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

Mar 16, 2020
Originally published on March 20, 2020 6:39 am

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. - Octavia Spencer

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.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I hope you're feeling well and that you're not too isolated. As the pandemic continues, we're going to keep bringing you a mix of timely interviews, stories about the virus and interviews with interesting people that we hope will be entertaining, thoughtful and just help provide good companionship for our many listeners stuck at home.

Today's guest is Octavia Spencer. She won an Oscar for her first big film role in "The Help," playing a maid in Mississippi in 1963. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in "Hidden Figures," as the head of a unit of African American female mathematicians doing calculations for NASA to help launch the first Americans into orbit. She also received an Oscar nomination for her performance in "The Shape Of Water," which won an Oscar for best picture.

Now she's starring in the Netflix limited series "Self Made," which is inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker, who was born in 1867 on a plantation in Louisiana to parents who had been slaves. After first eking out a living washing clothes for other families, she became a successful businesswoman selling hair products for black women, eventually becoming the first self-made female millionaire. In the Netflix series, which will be streaming starting Friday, Octavia Spencer plays Madam C.J. Walker.

In the first episode, when she's still working as a laundress, she's feeling ugly because her hair is falling out. Her husband has told her she looks like a mangy dog. She tries a hair product that claims to restore lost hair, and it works. Soon, she starts selling her own version of the product to poor, working black women like her. Here she is at an open market trying to sell her product to a crowd of women.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SELF MADE: INSPIRED BY THE LIFE OF MADAM C.J. WALKER")

OCTAVIA SPENCER: (As Sarah Breedlove) Sisters, let's talk about hair. Hair can be freedom or bondage. The choice is yours. Want a better station in life? Need to make more money? Come on. Let me show you how.

(CROSSTALK)

SPENCER: (As Sarah Breedlove) I had a Cain versus Abel relationship with my hair. Bet some of y'all do, too, huh?

(CROSSTALK)

SPENCER: (As Sarah Breedlove) See I was born free, two years after emancipation. Was orphaned by 7, married at 14, pregnant at 15, widowed by 20. Had to fend for myself and my baby girl. Only work I could find was in the fields or as a washerwoman. Didn't have time to take care of my hair. I know you know what I mean. Hard work on the farm, ain't it?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Wanted to work at the new hotel, but they say I ain't got the right look.

SPENCER: (As Sarah Breedlove) How many y'all know what she talking about?

(CROSSTALK)

SPENCER: (As Sarah Breedlove) They put us down, don't give us nothing, tell us we're ugly, make us feel ugly.

(CROSSTALK)

SPENCER: (As Sarah Breedlove) I'll tell you what - you come by my salon, I'll do your hair for free.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You got yourself a deal. But you got me on wondering why I would do something for nothing.

SPENCER: (As Sarah Breedlove) But you some of y'all are wondering why I would do something for nothing - 'cause I know how hard it is to care for her hair. I know what it's like to not have running water or products made for us. But most important, I know if she look good, we all look good.

(CROSSTALK)

SPENCER: (As Sarah Breedlove) If you look respectable, we all look respectable.

(CROSSTALK)

SPENCER: (As Sarah Breedlove) Everything we do as Negroes reflects back on us. So if I can help one person, I'm lifting us all up.

(CROSSTALK)

SPENCER: (As Sarah Breedlove) Wonderful Hair Grower gives me the confidence every day to beat the enemy, slay the demon, fight the good fight as a colored woman in America. Wonderful hair leads to wonderful opportunities.

(CROSSTALK)

SPENCER: (As Sarah Breedlove) You hear me? Did you hear me?

GROSS: Octavia Spencer, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SPENCER: (Laughter) Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about Madam C.J. Walker's importance in American history?

SPENCER: I can. I can tell you that Madam C.J. was a standard-bearer in our household that my mother used to inspire my siblings and myself to strive to be the best that we could be, and so 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. And she built an empire for hair care for women of color - black women, actually. And she was the first self-made female millionaire in this country, and the fact that her story isn't known by the masses, I think it's time that we tell it.

