Octavia Spencer and 'Self Made' Cast on Why Now Is the Time to Tell Madam C.J. Walker's Story (Exclusive)

The actress and producer says she didn't want the business mogul to be 'omitted by time.'

Octavia Spencer is no stranger to playing inspiring women, and in her new miniseries, she's portraying a real-life icon.

In Self Made, a four-part series that premieres on Netflix on Friday, the Oscar winner stars as Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C.J. Walker, a black hair care pioneer and business mogul in the early 1900s, who broke ground as America's first female self-made millionaire.

"Madam C.J.'s story is fascinating," Spencer tells ET's Rachel Smith of the impressive role. "It's the fact that she actually existed, that she was able, at the turn of the century, to amass the wealth that she did. She's the first self-made, female millionaire of any ethnicity of this country, and she didn't have the right to vote and she didn't really have the right to own property. That says a lot about who she was."

Self Made is based on the book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, written by A'Lelia Bundles, Walker's great-great-granddaughter, who also served as a consultant on the series. The show details how Walker made her fortune in developing and marketing a line of cosmetics and hair care products for black women and later, became a well-known activist and philanthropist.

"It's really a modern story, think about it," adds Spencer's co-star, Bill Bellamy, who plays a savvy banker named Sweetness. "I mean, she got up by her bootstraps, said I want to create a product, no one believed her, she kept fighting for it and got it done... The vibe is still real today, for all the women, that you guys can kick butt and start a business or follow a career a certain way and live your dream. That's what I think is the universal story."

"When Christine and Mark Holder brought the project to me, I jumped on board, because I knew how important Madam's legacy was," Spencer says of developing the series. "And the fact that we hadn't told her story in this medium, I felt that the time was right. Especially since I felt like, we knew about Madam C.J., but her story is almost gone. I didn't want her to be omitted by time. And it was just important to be a part of it. We got to do it with Maverick Carter and LeBron James [the SpringHill Entertainment co-founders serve as executive producers on the project] and I mean, it's just a wealth of riches."

The aptly described "wealth of riches" also extends to the Self Made cast. Spencer stars alongside Tiffany Haddish, who plays Walker's daughter, Lelia, as well as Bellamy, Carmen Ejogo, Blair Underwood, Garrett Morris and more. The actress and producer was especially impressed by Haddish, who makes an unusually "serious" turn in Self Made.

"You know, we see her funny all the time, but she had to go places in this role," Spencer notes. "She had to be vulnerable in this role and it was wonderful to see that."

"I couldn't keep a straight face because of her, and because of Octavia," says Underwood, who plays Charles James Walker, Spencer's on-screen husband. "Octavia's silly too."

"But what I love about both of them, they're funny, yes, they're very talented, but they're both incredibly bright and sharp as a whip and intelligent, so I'm blown away by both of them," he adds. "Once you get past just the good times, which we always had, you start talking about, like, what inspires you, how did you get here and where are you going, projects you're working on and producing... They're just powerhouses, both of them."

However, there was one "very uncomfortable" detail to the making of the period piece, at least for the female stars -- the fashions. "A lot of underwear, boots, petticoats, corsets, long skirts," Spencer says with a laugh. "I'm so glad that we burned bras, and in my life, it's about burning those corsets. But, you know, we had a wonderful time going back in time."

For Bundles, the project has been a long time coming. "I wrote my first paper about Madam Walker's daughter, A'Lelia Walker, when I was in high school in 1970," she recalls. 

"This story was optioned by a couple of Hollywood studios, and the option came back to me because it wasn't produced. We had about a 10-year period where not very much was being made in Hollywood with black characters, because the conventional wisdom was that it doesn't sell overseas. And then #OscarsSoWhite and Selma and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave happened and changed the narrative. And then women directors were pushing forward, and this story that had been bouncing around and crossing people's desks for a long time, now all of sudden, was something that a lot of people were focusing on."

But Walker's descendent had nothing but praise for Spencer, for her role as both the star of the series and a force behind the scenes, pushing the project forward. That professional muscle, Spencer noted, is what she finds empowering in her own career as she continues to play inspirational women.

"Knowing my value, knowing my worth, knowing that I am trying to contribute for other women to also know their value and their worth," she tells ET. "Knowing that I create opportunities for people to realize their value and their worth. That empowers me."

Self Made is streaming now on Netflix.


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