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Luce lets Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts play complicated women. Here’s how they did it.

The film challenges the viewers’, and the actresses’, notions of racial privilege.

Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Naomi Watts in Luce.
Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Naomi Watts in Luce.
Larkin Staple/Neon

Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts both had their work cut out for them in the provocative independent film Luce. Watts plays Amy Edgar, who, with her husband Peter (Tim Roth), adopted a young boy from Eritrea named Luce; 10 years later, he’s a star athlete and model student in his high school, on the verge of graduation and a bright future.

But strange things suddenly start happening at the school, and Luce begins clashing with his teacher, Harriet Wilson (Spencer). She is determined to make sure he doesn’t fritter away his future, but Luce resents how she holds him up as a good example, especially to the school’s other black students.

Based on an off-Broadway play by J.C. Lee, Luce, which premiered at Sundance in January, is the story of complicated people navigating issues involving race, privilege, adoption, and the conceptions we form of others, whether or not they deserve it. It’s a tense, sometimes incendiary movie that constantly challenges the audience. You never know who has the upper hand in any conversation, or who is telling the truth.

I met with Watts and Spencer in New York to talk about their roles in the film, whether you can judge a character you’re playing, and how they feel about telling people what the movie’s about. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Naomi Watts in Luce.
Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Naomi Watts in Luce.
Jon Pack/Neon

Alissa Wilkinson

You both play very complex women in this film, characters about whom it’s easy to feel conflicted. How did you get into their heads?

Naomi Watts

I came to this project because Octavia was already attached, and instantly I was like, okay, I’m going to read this right now. And sure enough, in one sitting, it just leaped off the page. I felt they were really great characters. It was a performance- and character-driven movie, but at the same time, super involved in juicy topics. And uncomfortable, yes — but worth going there.

Amy was a character I could really lock into, because she’s complex and full of contradictions, and that’s obviously exciting as an actor to play. I’m drawn to women like that: not necessarily Amy, but complex women who are full of contradictions. That’s interesting to me. All my friends are like that.

Amy is so well-intentioned. She thinks she’s got it all squared away. But it’s clear she has a lot of blind spots.

Octavia Spencer

You want to play characters that are complex. You want to play characters that don’t have all the answers. It allows you to go places emotionally with the character. And Harriet definitely has her blind spots. It’s like she has tunnel vision, and the tunnel vision is excellence and perfection, and Luce is the child she’s chosen to be the standard-bearer. It’s important to her that he lives up to that standard. So she has tunnel vision, and the blind spots are glaringly obvious to me.

Naomi Watts

[Amy and Harriet] kind of have a common goal: They want this kid to succeed. And it is quite self-serving as well.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yes — both characters are motivated by a bevy of things, which includes altruism but also includes other motivations.

Naomi Watts

Amy, like any parent, wants the best for her kid. She’s seen that he’s capable of so much. He’s an A student. He’s a star athlete. He’s polite. He’s got great values that they’ve imparted. They’re very, very liberal-thinking, open-minded, but to a point.

She wants the best for him, and it makes her feel good about herself when he succeeds. That is the self-serving aspect, and that’s what makes her complex, and not as good as she thinks she is.

Octavia Spencer and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Luce
Octavia Spencer and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Luce
Jon Pack/Neon

Octavia Spencer

Harriet’s motives and her identity is also tied to Luce’s success. If he succeeds, she continues to shine. She continues to have the role of kingmaker. She gets to continue being the person who chooses what the standard will be. Her goal is to see him succeed at all costs. And that’s why she tries to engage the parents: “We may have a problem here, but I have the answers.”

Naomi Watts

She’s controlling.

Octavia Spencer

Yes. Controlling.

Alissa Wilkinson

So when you’re digging into a complicated character, you’re bringing yourself into the role. Did playing these roles change you in any ways?

Naomi Watts

For me, and for Tim [Roth], there were moments on the set where we were like, “I’m irritated by these people striving for so much perfection.” They were pleased with themselves, and that was irritating.

But you don’t want to fall into the trap of judging your character, as an actor. You can’t play a role with true empathy and hope to connect with an audience if you’re operating from a place of judgment. You have to forgive, and be willing to go where you need to.

Octavia Spencer

I disagree ideologically with Harriet. So for me, I had to take myself out of [the equation] and deal with what was real for her, and justify why her actions meant so much to her. She had a lot of things going on in her life. She was dealing with a mentally ill sister and trying to make sure that she was functioning in the world. She has all these levels of perfection that she is trying to achieve. I had to take myself out of that equation and bring only Harriet’s truths to the table.

Alissa Wilkinson

Where do you disagree with Harriet?

Octavia Spencer

As a teacher, she was focused on one child meeting his full academic potential, instead of all of the students reaching that. It’s great that one child, Luce — a very privileged child — had those opportunities. But the child with the least [privilege] should have had the most attention. Others lost their chances. I think that’s where her vision and her blind spots were glaringly obvious to me, but not to her.

Alissa Wilkinson

So when you both watch the film now, what do you take away from it? What would you hope other people take away from it?

Octavia Spencer

Because this movie deals with so many issues, if I were to point to only one issue I thought you should pay attention to, then you might not see all the other things that could speak to you. So I stay away from telling people what to think. I only hope that they come with an open mind and allow themselves to think afterward, because this is definitely a thought-provoking film.

Naomi Watts

I feel the same. I hope there’s a willingness to address these uncomfortable or awkward conversations with someone you trust. And if you are not completely resolute in your ideology, ask questions and be curious. By having the conversation, by naming its uncomfortableness, can we get closer to understanding it better?

Alissa Wilkinson

It feels like the kind of movie people will leave the theater wanting to talk about.

Octavia Spencer

And that’s what we want. We want you to keep talking.

Alissa Wilkinson

I imagine that’s really satisfying, for you.

Naomi Watts

I also think it puts faith in the audience as well. It’s yours to unpack and sit with. It’s not all tied up in a bow. I think that was a very deliberate, intentional decision.

Luce opens in theaters on August 2.