GROSS: Did your mother use Madam C.J. Walker's hair products?

SPENCER: No. I don't even know if they were still around then. She - basically, we had nothing. And Madam C.J. was born, you know, humbly as well. And she was a woman of purpose, and that's what my mother used to motivate us to be the best that we can be, to reach our potential. And so I've always known about her, and I've always felt that her story was germane to who I am as a black woman.

GROSS: So if - she not only did hair growth product; she did other hair products. I think she made hair straighteners and cosmetics for African American women.

SPENCER: Yes.

GROSS: And so, like, when you got to Hollywood, did you feel like that was still an issue, having good hair products for black women, getting good makeup on sets, getting good lighting from - in the movies if you have dark skin?

SPENCER: (Laughter) Absolutely. I remember one of the first jobs I had, I - you go to set and expect to be made up, and there was no makeup for me. And from then on, I always carried my own makeup. But I don't have to now, but I definitely carried my own makeup to sets. And yes, it is still pervasive that women of color have to have someone who knows how to light them. It's something that we struggle with within the profession.

GROSS: Madam C.J. Walker, as we heard, describes her as having had a Cain versus Abel relationship with her hair.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Did you ever, like, struggle with your hair? And did that affect your feelings about your chances of becoming an actress?

SPENCER: No. My mother - I grew up in a household with - there's six girls and one boy. So my mom, I used to love to watch her wash and style my sister's hair, and so she taught me how to do that. I didn't have a Cain and Abel relationship with my hair; I do now because I'm so used to other people doing it. But...

GROSS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: But I didn't back then.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Octavia Spencer, and she's now starring in the new Netflix limited series "Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker."

So I want to ask you about the clothes that you wear in "Self Made." It's set in the early 1900s, and you start off as, you know, a washerwoman who launders the clothes of white people. And you're wearing those kind of, like, floral-patterned house dresses, I think they were called, you know? Tell me what it's like to dress as you dressed in those clothes.

SPENCER: Well, if I'm going to be 100% honest, I've done a lot of period pieces, but they were in the '60s or the '50s; I'd never done anything from the - 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. And for a person who is claustrophobic, I didn't realize how claustrophobic the costumings would feel, especially with the corsets on and all of that. So the clothes were really constricting in a way that I did not enjoy (laughter). They were beautifully, beautifully done, but I was not a fan. And I understand bra burning.

(LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: I would say I would corset burn and petticoat - I would burn the petticoats. All - I mean, it was just ridiculous what women had to wear and the stockings and the little boots (laughter).

GROSS: So you are in the amazing position of having, like, your first big role win you an Oscar for best supporting in "The Help," which for our listeners who haven't seen it, is from the point of view of a white journalist writing a book about a couple of African American women in the South working as maids for wealthy white women. It was based on a novel by a friend of yours, Kathryn Stockett, who told you - you played one of the maids. And she told you that this character was based in part on you, not on your work but on what? On what aspects of you did she draw?

SPENCER: Well, I didn't know Kathryn. She was actually very good friends with Tate Taylor, the director and writer of "The Help." And I had met her once, and it was while we were in New Orleans, and it was summer. And I was on a diet, which those two things (laughter) really didn't bode well for Tate because we were doing, like, some sort of tour, and it was hot and August. And so I was actually very haughty.

And I think as she was basically writing "The Help," she really didn't have a grasp of who Minny was or her physicality, and I think she saw this part of my personality that was - you know, I'm the type of person - I am a straight shooter, and that's kind of, I think, what she drew from. But we didn't really know each other. I think it was just a surface part of what she drew from.

GROSS: So at what point did you find out that she drew from you to create the role that you ended up playing?

SPENCER: I - she asked me to read the manuscript. Let me tell you - when you move to Hollywood, everybody has a manuscript, and it's usually terrible. And...

GROSS: This is the manuscript for the novel.

