In another life, Octavia Spencer would be cracking cold cases. But what was holding Spencer back from pursuing a career in law enforcement and depriving us of an Oscar-winning thespian?
“I probably would have [entered law enforcement] if I weren’t squeamish,” Spencer says of her early career ambitions.
In this life, Spencer is a damn good actor who is content with soaking up all the true crime podcasts her ears can handle. For her latest role, in which she plays a journalist and true crime podcast host on the new Apple TV+ series Truth Be Told, Spencer finally gets to put on an investigative hat.
“My first love would’ve been to have been a profiler for the FBI,” she says. “But then I thought, well, I can be an attorney… And here we are.”
“The natural progression,” chimes in Spencer’s co-star Aaron Paul with pitch-perfect comedic timing. Paul will later claim during this interview that he isn’t funny and shies away from doing comedies. The decorated actors are sitting in close quarters, bumping shoulders with journalists at a roundtable in a cramped hotel suite. Two large microphones are the centerpieces of the table. The window view screams Beverly Hills, but it could just as well be a basement podcast recording.
“I do think I can pick out the sociopath in a group at this point,” Spencer jokes, surveying the table. She credits her childhood teachers for exposing her to mystery stories. “Deductive reasoning kept me engaged with a narrative,” she says. “I’m drawn to those types of books. In real life, it’s like, can I figure out who the real killer is? It was a natural progression.”
Her passion for the genre led her to become a driving force behind Truth Be Told, on which she’s credited as an executive producer. She’s far from alone in evangelizing for the genre. Recent TV hits like Making a Murderer and podcasts like Serial made this project—based on the 2017 novel of the same name by Kathleen Barber—a hot commodity in Hollywood, eventually landing at Apple Studios. Truth Be Told was the first show the tech giant greenlit in its bid for relevance amongst the streaming elite.
The first wave of Apple TV+ shows launched to mixed reviews. Truth Be Told comes as the second wave–along with M. Night Shyamalan’s eerie thriller Servant–for the streaming service when it releases three of its eight episodes on December 6. Spencer and Paul headline a cast full of familiar faces. The limited series follows Poppy Parnell (Spencer), a respected journalist and podcaster who reopens the murder case that made her a national sensation. Parnell, at least partially out of guilt, seeks to vindicate Warren Cave (Paul), the man she may have mistakenly put behind bars. Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex) and Elizabeth Perkins (Weeds) are also on the call sheet in pivotal roles, Michael Beach (If Beale Street Could Talk), Mekhi Phifer (8 Mile), and Ron Cephas Jones (This Is Us) also co-star.
Spencer and Paul have found plenty of success in the TV world and now Apple TV+ is turning to them for topline credibility. The studio is betting on the duo, as well as deeply affecting performances from Caplan and Perkins, to thread the needle with star-power, topical themes, popular source material, and a slam dunk genre as their playground.
The main draw in the trailers for Truth Be Told are the dramatic heavyweight bouts between Spencer and Paul. At this point in their respective careers, both actors are enjoying the autonomy that comes with success. Paul recaptured some of the magic from Breaking Bad by reprising his career-changing role as Jesse Pinkman in the Netflix feature El Camino and he’ll be a key player in Westworld season 3, which looks like a sizeable shakeup for a series. Spencer is racking up awards buzz at every turn, most recently with Hidden Figures and The Shape of Water. It’s her producing career, however, that is soaring like a rocket; Ryan Coogler’s powerful debut feature Fruitvale Station might not have crossed the finish line had Spencer not stepped in to help raise money when the film’s funding was in jeopardy.
The prospect of working together was a major factor in both actors committing to the project. Spencer says Paul was at the top of everybody’s list. “You don’t want to call and pressure anybody,” she says. She did it anyway. It worked. “I jumped on board because of [Octavia Spencer], really,” Paul says. You don’t hang up on an Oscar-winner.
In terms of the actual material, it’s somewhat familiar ground for Paul: messy families, dark secrets, twists, and the past coming back to haunt you. In El Camino, we see Paul tackling the same questions as Jesse Pinkman. In flashbacks to the Breaking Bad timeline, he’s held prisoner by Neo-Nazis. In Truth Be Told, he’s in federal prison. He’s on the other side in more ways than one: Warren Cave becomes a Neo-Nazi behind bars. That’s one twisted “natural progression” for the actor. He recalls leaving the set one day and calling an Uber because his car was in the shop. He forgot he still had the nazi tattoos on his body.
“[The driver] actually turned on a Christian station,” Paul says. “He started preaching words to me, and I’m like, ‘Oh my tattoos.’ I had to explain to him I am working, I’m an actor. I really don’t feel comfortable in these tattoos. It was just really hard to see on my skin.”
He continues: “When you see [Warren] very early on, he has these tattoos all over, plastered all over his body. You automatically assume he is an evil man, and then more and more layers are revealed that not everything is as it seems. Doesn’t necessarily make him innocent, but just a little more complicated.”
The start and end of each episode use the investigative podcast as a narrative device. Through it, viewers will unlock the mysteries of the case, and deeply rooted racial and sociological questions that accompany it, with the characters. Paul says showrunner Nichelle Tramble Spellman would plant information and secrets about the other characters to her actors. Paul never had that experience on set before.
“It’s creating, planting a seed of a backstory about another character,” Paul says. “Not necessarily your own character, but it’s interesting. It’s just more things to kind of help you play with creating and molding on this person.”
It’s Spencer’s Poppy Harlow who will be one of the more controversial figures in the show. Her motives to revisit Warren’s case and her personal history come under scrutiny.
“When [Poppy] started there wasn’t social media,” she says. “People still read their newspaper, and they still read their magazines. Now, fast forward 20 years. If this little kernel of information had leaked out, what if someone else saw that [Warren] could have been innocent? That she may have put an innocent young man in jail? Would she have been a part of let’s cancel Poppy? You know how easy cancel culture is.”
Through the character and the show overall, Spencer wanted to examine the larger impact true crime stories are having and how public perception can touch more lives than we care to think about. Rest assured, Octavia is on the case.
“For me it was just about dealing with our fascination with true crime,” she says. “But at the end of the day, we have to remember that there are people at the center of those crimes and what does that mean. What does it say about us as a whole?”