‘Self Made’s Octavia Spencer on Telling Madam C.J. Walker’s Story Now
“Ain’t nothing a colored woman can’t do when she set her mind to it,” Madam C.J. Walker (Octavia Spencer) declares in a new drama about the entrepreneur. She would certainly know. The four-part Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker recounts her remarkable true story: At the turn of the 20th century, the impoverished daughter of former slaves worked out of her home, starting a hair care line aimed at women of color.
Within a decade, the business had earned her incredible wealth and the distinction of being the country’s first female self-made millionaire (of any race). Oscar winner Spencer, also an executive producer on the series, which costars Tiffany Haddish and Blair Underwood, lets us in on the secrets of her success.
How did you first hear about Madam C.J. Walker?
Octavia Spencer: She was a standard bearer in our household — my mom taught us about her. We grew up [in] humble beginnings [in 1970s and ’80s Alabama], and my mom wanted us to know our station in life did not dictate our path in life. A woman who was one of the first in her family to be born free of slavery became a millionaire. If she could do that, we could do anything we set our minds to.
Why did you want to dramatize her life?
I felt like it was time. We were fresh off of Hidden Figures [Spencer’s 2016 biopic about NASA’s black female mathematicians of the ’60s], and we didn’t know those women had existed. I thought it was historical fiction! I knew that Madam C.J. Walker existed, [but] her legacy had become obscured by time.
Where did her drive come from? She faced so much adversity yet never gave up.
She’s a unique breed of person, which is why she’s in that pantheon of history makers. She had the temerity to persevere. It’s just something in [her] character.
Did you enjoy the gorgeous period costumes?
No. It’s a pain in the ass! I’m claustrophobic, and they wore things all the way up to the neck, long sleeves and gloves and boots and long dresses and petticoats. Based on that, [any project set] before 1950, I’m not interested! [Laughs]
Between Self Made, the Apple TV+ series Truth Be Told and the horror movie Ma, you’ve broken out as an above-the-title star in the past year.
Having led Truth Be Told, having led Madam C.J. and a couple of other things, it’s like, Oooh, I really enjoy an ensemble piece. [Laughs] The lead has a lot of responsibility.
Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, Series Premiere, Friday, March 20, Netflix