s into forensics. I liked it before all of you!
Have you ever met somebody in real life who you’ve suspected could be…
Taylor: I’ve dated them. [Looks at Octavia] I’m not kidding.
Spencer: I’m not touching that … but I’ve met some suspect people. It’s in the eyes! When people feel like they constantly have to be a certain way, and they constantly have to please you and you never get to see the real person… I’m like, why is it that you never get mad? That’s a human trait. People have bad days. When people don’t have bad days, I get a little nervous.
“Ma” is set in Ohio, even though you filmed it in Tate’s home state of Mississippi. Sue Ann is one of the few African American characters in her town. Why take the story out of the South?
Taylor: I didn’t want it to be specifically Deep South, because then there’s this whole other trope-cliché-expectation … I wanted it to be Anywhere, America. There’s a regional neutrality to it.
Do you mean the intention was that audiences didn’t read into it –
Taylor: So there are no cultural implications.
Taylor: “Oh, she’s a black woman from this town.” Or, “These kids grew up in this affluent, blah-blah-blah…” It’s just life.
You’ve both made movies in the past that did deliberately deal with and confront race, and race in the South. Are you saying that in “Ma” you intentionally tried not to focus on that?
Spencer: No — I’m a black woman. But what I liked about it was this character was first written for a white woman, and he put back story in that made her right for me, but the same back story would have fit a white woman. It’s the first time that I’m not playing a character that has to be black; she just happens to be black. So this is not racially ... charged.
Taylor: It’s me wanting to put my best friend in a part she’s never gotten to do, and how fun would it be if we went and did it!
You cast Allison Janney in “Ma” as Sue Ann’s terrible boss. Did you just call all your friends up to make this movie?
Taylor: [To Octavia] She told me last week we’d been friends for 20 years.
Spencer: I’ve been saying 18, making us sound younger!
Taylor: Us, Allison and Melissa McCarthy — we were all struggling. Allison had just gotten this pilot called “West Wing.” But when you all genuinely love each other and you’re all struggling, you become family. You just want to be a part of helping everybody. So Alison’s always like, ‘I must be a part of everything you do. What am I in “Ma?” I said, “There’s a vet …” and she said, ‘OK!’ It’s too damn hard not to make it fun, this business.
What was a scene in which your shorthand with Octavia came in handy?
Taylor: I knew we were cooking with gas on her very first day, in the very first scene she shot, and was really excited about it, was when Ma goes to Maggie’s [Silvers’] house. Octavia said, “Get ready — I know what I’m gonna do.” And she gave her that look over her shoulder and I went, ‘OK, she is in it.’
The Blumhouse model typically means a contained story and a modest budget, but relative creative freedom. Why was it important to take it back to Mississippi, your third film in the state?
Taylor: I love filming there because when you have a budget of this level you have to be resourceful. People in these poor towns in Mississippi are just starved for any kind of economic development, and they’re smart. They know: If we help them come here and give them free locations, there’s a lot of money they’re going to spend.
Spencer: And dollars in the pockets of the community. That’s what I like. We shot some scenes at Alcorn State University, and they are starting a film school. I’m excited for that … they are making it so that those young people will be able to become writers, directors, work behind the scenes.
Local filmmaking is very much on the minds of Hollywood given the new abortion laws in Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama. Where do you stand on filming in these states?
Spencer: I can’t deal with it. It just infuriates me. I literally got off the plane a few days ago and read about it. I’m gonna need a minute on that one.
Taylor: What I’ll say is the makeup of the people that make these decisions is not right. That’s nationwide, in every state. It just is … I’m about jobs and opportunity for people who have no way of influencing those people.
Octavia, you also starred in “Luce” at Sundance, which confronts race in a direct way, and executive produced “Green Book.” Do you consider your recent films united by common threads? What themes are important to you to put into the larger conversation?
Spencer: You know what, there’s no correlation. I chose to do “Luce” because we didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in our mouths. Someone – an educator, a kingmaker – could have easily chosen someone else and I would have had the complex that I was not worthy to be who I am, and to get to where I am. I choose things now for different reasons, and sometimes there are themes that sort of bleed into each other. But for me it was all about making sure that every child is treated as if they were the Luce. That every child can see their potential. And when you have people dictating that or being gatekeepers of who gets to progress, I have a problem of that. So of course I have to play the gatekeeper, so I can talk about that.
At this point in your career, how do you view the power of your work?
Taylor: I think Octavia is infinitely relatable and that’s a powerful thing.
Spencer: I just feel lucky that I get to work with my best friend on projects, I feel lucky that great scripts are coming to me – and great scripts that I turned down for different reasons – and that I get to work at this level. If I can be an influence to anyone to pursue their dreams and know that they’re worthy, then that’s what I’m going to take from it.
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