SPENCER: For the novel. And I - she asked me to read it, and I just kept putting it off. And one night, I sat down and read it. And - well, what - the way she got me to read it, actually - she said, well, I wrote this, and I'd love for your opinion, and I loosely based Minny on you. And of course, my curiosity was piqued, but I just - it was such a thick manuscript, and I'm thinking, if this is terrible, I do not want to waste my time. And of course, it wasn't terrible. I found it very interesting, and I literally read the book in one sitting.

GROSS: And at what point did it get offered to you as a role in the movie adaptation?

SPENCER: I think Tate had always earmarked that part for me. We were - we had been friends for a long time. And as he was adapting it, he - you can't make those promises because it's - you know, it's up to the studios, whoever the project - whoever produced the project. And - but he always knew that he wanted me to play that part. And Kathryn always knew that she wanted me to play that part. And it was finally offered to me. I think Viola had been attached and Emma and then my role because this - Tate knew he wanted me, but I don't think the studio knew they wanted me. So I auditioned...

GROSS: The famous Octavia Spencer.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's, like, no one knew you.

SPENCER: No one knew me. And there were so many other people that - whose name, you know, they did know. But I was certainly grateful that the - DreamWorks decided that they wanted me to portray Minny and - but it was because of Tate and Brunson Green, who is also a dear friend. And Kathryn and I have, of course, become friends subsequently. But I - that's just - it was the role of a lifetime.

GROSS: There were decades in Hollywood when the roles that black women got were maids, and there were very few roles available to African American women. And that has left some African American actresses feeling like, I don't want to play a maid. So did you have any reservations about that? Now, this is a kind of special case because you liked the novel. You were part of the inspiration for the novel. A dear friend of yours was directing the movie adaptation of the novel. So it was kind of special. But, you know, did you have any reservations?

SPENCER: Not at all because I think these women represented real people in our society, people who did noble work. And it was - she's a...

GROSS: Like your mother, I may add.

SPENCER: 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, you know, 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. And I can tell you, I would play a maid again if the role were better than the character from "The Help."

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Octavia Spencer. And she's now starring in "Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker."

It's a Netflix limited series. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED NASH'S "THE FOUR FREEDOMS (FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Octavia Spencer. And she's now starring in the Netflix series "Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker." It will be up on Netflix on Friday.

In "The Help," like, the most famous scene is when you have presented a chocolate pie to the woman whose employ you have been in. In an act of revenge, you bake your excrement into the chocolate pie and tell her after she's eaten a bunch of it and talked about how delicious it was. And she, of course, is horrified afterwards and runs to the bathroom. I'm wondering if that scene was, like, nauseating to shoot even though it was not - there was no excrement for real in the pie.

SPENCER: It was - I had - to be quite honest with you, when I read the book - or the manuscript, that was the one thing that I just - I think if Minny had done that, I don't think that she would have revealed it. I think that would have been her little secret. But it's just...

GROSS: OK. Why do you say that? That's a really interesting perception, I think.

SPENCER: Well, because people - I mean, it was during the '60s, and people were killed for far fewer infractions, I think. That was just one of those things - I don't think she would have put her family in jeopardy or her own life in jeopardy. So it was one of the - and I voiced that to Kathryn. But that was - it was definitely one of the things that - I loved the book, but that was the one thing that stuck out for me. But actually, filming it with Bryce - I mean, Bryce is an amazing actress. And we had so much fun with Sissy, who, you know, one of my favorite actresses of all time...

GROSS: Sissy Spacek. Yeah.

SPENCER: We had a lot of fun shooting the scenes (laughter).

GROSS: So how'd it feel to you when your suggestion that Minny would not have done this was rejected?

SPENCER: You know, I don't know that it was rejected. I mean, I had an opinion. And ultimately...

GROSS: I guess what I'm asking is, you had to play something that you didn't believe in.

SPENCER: Well, I guess I didn't have - I didn't feel one way or the other. I voiced my opinion about it. And you know, it's interesting, but it was the one thing that I did have reservations about.

GROSS: You grew up in Montgomery, Ala. And can I ask what year you were born?

