The filmmaking friends on preparing for the murderously merry making of Ma: '[Octavia's] favorite way to relax is to go home, get in her underwear in her bedroom, and doze in and out of murder TV for three days.'
Most people celebrate friendiversaries with brunch dates or wine nights, but director Tate Taylor commemorated his nearly 25-year friendship with collaborator Octavia Spencer via fictionalized acts of homicide.
“This is heaven for Octavia,” Taylor says of their deliciously bonkers horror-comedy Ma, which stars the Oscar winner as a reclusive torturess, Sue Ann, who fosters a violent obsession with (and harbors a grim secret from) a hard-partying posse of teens. “[Octavia’s] favorite way to relax is to go home, get in her underwear in her bedroom, and doze in and out of murder TV for three days.”
Taylor, whom Spencer credits with fighting for her to land the role of Minnie in The Help, learned such intimate details about her television routine when the pair lived together for seven years as up-and-coming talents in the film industry. That enduring bond (they first met while working as production assistants on the 1996 drama A Time to Kill) inspired Taylor to tweak Ma‘s initial script — originally centered around a white woman — to suit his friend’s strengths as a means to contrast, as Spencer observes, the on-screen “archetypes people only want to see me as.” (Taylor calls them “wise characters” wearing “period wigs and costumes”).
“It’s a tricky balance…. It’s not a slasher, jump-scare movie; it’s more like Misery, and that’s what Octavia needs,” Taylor explains, adding that, while he intentionally balanced gruesome horror and campy comedy in the film, he still views it as a respectable showcase of Spencer’s range as an actress. “If she was a flat-out killer with no character development, I think it’d be a comedy. When she was in Rob Zombie’s Halloween, she was all excited because she was the first person to get killed in that movie. I went to see it, and as soon as she got killed, people started laughing. That left an indelible mark in my mind…. I always knew that, when given this opportunity, she could be funny, [but] when it needed to get serious, I wanted to make sure I protected my friend so people would take the movie seriously. It’s no fault of hers, but people think of this warm, funny person, so that was the trick: build in her darker moments slowly so they weren’t [always] on the heels of comedy.”
Spencer says her pre-established affinity for serial killer-themed material (Forensic Files, in particular) “decompresses my mind — I need to know if I can figure out who the killer is!” But, performing Sue Ann’s horrifying acts in Ma (like sewing a girl’s mouth shut, applying a scalding iron to a young man’s stomach, and running an unsuspecting woman over with a pickup truck) required a much deeper dig into malevolent psychology.
“She’s a normal person when you first meet her, but underneath there’s a loneliness and sadness that I empathized with as a human,” Spencer says of the character, though she quickly closes the case on this killer: “If you don’t walk out of this movie feeling extremely disturbed…”
Getting through the gritty bits, Taylor remembers, was always a joy thanks to the duo’s time-tested chemistry on set.
“She got frustrated with the sewing part because she didn’t know how to do it right,” he recalls with a laugh. “I kept saying, ‘Cut! It doesn’t look like you’re sewing!’ [And she’d joke back] ‘F— you! I don’t sew!'”
Still, Spencer had “a full-on blast” making the film.
“It was like, let your hair down and go crazy,” she says. “But the things I had to do as a character… there would be something seriously wrong with me if I found any pleasure!”
Ma opens this Friday. Watch EW’s exclusive clip from the film above.
A version of this story appears in Entertainment Weekly’s summer TV preview issue, on stands now or available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.