Octavia Spencer And Naomi Watts On 'Luce' And Breaking Out Of Hollywood's Boxes

Their new movie is a stirring, unconventional meditation on racial identity in America.

Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts appear together in the new psychodrama “Luce,” but the actresses have experienced divergent career trajectories in recent years. Spencer, who this decade amassed three Oscar nominations for playing quick-witted sidekicks, is finally a headliner, landing the sort of meaty lead roles that Watts has gotten since her career-defining turn in 2001’s “Mulholland Drive.” Meanwhile, most of Watts’ recent work ― no matter how fantastic her performances ― has struggled to find a wide audience, lost in a crowded marketplace that isn’t responsive to projects without well-branded franchise affiliations.

Such is the reality for a movie star as the 2010s draw to a close. Those who’ve been underestimated, like Spencer, can finally speak out. But even if their voices are heard, Hollywood’s economics leave them facing an uphill battle to get their work seen. The types of movies that Watts and Spencer make run the risk of going unnoticed.

Which brings us back to “Luce,” a worthwhile conversation starter about two liberal suburban parents (Watts and Tim Roth) and their bright son (the great Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who was adopted from the African country of Eritrea, where he was once a child soldier. A provocative essay he writes about the revolutionary Frantz Fanon alarms his dedicated teacher (Spencer). What does it mean for a Black instructor to think a student of her own race could be plotting something horrific? How do his well-meaning white parents approach a situation that implicates America’s suspicions about immigrants and potential radicalization?

“Luce,” directed by Julius Onah (“The Cloverfield Paradox”) and based on a play by J.C. Lee, raises a lot of questions and doesn’t offer easy answers. It is, sadly, not a movie that’s likely to make it big at the box office. But it is very much a vehicle that reminds us how powerful actors like Spencer and Watts are when given material this rich.

I sat down with Spencer and Watts for a quick conversation about their relationship, recent career milestones and the need to distance themselves from how their work is received.

When did the two of you first meet?

Octavia Spencer: We met years ago on “Allegiant.”

Naomi Watts: I’m trying to remember the exact moment. I think we were in a scene with lots of people. I do remember having that big moment when we had to ―

Spencer: Duke it out?

Watts: Yes. I remember it being very cold.

How would you characterize each other as an actress?

Spencer: The best of the best, you know? You hope as an actor that your scene partner is going to be present and in the scene with you, and Naomi is beyond that. You literally brought something new with each take, and are right there, very present. So wonderful.

Watts: Oh, back at you. Yeah, I mean, you have a connection to the material, you’re there and you’ve obviously been thinking about it a lot. And by the time you get to the set and you’re in the room with someone as great as Octavia, then you feel like, OK, my game has to be at its absolute best. Once you get the cameras rolling, it just happens because, if it’s a great screen partner, it just elevates you organically.

Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Naomi Watts in "Luce."
Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Naomi Watts in "Luce."

Octavia, “Luce” and “Ma” are rare movies for you in that you are not used for any sort of comedic relief, nor are you some kind of sidekick. I’m curious what that means to you at this point in your career.

Spencer: Well, I chose this role because she was unlike any character that I had ever played. It just so happens that “Ma” came out first. I shot “Ma” after “Luce,” but Harriet [the teacher in “Luce”] was the most intense character and the most complex character that I had read to date, and she made me uncomfortable in the fact that she was heroic in her own mind but I don’t know that she is a hero to all people. I’m used to playing these heroines, these sages, women with all the answers. They are strong, they know, and it was so great to not have any of that. It was so great to just be flawed, to have imperfections that were clear to everyone else but maybe not to her.

What did you make of how “Ma” was received, given that it was your first true lead role?

Spencer: Can I tell you something? I don’t really know how “Ma” was received. I was in London when it came out. We made $45 million [in total]. I was thinking, you know, it would make $5 million. So as far as what people think of it, I don’t know. I can only tell you what people have written on my text chain and Instagram. But you know, it was a fun character. Again, different.