SPENCER: No (laughter).

GROSS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: I'll say 1975...

GROSS: Ish? Or...

SPENCER: It was sort of around in that time.

GROSS: OK, -ish (ph)...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. So what were the schools like when you were going to school? And were there books that you read in your formative years that were very influential for you?

SPENCER: Well, I actually was dyslexic - or am dyslexic. And I had just a love-hate relationship with reading. And it was my first-grade teacher who - actually, my second-grade teacher who really changed my reading career because she introduced me to mysteries and The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. But I was - actually, Encyclopedia Brown, because at the end of the Encyclopedia Brown books, you would always have the clues.

And the way she kept me engaged with the narrative, she would always say, you have to pay attention to everything because you don't know what is going to be a clue. So my deductive reasoning skills were developed reading mysteries. And I now have a great affinity for mysteries. And it was because of my second-grade teacher, Ms. Bradford (ph).

GROSS: That's such a great story.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, I've spoken to several actors who have dyslexia. And I always wonder, like, how do you manage to memorize your lines when you have dyslexia?

SPENCER: Well, I'm auditorily inclined. And so I record all of the other characters in the scene. Yeah, I record all of their lines and leave space for mine. And that's what I do all day, walk around. I walk around and hear my own voice cues with their lines. So it's basically, I say the lines...

GROSS: With the script in front of you so that you could read them?

SPENCER: Yeah. If I go up on a line, yes...

GROSS: OK.

SPENCER: ...I always refer back to the script, yes.

GROSS: Got it. So you're walking around with a script in your hand...

SPENCER: Mmm hmm.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...Ready to...

SPENCER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Fill in the blanks and correct yourself, if necessary.

SPENCER: Exactly, yeah. It's my routine.

GROSS: My guest is Octavia Spencer. We'll talk more after a break. And Ken Tucker will take a look at K-pop, a style of music from South Korea, and he'll review a new album by the vocal group BTS.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS ROBERTS' "GLADIOLUS RAG")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Octavia Spencer. She won an Oscar for her performance as a maid in "The Help" and was nominated for Oscars for her performances in "The Shape Of Water" and "Hidden Figures." Now she's starring in the Netflix limited series "Self Made," which will start streaming Friday. It's inspired by the story of Madam C.J. Walker, who was born soon after the Civil War to parents who had been slaves. In the early 1900s, she sold and manufactured hair products for African American women and became the first self-made American woman millionaire. Octavia Spencer grew up in Montgomery, Ala.

So as I hear you talk now, I'm not hearing a Southern accent. I've heard you with Southern accents in some of your roles. Did you have an accent when you went to Hollywood? Is that something that you lost or that you never had but that you knew well enough so that you could call on it as needed for performances?

SPENCER: Well, I - 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. And only - for me, I lost my accent only to find it again in Hollywood (laughter). 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. If, you know, it's - I pick it up. I lose it. And if I'm around Southern people, it definitely comes back quite easily.

GROSS: So how did oration speech competitions pay for your college?

SPENCER: There were monetary prizes for a few that you would enter. It wasn't a great deal of money. But for me, there were scholarships involved, but small monetary. And you'd piece them together to help pay for college - at least that was my way.

GROSS: So what are some of the topics that you had to orate about?

SPENCER: Oh, man. I...

(LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: I can't even remember. I think, actually, you know, I remember excellence, black excellence. I definitely remember one that was about black excellence.

GROSS: Do you think that the oration speech competitions were helpful in terms of having an acting career? I mean, it's kind of a performance. And you have to do it in front of an audience.

SPENCER: Well, I actually am not the best in front of an audience. I have severe stage fright. So I had to confront that and 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.

GROSS: My impression is that you first thought really seriously about acting after seeing the movie "The Long Walk Home" being shot in Montgomery, Ala., where you lived. So - and you managed to work your way into working on the film, I think, as an intern. How did you talk your way into working on the film?

SPENCER: Oh, I annoyed them.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You annoyed them?

