190602 Octavia Spencer
Octavia Spencer Image Credit: AP

Eight years ago director Tate Taylor and actress Octavia Spencer scored the summer’s biggest sleeper hit with ‘The Help’. (She went on to win an Oscar for the best picture nominee.) Now they’ve reunited for a very different kind of surprise: the deliciously bananas Blumhouse thriller ‘Ma’, a shockingly gory R-rated thriller about a mild-mannered woman (Spencer) who turns stalker on the teens she befriends.

As the longtime friends and collaborators tell it, Spencer was frustrated with the lack of interesting characters coming her way when Taylor called with an intriguing offer: a twisted tale that would let the Academy Award winner flex her darker impulses and show off a side of herself nobody had seen before.

“He said, ‘I have a horror film for you,’ and I said, ‘Let me stop you, because black people always get killed in the first 15 minutes,’” said Spencer, sitting next to Taylor on a basement couch in a historic West Adams mansion littered with red Solo cups and party detritus, set dressing evoking the ramshackle party pad of ‘Ma’.

Role reversal

“He said, ‘Not only are you not getting killed in the first 15 minutes — you get to do the killing.’ I said, sign me up!” she said, laughing.

Spencer stars as Sue Ann, a quiet small-town veterinary assistant who buys alcohol for a group of local teens one day then offers her home to her new friends as a place to party. The kids affectionately dub her ‘Ma’ for her welcoming hospitality, including Diana Silvers as Maggie, a newcomer to town who begins to distrust Ma’s outwardly friendly facade.

But as Ma’s becomes the go-to party spot in town, secrets from the past reveal themselves and her obsession reaches a ‘Fatal Attraction’ pitch. Juliette Lewis, Missi Pyle and Luke Evans also co-star as former classmates of Sue Ann’s.

“What’s really special about ‘Ma’ is Octavia Spencer,” said producer Jason Blum, comparing her turn to Kathy Bates’ in ‘Misery’. “It’s very new and very different and hasn’t been done in a long time, to have an actress of that stature in a super fun, super scary R-rated movie.”

For a character like this to work you’ve got to have empathy for her. And feel guilty because you’re kind of ... glad she’s doing some of this stuff.

- Tate Taylor, Director

It’s a tour-de-force departure from type for Spencer, who was also Oscar-nominated for ‘Hidden Figures’ and ‘The Shape of Water’. She gleefully cranks up the crazy in ‘Ma’, scripted by Scotty Landes and Taylor from a story by Landes, while finding surprising humanity in the character — even as she’s teetering on the brink of sanity and, in one of the film’s demented scenes, sewing the lips of a chatty teen together with a needle and thread.

“For a character like this to work you’ve got to have empathy for her,” Taylor leans forward conspiratorially with a wink in his eye. “And feel guilty because you’re kind of ... glad she’s doing some of this stuff.”

Alabama native Spencer and Mississippian Taylor first met as production assistants on the set of 1996’s ‘A Time to Kill’ before moving out to LA together. The Geminis will be spending their birthdays apart (Taylor turns 50 the day he begins filming his next movie, starring Allison Janney; Spencer, back in LA from the UK where she’s been working on ‘The Witches’, jokes that she’ll be celebrating her 41st birthday “again”).

“We did good,” he smiles. “It took 25 years, little PAs driving out here. She’s in London shooting a movie but we’ll still call each other in our underwear, laughing about it.”

The pair talked with about their best friendship, projects and more in an interview that has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Are you two indeed BFFs?

Taylor and Spencer: [Simultaneously] Yes.

Taylor: We were roommates for seven years. I adapted ‘The Help’ while we were roommates and she would scream at me, ‘Minny’s my part!’

Rarely do Oscar-calibre actresses lead movies like this, but rarer still is a genre film in which a woman of colour is front and centre. How did ‘Ma’ become your first horror collaboration?

Taylor: It’s so serendipitous, how all this happened. It was meant to be. She had expressed frustration to me about being offered the same thing, and that women of colour don’t ever get to be the lead of something. Jason [Blum] and I had a general meeting, and I said, “I want to do something [expletive] up!”

Regrettably, we can’t print that word.

Taylor: They can’t, can they? Messed up!

What does that mean to you, your idea of “messed up”?

Taylor: What it meant for me was ‘No rules,’ and that’s what’s great about the Blumhouse model. It’s really in many ways an experiment. The budgets are so low. They had just gotten this script and pitched me the idea. I read it and I came back and said, ‘What about Octavia?’

Without spoiling the twists and turns of ‘Ma’, what was important for you to convey in terms of Sue Ann’s humanity, given the extreme and gory lengths she goes to?

Taylor: Sue Ann needed to be likeable and we needed the audience to be really confused, hoping she would stop doing these things. I wanted the audience to wish they could push pause on the movie, somehow walk into the film, and go, “Sue Ann, listen. Let’s go get a coffee.”

Octavia, how did you find the person beneath the monster that Sue Ann becomes?

Spencer: You can’t effectively play a character that you judge, so I had to do a lot of research. She exhibits character traits that are abnormal — I research things, because I live in the true crime world.

Taylor: Murder TV.

Have you ever met somebody in real life who you’ve suspected could be...

Taylor: I’ve dated them. [Looks at Octavia] I’m not kidding.

Spencer: I’m not touching that ... but I’ve met some suspect people. It’s in the eyes! When people feel like they constantly have to be a certain way, and they constantly have to please you and you never get to see the real person... I’m like, why is it that you never get mad? That’s a human trait. People have bad days. When people don’t have bad days, I get a little nervous.

You cast Allison Janney in ‘Ma’ as Sue Ann’s terrible boss. Did you just call all your friends up to make this movie?

Taylor: [To Octavia] She told me last week we’d been friends for 20 years.

Spencer: I’ve been saying 18, making us sound younger!

Taylor: Us, Allison and Melissa McCarthy - we were all struggling. Allison had just gotten this pilot called ‘West Wing’. But when you all genuinely love each other and you’re all struggling, you become family. You just want to be a part of helping everybody. So Alison’s always like, ‘I must be a part of everything you do. What am I in ‘Ma’? I said, “There’s a vet ...” and she said, ‘OK!’ It’s too damn hard not to make it fun, this business.

At this point in your career, how do you view the power of your work?

Taylor: I think Octavia is infinitely relatable and that’s a powerful thing.

Spencer: I just feel lucky that I get to work with my best friend on projects, I feel lucky that great scripts are coming to me — and great scripts that I turned down for different reasons — and that I get to work at this level. If I can be an influence to anyone to pursue their dreams and know that they’re worthy, then that’s what I’m going to take from it.

Don’t miss it!

‘Ma’ is now showing across the UAE.