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


This is FRESH AIR. The Emmy Awards are coming up Sunday, September 20. Octavia Spencer is nominated in the category outstanding lead actress in a limited series or movie for her performance in the Netflix series "Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker." 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," a film which won an Oscar for best picture.

We're going to hear the interview I recorded with her in March, when "Self Made" started streaming. "Self Made" 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 America.

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. In this scene, she's at an open market trying to sell her product to a crowd of women.


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.


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


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 of y'all know what she talking about?


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


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.

SPENCER: (As Sarah Breedlove) Bet 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.


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


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.


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.


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.

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 products; she did other hair products. I think she made hair straighteners and cosmetics for African American women.


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.


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 sisters' 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: (Laughter) Yeah.


SPENCER: But I didn't back then.

GROSS: So I want to ask you about the clothes that you wear in "Self Made."

SPENCER: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: 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 pattern 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 that - 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 costuming would feel, especially with the corsets on and all of that. So the clothes were really constricting in a way that (laughter) I did not enjoy. They were beautifully, beautifully done. But I was not a fan, and I understand bra-burning.


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) It was a lot of clothes.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded last March with Octavia Spencer. She's nominated for a best actress Emmy for her performance in the Netflix limited series "Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker." We'll hear more of the interview after a break.

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


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Octavia Spencer. She's nominated for a best actress Emmy for her starring role in the Netflix limited series "Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker." She won an Oscar for her performance in "The Help" and received Oscar nominations for her performances in "Hidden Figures" and "The Shape Of Water."


GROSS: You grew up in Montgomery, Ala.

SPENCER: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: And - can I ask what year you were born?

SPENCER: No (laughter).

GROSS: OK (laughter).

SPENCER: I'll say 1975.

GROSS: -Ish (ph) or...

SPENCER: We'll say around in that time.

GROSS: OK, -ish.


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, 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.


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...


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.


GROSS: ...Ready to...


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

SPENCER: Exactly, yeah (laughter). It's my routine.

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 then it's like, well, we've given out all of our dollars, so here's - you know (laughter), 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. But I - yeah, it's something that was always apparent. It's always apparent.

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.

My interview with Octavia Spencer was recorded in March. She's nominated for a best actress Emmy for her performance in the Netflix limited series "Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guests will be former FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan, who investigated international terrorism cases, including the 9/11 attacks. He opposed the CIA's use of waterboarding and other forms of torture on high-level al-Qaida detainees. The CIA redacted his 2011 memoir, "The Black Banners," but now it's being published in an unredacted edition. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper.

I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.