By Christopher Bagley
Updated May 06, 2019 @ 9:00 am
Octavia Spencer
Credit: Emman Montalvan

I am going to be 100 percent real with you,” Octavia Spencer says when we sit down at a restaurant one morning in L.A., not far from her home in the San Fernando Valley. She seems to mean it. Over the next hour, whether we’re discussing her salary negotiations, her stage fright, her dyslexia, her hairstyles (wigs included), or her issues with the way the fashion industry treats non-skinny people, Spencer has a knack for speaking the truth.

But if you’ve seen a certain movie trailer in recent weeks, your most pressing questions might be about another topic: her starring role as a murderous psychopath. In the horror film Ma, out May 31, Spencer plays an isolated woman who lures a group of teenagers into her home and proceeds to torture them one by one. After two Oscar nominations (for Hidden Figures and The Shape of Water) and one win (for best supporting actress in The Help), it’s her first titular role.

Spencer has always insisted that her films have something important to say. What about Ma? “This one might be the exception,” she says, letting out a long laugh.

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In fact, the more Spencer talks about Ma and everything else, the more it’s clear that this is all part of a well-considered plan. Over the past few years, despite her growing collection of awards and despite Hollywood’s efforts to address its chronic diversity problem, Spencer, 49, was still getting offers for types of characters she’s played all along: sweet nurses, sassy maids. (“I didn’t realize there were so many maid roles in the pantheon,” she jokes.) So she issued a challenge to her old friend Tate Taylor, who directed The Help: “Find me something to do that I haven’t done.” Taylor came upon the script for Ma, whose deeply damaged protagonist, Sue Ann, was originally written as a white woman.

Spencer is a longtime fan of the horror genre (her character even got her face sliced in half in Halloween II), so on the set of Ma she had no qualms that Sue Ann had to do some pretty bad things, such as sewing the popular girl’s mouth shut with a needle and thread. Actually, Spencer was a little too convincing for one young cast member, who almost had a panic attack after shooting a torture scene. “I had to constantly check in with the kids,” Spencer remembers.

Octavia Spencer
Credit: Emman Montalvan

“‘Everybody OK? We still know we’re making a movie? Are you good?’ It was a little touch-and-go sometimes.” As for the movie’s deeper meaning, Spencer points out that horror films, like fairy tales, are usually allegorical, and in the era of social media there’s something especially relevant about a grown woman looking for acceptance in all the wrong places.

“She really needs to be a part of this group of kids, and she really needs them to like her,” Spencer says. More broadly, Ma is very much a genre film, “one that will sit with you for a few days and make you look at the actor in a different way, which is what I wanted.”

Spencer got her first acting role in 1996, when she was working as an assistant on the set of A Time to Kill and had the guts to ask the director, Joel Schumacher, for a small part. (Of course, he cast her as a nurse, but at least it was Sandra Bullock’s nurse.) During the years of endless auditioning and occasional minor roles that followed, the actress says she never considered any other career. “I guess I see things differently from other people in terms of success,” says Spencer, whose mother worked as a maid. “I’m from Montgomery, Ala. I’m a woman of size, with a character-actor face. When I was paid to do that little job in A Time to Kill, I’d already become successful. Someone had already paid me to do what I knew I was destined to do. So, for me, it was only about getting better and just following the ride up the ladder.”

These days, as she nears the ladder’s upper rungs, Spencer has made it a crusade to ensure that she and other women, especially women of color, get paid what they deserve. In 2017, when Jessica Chastain (Spencer’s co-star in The Help) was getting ready to shop around a new comedy with Spencer attached, the two discussed their fees during a phone call. Spencer told Chastain her expectations and revealed how much she’d been earning previously. “Jessica was completely silent,” Spencer recalls. “When she started to talk again, her voice quivered. She said, ‘Octavia, you and I are going to get paid exactly the same on this.’ And she never wavered.” Though the movie, which eventually went to Universal, isn’t in production yet, Spencer’s salary increased by a factor of five.

Octavia Spencer
Credit: Emman Montalvan

Since then Spencer has been refining her hardball negotiating techniques. And while the final decisions about casting and compensation are still often made by male studio executives, Spencer has discovered that the men in the room are more interested in equality than people expect. “Sometimes you only need to ask,” she says. “And sometimes you need to ask and also hit the table.” It also helps to be ready to walk. “When they say, ‘Take it or leave it,’ they don’t think you’re going to leave it. But when they know you’re prepared to leave it, things change.”

Allison Janney, who’s been a close friend of Spencer’s for 18 years (they also co-starred in The Help), says she has learned a lot from watching Spencer turn down unworthy offers. “Octavia is very fierce,” says Janney. “When she says no, she just tells her agent, ‘Thank them.’ It’s her way of saying, ‘I’ve drawn my line in the sand, and I’m not moving it.’ ” Spencer is now one of the main people Janney calls for advice on business matters, including her salary. “I’m like, ‘Octavia, does this sound right to you?’ And she’ll go, ‘Absolutely.’ Or she’ll go, ‘Hell, no! Hell, no!’ She inspires me to be tougher.”

Spencer also sees plenty of room for change in the way the fashion world treats women with bodies like hers. “Now, this is going to ruffle some feathers,” she says. “I love clothes. I don’t know many women who don’t love to be pretty when it’s time to be pretty. But fashion has not always been kind to women who look like me.” If anything, Spencer says, her experience on the red carpet go-round has left her less interested in fashion because the industry makes little effort to include her. “They don’t market to me. If they did, they would make so much more money! Because there are so many more women who fit my demographic. But I’m not going to chase it. So I just smile and say, ‘Whenever you guys come to your senses.’”

Octavia Spencer
Credit: Emman Montalvan

Meanwhile, Spencer has been on a health and fitness kick, thanks in part to new buddy Mark Wahlberg, her co-star in Instant Family. “I’ve realized that the fountain of youth is exercise and diet—it really is,” Spencer says. “So I’m just trying to right that ship, making small changes every single day.” Last year she started posting some of her 4 a.m. workout sessions (one of them with Wahlberg) on Instagram, partly to hold herself accountable in case she’s ever tempted to quit and partly to share the struggle with others. From the online comments it’s evident that she’s been motivating many women who are in turn motivating her. “People are saying, ‘How did you do it? Because I’m having a hard time just getting up.’ And I think, ‘You know what? So am I.’”

On the subject of her beauty routine, Spencer also doesn’t put on airs. Usually she goes to her longtime hairstylist at a local salon. For jobs and appearances it’s a different story. She gives me a knowing look and flashes a smile. “Because then it’s not my hair!” she says. “And there are not a lot of people who’ll tell you that. But I don’t want my hair burned out and styled within an inch of its life. My hair is just as healthy and pretty as the wig. But am I going to let you burn it out every time? No.”

Spencer’s main area of influence may be her quest for fully developed roles. These days that often means doubling as a producer to find and shape her own content. “People write what they know,” she says. “And if women’s issues aren’t their issues, or if seeing an African-American woman as the love interest isn’t something that’s part of their daily routine, then why would they write it?” At Apple’s mega-event in Cupertino, Calif., in March, when the company unveiled its shiny new TV production slate, she was part of a lineup that included J.J. Abrams, Steven Spielberg, and Oprah Winfrey. Spencer has also teamed with fellow executive producer Reese Witherspoon on the Apple TV+ series Truth Be Told, inspired by the book Are You Sleeping, in which an investigative reporter’s hit podcast prompts a murder case to be reopened.

No word on whether Spencer’s character will kill or torture anyone in the new series, but you definitely won’t see her in a nurse’s uniform.

Photographed by Emman Montalvan. Styled by Jason Bolden.