SPENCER: When I found out where the production offices were, I went by every day to tell them, you know, that I needed to work on that film. And they were so annoyed that they knew that I was going to continue to come back if they didn't give me a job. And so I was paid a hundred dollars a week as an intern. And it was - I don't think I had ever been happier about anything.

GROSS: So what was your job as an intern?

SPENCER: As an intern, I worked in the extras casting office. And we did the open calls and signed people up. And they all had their period costumes, so they had to come in for their costume fitting. So I was there monitoring that. And then when we actually filmed, I kind of was the extras wrangler. So I had to keep them entertained.

And what I would do is make these certificates because all the extras wanted was to meet the actors. And so I would get the actors to sign about 10 certificates. And then in extras holding, we would have talent contests. And the extras would vote for each other. And the best ones would get the prize, which were the signed certificates by the actors.

GROSS: And this was all your idea?

SPENCER: That was all my idea.

(LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: Well, I mean, if they're going to be there for 12, 13 hours, you have to keep them entertained, so they would come back, especially for continuity and large crowd scenes. And it was usually just for those days that we did - that I did the certificates.

GROSS: So at what point did you decide to go to Hollywood?

SPENCER: Well, working on all those projects, the one thing that always happened - my boss would do the location casting and the extras. And the directors would always have, like, a one-line part that they were trying to cast. And they would always refer to me, like, someone - get someone like Octavia. And then they would ask me to read for stuff. And I was actually, I guess, too shy or nervous to audition. And so I would always say - I would always turn the parts down or the audition down.

And then we were working on "A Time To Kill" in Mississippi. And Joel Schumacher was the very first director who didn't ask me to read for something. (Laughter) And so I went to him. It made me, actually, more proactive. I had to go to him and ask him to read for the part of a woman who started the riots. I don't know if you remember the movie. And he said, no. Your face is too sweet to start a riot. You should read for Sandy's nurse. And he gave me the part. And I went on to play about 32 nurses for...

(LAUGHTER)

SPENCER: ...In Hollywood. He started my career. But that - I think it was the fact that - I don't - if he had asked me, I don't know that I would have been as forward. I probably would have turned it down and missed out on the career that I have today.

GROSS: I don't understand. Like, you wanted to be in movies. You wanted to be an actress. And directors were asking you to read. And you wouldn't do it.

SPENCER: I wouldn't do it for fear that I wouldn't get the part, I guess. I don't know. Sometimes, we fear our own success. And I think not being offered that part made me know that I wanted to actually do it. And I had to commit. And the rest is history.

GROSS: So you played a lot of nurses. Was that mostly on TV?

SPENCER: I played a lot in - TV films, it was a nurse No. 1, baby nurse, nurse No. 2, then they'd give me a name. I mean, I was - Steven Bochco, I was - I had a lot of nurse parts with Steven Bochco. He was so good to me.

GROSS: When did you break out of the nurse lane?

SPENCER: I mean, I actually never broke out of the nurse lane. I was a nurse not even six years ago on a show called "Red Band Society" (laughter). I finally had to say, no more nurses. So I don't I ever broke out of it. It was just a realization that I probably should stop being typecast as a nurse.

GROSS: So when you first moved to LA, you moved with Tate Taylor, who became the director of "The Help," the movie you were in and won an Academy Award for. So what did you do to find a place when you first got there? Did you have money from your film jobs in Alabama?

SPENCER: I had $3,000 (laughter) to my name, which - I mean, when I think back on it, whoa. I was - he had a housesitting job, and then when I found out he had a housesitting job, I thought, well, I can get a housesitting job. And so I got a housesitting job (laughter).

GROSS: How did you do that?

SPENCER: Tate was sort of - we - I - there was a young man that I had worked with on "Tom And Huck," and his parents were affluent, from Huntsville, and decided that he - you know, he was, like, maybe 13, and he needed someone to drive him to auditions and everything. And so I housesat for the parents and drove him from time to time to auditions when he needed that. So I was able to live for free and pocket my money from my day job.

GROSS: Good deal.

