By Chancellor Agard
March 18, 2020 at 04:34 PM EDT
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Playing the title character on Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker was an endurance test for Octavia Spencer.

"We shot 240 pages in eight weeks," says the Oscar-winning star of The Help, who leads the Netflix limited series (debuting March 20) about the famed businesswoman. "It was one of the most difficult jobs I've ever done because it was a lot of material that I had to carry. It was every day on the production, and I have not had to work every day on anybody's production."

Amanda Matlovich/Netflix

The workload, though, befits the show's subject. Set in the early 20th century, Self-Made tells the story of Walker, a real-life advocate for women's economic independence and entrepreneurship who built a revolutionary brand of hair products for black women and eventually became the first black female self-made millionaire. In Spencer's childhood home, she was an icon, especially because Walker was the first free person in her family.

"'You can do anything in this world and you should not be limited in your dreams' is what my mom always taught us. Madam C.J. was a part of my upbringing, and a part of my dream-building for myself," says Spencer, who last garnered an Oscar nod for 2017's The Shape of Water. "To be a part of telling her story, of course, I leapt at the chance."

Amanda Matlovich/Netflix

Spencer's connection with Walker only grew once production started. First, she learned Walker died on her birthday, May 25, albeit 51 years earlier. "I got chilled to the bone when I realized we have that date in common." Before her death, Walker suffered from dizzy spells, and while shooting, Spencer started feeling light-headed and eventually discovered she had vertigo. "Having that ailment at the time that I was filming, it was just too much of a connection and it was just too weird," admits the actress, who gets shaken recalling how scared she felt when she realized her balance was off. "I literally just got really panicked in my body because it is such an out-of-body experience to constantly be in motion and I didn't know what was going on. [Executive producer and director] Kasi Lemmons was like, 'Well, you just have to use it.' I've never had that type of experience."

After shooting three projects back-to-back (including Self-Made) in 2019, Spencer decided to step back from on-camera work to focus on her other passion: producing. "I'm not giving up acting," says Spencer, who appears in this year's Dolittle, The Witches, and Onward. "But I want to be a person who develops and creates more opportunities for different, varied voices to be heard."

Self-Made premieres Friday on Netflix.

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