The appeal of a movie like “Ma” is exactly that: being able to say, “We’ve never seen Octavia Spencer do anything like that.” When you can get to that stage in your career, I have to assume it feels like a mark of recognition and success.

Spencer: You know what, it may not be for some people. Maybe some people only want to see you a certain way, so it goes back to what we feel about this movie: putting people in boxes and having perceptions of who they should be. For me, I’m round, so I don’t do well in boxes [laughs].

In the wake of the Oscars, how did it feel to find yourself at the center of the conversations about “Green Book” and its portrayal of race?

Spencer: You know what, honey? I don’t take in all that stuff. When I was working on “Green Book,” I was just dealing with the context of what was happening in my little world. Now, if there were conversations about what it meant to other people, I’m not the person to ask because I can only tell you from my bubble of things.

Octavia Spencer in "Ma."
Octavia Spencer in "Ma."
Universal Pictures

Do you feel ― both of you ― like when you have completed a project and it’s entering the world that you have to just divorce yourself from whatever results from it?

Watts: Yes, we do. It’s such a process and a hard thing when you get to that point, letting it go and waiting for other people’s judgment. Most people have gone through a few things where they have not succeeded, and it’s painful. You’ve put your blood, sweat and tears into it, and you approach it in such a deep and personal way, so when it doesn’t land well, it hurts so much. So it’s better to just stay at arm’s length and let it live and hope for the best. We all go into every project with great intentions. We’re trying really hard to make something that speaks to people, that connects to people. So that’s why, when it doesn’t work, it does hurt.

It’s a tough market right now, especially for a movie like this. Naomi, you’ve been involved with a string of recent projects that haven’t found a huge commercial life. I’m thinking of “Gypsy,” “Demolition,” “The Glass Castle,” “Ophelia.”

Watts: It’s so hard to even get in the theaters for more than two days.

In thinking about the last few years or so, does it give you pause?

Watts: No. No, I keep trying. Like, why? “Oh, it didn’t work? Oh, I better sit this one out?” No. I’m not there for the calculative experience of, like, this has to make X amount of money in the box office and get critics’ blessings all the way. No, I’m not there for that part. I’m there for the process of filmmaking and the telling of the story. I hope it lives on beyond that point, but it doesn’t mean I should stop doing that.

Naomi Watts in Netflix's "Gypsy."
Naomi Watts in Netflix's "Gypsy."

Is it, however, a consideration in taking something like the “Game of Thrones” prequel, where you know there’s a built-in audience already feverishly analyzing whatever they can get their hands on? There’s a leaked photo of you in costume that is floating around on the internet.

Watts: No, it’s not. It’s not good for me to talk about it. All I know is that I’m excited to be part of that world. “Game of Thrones” was such a successful piece of storytelling on so many levels, so well-executed, and it just seemed like a good idea to get involved. Now it’s a completely new group of people. And hopefully the fan base comes along, but there is room for new people as well.

Spencer: Trust me, we are ready.

Watts: I’ve already said too much.

What did you think of the end of the series?

Watts: I thought it was great. I know some people were saying, “Ah, but this should have happened and this should have happened.” But I feel like that is just part of the grieving process. It’s come to an end. It’s not ours anymore.

Spencer: I did a whole Instagram about it. Because it was so beloved and event television, no one was going to be pleased if you were in the Mother of Dragons’ corner, if you were in Jon Snow’s corner, if you were in Arya’s corner... No one. Maybe Sansa’s people because she became queen. But you know, that is what’s so wonderful ― they’ve really played out all of those storylines. So I’m excited for you, Naomi.

Does it feel weird to know that people are sneaking photos of you on a set?

Watts: Well, it was a bizarre moment to catch it because it was pretty high-level. I mean, we were being shielded quite a lot. That person was quite nifty.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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