SPENCER: Yeah, it was a great deal (laughter).

GROSS: It was probably a very nice house.

SPENCER: I recommend it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Octavia Spencer. And she stars in the Netflix series - it's a limited series called "Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker." It begins on Friday. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. LONNIE SMITH'S "TALK ABOUT THIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Octavia Spencer. And she's now starring in the new Netflix limited series "Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker," and it will be on Netflix starting Friday.

I want to ask you about your film "Fruitvale Station," which is based on the 2009 shooting of an unarmed black man, Oscar Grant, at a BART station, a Bay Area transit station, in Oakland. He was shot by a BART police officer. You played the young man's mother, who feels so guilty after she's shot - after he's shot because the mother had said, don't drive, take the train; it'll be safer. And of course, he's killed on the train. Did this story have special significance for you?

SPENCER: It did. I had - 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 - or 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 aunt, but for all black moms who have that pit in their stomach every time their child leaves the house.

GROSS: The film had such resonance because there was so much going on that related to the film. After the film came out, you know, Michael Brown was shot. Other young men were shot in ways that the whole nation knew about it because they became national stories. Sometimes it was captured on cellphone video. And awareness of what was happening to - you know, to young black men who were unarmed and getting shot by police, like, awareness of that really grew, especially, you know, among white people, who weren't as aware of it as African Americans were. And I wonder if, like, in retrospect, that made the film even more meaningful for you because it had such social and political resonance.

SPENCER: Absolutely. I hoped that by telling Oscar Grant's story, that gun violence and the relationships with 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 it - 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. Yeah. I - it's one of those projects that will always be special to me.

GROSS: You helped save the film. The film had run into funding problems. You helped rescue it from the funding problems. What were you able to do?

SPENCER: Well, that movie was made for - the budget was $900,000, and $150,000 - they lost $150,000, which was a lot of money for a $900,000 budget. So what I did was I put in some money and I called, you know, Kathryn Stockett and a couple of people that I knew.

GROSS: She wrote the novel "The Help."

SPENCER: "The Help," yes. And she invested and a couple of other friends, and we made sure that we replaced that $150,000. And I also - they had me in this amazing hotel. I just - I just sort of - I don't think I allowed them to pay me. We just put that money back into the pot, and they gave me an executive producer credit - Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi - for actually helping to bridge the money gap.

GROSS: And I'm sure nobody regretted it and that everybody got paid back and then some.

SPENCER: And then some. We did.

GROSS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: One of the issues that you've fought for in Hollywood is equal pay for women and equal pay for black women. When did you realize that you weren't getting the same amount that white women doing the equivalent work were getting?

SPENCER: Oh, well, that was apparent from the start. I mean, (laughter) you can tell. 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 they all - what happens is, when they're putting together a production, they would cast the male lead, the white female lead, and then they'd come to you, and it's like, well, we've given out all of our dollars, so here's (laughter) - you know, here's the change. And that's usually - by the time they get to you, you know that there's very little money.

And I just knew that I wasn't going to take that, you know, much longer, especially with what I've been able to achieve as an actress. And, you know, women that I've worked with - Viola Davis, Taraji Henson, Jada Pinkett Smith - I mean, we all talk. And we started talking numbers and realized that there definitely was a pay disadvantage that women of color receive with regard to pay. And, you know, 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.

GROSS: When was the first time you stood up for more?

SPENCER: Actually, I always fight for every single job I - we always fought for a raise, always. And we always got a raise (laughter) with every single job because I've always prepared to walk away. And sometimes I've had to walk away because productions won't budge, and I'm fine with saying no. And 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.

GROSS: Octavia Spencer, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for coming on our show.

SPENCER: I - this was so fun for me. I'm such a fan. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Oh, thank you so much.

Octavia Spencer stars in the new Netflix limited series "Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker." It starts streaming Friday. After we take a short break, our rock critic Ken Tucker will take a look at K-pop, a style of music from South Korea, and he'll review a new album by the vocal group BTS. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES HUNTER'S "I'LL WALK AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.