Octavia Spencer knows what it’s like to slow down. At the top of the year, the Oscar winner was recovering from the flu–a nasty result from working “non-stop from January to December,” she told ESSENCE earlier this month during the early fallout of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S..
“I won’t do that anymore,” she added. “It was actually terrible. I was sick for nearly a month. It was terrible.”
“We all get in a cycle where it’s [all about] work,” Spencer, who missed the premiere of her film, Dr. Dolittle, due to the illness, “but it’s important to have a balance between work and restorative rest. I definitely understand the value of it now having coming out on the other side of a terrible flu season.”
It’s why Spencer is remaining “prayerful” as thousands of Americans are battling coronavirus. “It’s a scary time,” she added.
But there is a silver lining thanks to all of the mandated social distancing happening across states. Streaming services are offering a much needed distraction from battling the virus, and Spencer’s turn in Netflix’s Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, trended on the platform over the weekend.
It tells the story of beauty entrepreneur Sarah Breedlove, who went from being a washer woman to becoming Madam C.J. Walker, the first female millionaire in the United States. She was so wealthy during her heyday that she purchased the Villa Lewaro estate, seen in the miniseries, a 28,000-square-foot property that was the first home owned by a Black person in Irvington, New York. The home, which boasts 34 rooms, is now owned by ESSENCE Ventures Chair Richelieu Dennis, who’s turned the property into an entrepreneurship think tank.
“My mom, when we were kids, used her as an example of what we could aspire to be,” Spencer said of Madam Walker. “We had nothing and to know that she couldn’t even own property or vote and amassed a fortune–she was the first self-made female millionaire of any ethnicity in this country and she was able to do that with no resources.”
And although Spencer was “born of humble beginnings” and grew up during the “I’m Black and I’m proud”-era of Alabama, being shielded from the racism that still permeates the state today, her mother called on the name of Madam Walker “as a way to inspire me and my siblings to be limitless.”
In Self Made, viewers see Madam Walker leaning on her third husband, C. J. Walker, played by Blair Underwood, and Freeman B. Ransom, the eventual millionaire’s legal counsel, to make things happen for herself and her company–whether it was securing investors to create her own manufacturing company, or securing a space for her first-ever convention of women entrepreneurs.
Men as allies is a strategy Spencer herself had to use nearly a century later when negotiating her contract for Self Made, ironically enough. In fact she tapped the men behind SpringHill Entertainment, the production company founded by LeBron James and his longtime partner, Maverick Carter. (He’s the one who helped the Los Angeles Laker secure a billion-dollar contract with Nike.)
I know that Maverick and LeBron made that call and intervened and the next thing I know I got what I wanted.
“We were in the negotiating process and we had reached an impasse with certain things that I felt like I needed in my contract,” Spencer began. “I called Maverick and LeBron to let them know, you know, ‘Thanks everybody and everybody at [production company] Wonder Street, but I think we’ve reached an impasse in these negotiations.”
“If I don’t get what I feel like I deserve, I can easily walk away–and not very many people can. I grew up with nothing so I live beneath my means. I have very simple things that I need and that keeps me in check and that keeps my integrity.”
Although Spencer didn’t reveal exactly what she needed on the business-side to star in Self Made, she did note that her involvement was solely due to James and Carter stepping in on her behalf.
“I don’t know what was said, but I know that Maverick and LeBron made that call and intervened and the next thing I know I got what I wanted,” she detailed. “The fact that they knew that they had to intervene; that they knew that they had to advocate for me and that they did, that’s important.”
Spencer, who first spoke about the incident last year, added, “It’s sad that it had to happen, but guess what? If I didn’t get what I wanted, I was not going to be apart of the project. And I’m glad that they did advocate because Madam means a lot to me in my own personal history.”
Self Made, also starring Tiffany Haddish and Bill Bellamy, is streaming on Netflix now.