With 'Ma,' Octavia Spencer Finally Gets The Bonkers Role She Deserves

An inside look at how Tate Taylor's thriller became Spencer's first lead vehicle, in a part originally written for a white actress.
Octavia Spencer in "Ma."
Octavia Spencer in "Ma."

Finally, the moment Octavia Spencer has been waiting for: a time to kill.

Since 1996, Spencer has more often than not played slight variations on the same few roles. A cursory tally of her IMDb credits yields no fewer than 18 films and TV shows in which she portrayed a maid, a custodian or a nurse tending to the main character’s welfare. One of those parts was good enough to win her an Oscar, but most are barely worth a mention. And the last time she made a notable appearance in a horror movie ― 2009’s grisly “Halloween II,” playing a nurse, of course ― she was quickly slaughtered, wailing as Michael Myers plunged a knife into her back nearly a dozen times

So it was high time Spencer picked up the knife herself. But “Ma,” which opens this weekend, lets her do so much more, as if the 47-year-old actress’s first lead role is an exercise in releasing pent-up energy.

As Sue Ann, a lonely veterinary technician enacting a long-harbored revenge scheme that turns lethal, everyday items become unlikely weapons, from a sewing kit and paintbrush to a scalding iron and red pickup truck. It’s a far cry from “The Help,” even though the two movies share a director.

“Octavia was vulnerable with me and had confided in me that she’s had a great career but she’s still being offered the same exact stuff,” Tate Taylor told me earlier this month. “She’s like, ‘Women of color don’t get to do anything other than, you know, the roles you expect.’” 

Octavia Spencer, director Tate Taylor and others on the set of "Ma."
Octavia Spencer, director Tate Taylor and others on the set of "Ma."

Taylor and Spencer are best friends. Roommates for seven years while coming up in the business, they still talk “five times a day,” according to Taylor. A month after Spencer revealed she was hungry for fresh material, Taylor found himself meeting with Jason Blum, the producer who brought “Paranormal Activity,” “The Purge” and “Get Out” to the big screen. Having most recently made the underrated James Brown biopic “Get On Up” and an adaptation of the pulpy bestseller “The Girl on the Train,” Taylor wanted to do “something fucked up” next. Blum handed him the “Ma” script, written by Scotty Landes (“Workaholics”). 

After accepting the project, Taylor pitched Blum and his colleagues on casting Spencer in the lead, even though the role of Sue Ann ― who supplies a clique of small-town teenagers with booze and a party house and then proceeds to stalk them ― was originally intended for a white performer. 

“They scratched their heads for no other reason than they weren’t expecting that,” Taylor recalled. “And they said, ‘Well, do you think she would do it?’ I said, ‘Trust me.’ And I went out in the hall and called her, and she’s like, ‘Fuck yeah! I don’t even have to read it. I’m in a horror movie and I don’t get killed the first 10 minutes?’ I said, ‘Oh no, no, no, you kill people.’ She’s like, ‘I’m in!’”

With Spencer onboard, Taylor gave the script something it was lacking: a backstory. In the original version, Sue Ann was just plain crazy. But with Taylor’s revisions, she has a motivation. Those kids she befriends and lulls into her obsessive clutch have become the offspring of former classmates who tormented and violated her in high school, including a casino waitress (Juliette Lewis) and Sue Ann’s hunky crush (Luke Evans). Eventually, the teens fall prey to her delirium. That key amendment elevated the film from a woman-gone-mad saga to a vengeance fable about the effects of trauma ― less “Misery,” more “Carrie,” to borrow two Stephen King reference points. 

Octavia Spencer and Meryl Streep with their Academy Awards in 2012.
Octavia Spencer and Meryl Streep with their Academy Awards in 2012.

Blum’s company, Blumhouse Productions, which has a distribution deal with Universal Pictures, makes horror vehicles with relatively low budgets (often less than $5 million). Its directors are given a lot of creative control, which allowed Taylor to accentuate some of the heavy themes in “Ma” more explicitly than he could in, say, “The Girl on the Train.” The latter was beholden to Paula Hawkins’ novel, and what should have been a film about addiction wound up feeling more like a film about sex, Taylor said. “Ma,” despite its schlocky B-movie trappings, is very much a story of PTSD and the rage Sue Ann feels having been othered her whole life. “How does it feel to be on the outside looking in,” she asks one of her victims tauntingly. “Hurts, huh?”

“The trick to ‘Ma’ was, I said, ‘Octavia, I want her to be real,’” Taylor said. “She said, ‘Oh, honey, I got this. I know these crazy people. I watch it on TV all the time.’”

To create Sue Ann’s look, Taylor hired Megan Coates, a first-time costume designer who trained under veterans Sharen Davis on “Seven Pounds” and Ruth Carter on “Black Dynamite.” Knowing that Sue Ann’s work uniform meant Spencer would wear scrubs for most of the film, with a wig resembling Tootie from “The Facts of Life,” Coates put a lot of stock in outerwear to convey the character’s psyche. Sue Ann dresses drably to mask the anger she’s buried since high school ― or, quite simply, to make her appear less murderous.

Wanting to shop at the same discount stores that Sue Ann might frequent, Coates hit the jackpot with a purple cardigan she discovered at a Ross Dress for Less in Mississippi, where the film was shot last winter. Paired with patterned scrubs made by seamstresses at a local children’s clothing boutique, the sweater became an unlikely statement piece. 

“When I first read the script, I immediately started getting wrapped up in the psychology of it all and knowing that there was some serious physiological trauma that happened to this person to make her become who she is now,” Coates said. “What came to me was that this person has lost herself in a lot of ways. I wanted to be able to show that she is a woman who hasn’t really been able to thrive in herself or to really dig into herself. She’s been the quieter version of herself for most of her life.”

Dante Brown, Gianni Paolo, Octavia Spencer and McKaley Miller in "Ma."
Dante Brown, Gianni Paolo, Octavia Spencer and McKaley Miller in "Ma."

The “quieter version of herself” might describe Spencer’s career up till “Ma.” And this horror movie is the start of a new chapter in which the fiercely talented actress is more than a comedic sidekick or forgettable breadwinner. She is, at last, a star, with plenty of evidence to prove it. Spencer is currently shooting a remake of “The Witches” with Anne Hathaway, after which she’ll play the title character in “Madam C.J. Walker,” a Netflix series about America’s first black self-made millionaire. 

“There are only a couple of archetypes people are comfortable seeing me in. And for me, it’s like, you know, you might only be comfortable seeing me this way, but there are so many colors in this crayon box,” Spencer told The Associated Press. “I want to play everything that you don’t think I can do.” (The actress’s representatives declined my interview requests for this article.) 

Stalker, torturer, murderer? Those certainly aren’t Spencerian archetypes. They sound a bit more like Michael Myers’ purview, and that’s what makes “Ma” savory. Every actress, after all, should get to go crazy at least once. What is Spencerian is the goodwill she brings to the part. Offscreen, Spencer has charm for days ― something she milks to ensure Sue Ann’s manipulativeness wins over audiences instead of alienating them. 

“I wanted people to like Ma,” Taylor said. “My thought was, I want people to wish they could walk into this movie screen and say, ‘Can we just go get some coffee? I need to just talk to you right now. You need to just chill out.’”

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