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'I Always, Always Fight': Octavia Spencer On Demanding More From Hollywood

Octavia Spencer plays businesswoman Madam C.J. Walker in the Netflix series<em> Self Made. "</em>I've always felt that her story was germane to who I am as a black woman," Spencer says.
Amanda Matlovich
Octavia Spencer plays businesswoman Madam C.J. Walker in the Netflix series Self Made. "I've always felt that her story was germane to who I am as a black woman," Spencer says.

Growing up, actor Octavia Spencer remembers being inspired by the story of Madam C.J. Walker, one of America's first black, female, self-made millionaires. Born on a plantation in 1867, Walker eked out a living washing clothes for white families before building an empire selling hair care and makeup products to women of color.

"She was a woman of purpose," Spencer says. "I've always known her story. But what's interesting is her legacy is known in African American culture, but not really by the masses."

Now the Oscar-winning actor is helping tell Walker's story to a broader audience, starring as the businesswoman in the Netflix limited series Self Made.Spencer says she can relate to Walker's effort to provide black women with beauty products that were designed specifically for them.

"I remember one of the first jobs I had ... there was no makeup for me," Spencer says. "From then on, I always carry my own makeup. I don't have to now, but I definitely [carried] my own makeup to sets."

Interview Highlights

On fighting for more money with every role

I think a lot of people lose the advantage in the negotiating process if they are not willing to walk away. And I'm always willing to walk away.

I always, always fight ... for a raise. Always. And [I] always got a raise, with every single job, because I've always prepared just to walk away. And sometimes I've had to walk away because productions won't budge. And I'm fine with saying no. I think a lot of people lose the advantage in the negotiating process if they are not willing to walk away. And I'm always willing to walk away.

On black women in Hollywood being paid less than white women

Oh, that was apparent from the start. You could tell by what an actor/actress gets in their deal. You can tell what an actor gets by what they receive on the sets. No one's actually going to tell you what they make, but you can tell. I mean, we all knew, because what happens is when they're putting together a production, they would cast the male lead, the white female lead, and then they come to you. And it's like, "Well, we've given out all of our dollars. So here's the change." And that's usually by the time they get to you ... there's very little money.

I just knew that I wasn't going to take that much longer, especially with what I've been able to achieve as an actress. And women that I worked with, Viola Davis, Taraji P. Henson, Jada Pinkett Smith, I mean, we all talk and we started talking numbers and realized that there definitely was a disadvantage that women of color receive and with regard to pay. And we shared information and we all learned how to speak up and say exactly what we want and dictate the terms that we needed in our negotiating process.

On the claustrophobic period costuming she wore in Self Made

I've done a lot of period pieces, but they were [set] in the '60s or the '50s. I'd never done anything from earlier, actually. I didn't realize that I wouldn't like the costumes. And I don't mean the style, I mean the fact that women had to be so covered up. I mean, everything: the gloves, and the long skirts, and the petticoats and the hats. ...

I didn't realize how claustrophobic the costuming would feel, especially with corsets on and all of that. So the clothes were really constricting in a way that I didn't enjoy. They were beautifully, beautifully done. But I was not a fan. And I understand bra burning. I would say I would corset-burn and I would burn the petticoats. I mean, it was just ridiculous what women had to wear — and the stockings and the little boots. It was a lot of clothes.

On whether she had any reservations about playing a maid in The Help , given the limited roles for black women in Hollywood

Not at all, because I think these women represented real people in our society, people who did noble work. ... Well, like my mother, like so many people, I mean, who facilitate the lives of other people. And I would be remiss if I somehow looked down or found myself superior in any way. I thought that character was well-rounded. She had a wonderful arc in the book and I was honored to play her.

On growing up in Alabama and losing her Southern accent

One of the ways that I paid for college was through oration and speech competitions. And that's one of the things that you do, you lose your accent. ... Only for me, I lost my accent only to find it again in Hollywood. I mean, the only people I know, the only women I knew growing up were Southern women. So most of the characters I play will likely be Southern, if they're from a certain class. I pick it up, I lose it. And if I'm around Southern people, it definitely comes back quite easily.

On having stage fright in front of a live audience but not on set

I actually am not the best in front of an audience. I have severe stage fright. So I had to confront that. And in public speaking, I always get extremely nervous before any speech that I have to do, and that has not dissipated at all. And so I had to embrace the fact that I will likely always have stage fright. So I don't know [if] that actually helped me as an actor, but I definitely — I've made my peace with it.

I don't [have anxiety on a film set], because the crew isn't there to be entertained. They're doing a job and I'm there doing a job. And so it's a very different medium of film and television versus stage or public speaking. Now that I think about it, I think it's about performing, if you're bored or if I'm entertaining you, I guess maybe that plays a part. But it's not anything I ever really thought about the why. I just know the what. And that is — nerves. They're always there.

On her role in the 2013 film Fruitvale Station , playing the mother of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old man who was fatally shot by police in Oakland, Calif., in 2009

I have nephews and I just remember when I would go home for Christmas back to Alabama, I would always worry, as they grew up and would go out with their friends, I would always get a pit in my stomach. And I imagine that most black mothers do have those same feelings. And when I read the script for Fruitvale Station, I knew that I had to play that role, not just for myself being an artist, but for all black moms who have that pit in their stomach every time their child leaves the house. ...

I hoped that by telling Oscar Grant's story that gun violence and the relationships between young black men and policemen, those types of instances where violence occurred would diminish. But sadly, I think the impact for me, it felt as if things escalated. And it's a club I think no one wants to be a part of, a mother who loses a son to police brutality or gun violence. It's one of those projects that will always be special to me, and I was grateful to be a part of it. It seems like it hasn't diminished in our society. I think definitely those occurrences are still happening today.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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