The Apple TV+ original drama Truth Be Told follows Poppy Parnell (Octavia Spencer, who’s also an executive producer on the series), a podcaster who has dug back into a murder case that made her a national sensation. While coming face-to-face with the man (Aaron Paul) she may have mistakenly helped to put behind bars, in order to figure out the truth in her pursuit of justice, she must also deal with demons in her own family.
During the show’s Los Angeles press day, co-stars Octavia Spencer and Aaron Paul talked about the fascination with true crime, why it was important to them to tell this story, the layers to these characters, having to wear disturbing tattoos, and what helped set them on the career path they’re on today.
Question: Octavia, is it true that you’re something of a true crime podcast expert?
OCTAVIA SPENCER: I guess I am. It’s crazy, but it’s just something that I’ve always been interested in. If I weren’t squeamish, my first love probably would have been to have been a profiler for the FBI. But then, I thought, “Well, I can be an attorney.” And then I thought, “Well, I could play an attorney.” And here we are.
AARON PAUL: That’s a natural progression.
What’s the fascination with it, for you?
SPENCER: I think you’re probably better off not having the shows because you become desensitized. For me, I’m dyslexic, and one of the things that kept me reading was that my teacher introduced mysteries to me. It was all about that deductive reasoning and keeping me engaged with the narrative. So, of course, that progressed, and I’m drawn to those types of books. And then, in real life, I was like, “Well, can I figure out who the real killer is?” And so, it was a natural progression with me. I don’t want to consume any more bad stories or details about anyone suffering through heinous crimes, but I do think that I can pick out the sociopath in a group, at this point.
What were the mystery books that you were introduced to?
SPENCER: Nancy Drew, and you name it. I was a kid to who wouldn’t read, and then found the love and joy of reading. I would just disengage. It would be like looking at word soup, on a page. My teacher told me, “You have to read everything because you don’t know what’s going to be a clue. You don’t know what small detail is going to lead to solving the crime.” And so, of course, I was looking at everything as if it was going to mean something later and paying attention to that detail.
Does that translate into the acting world, for you?
SPENCER: I think it does. When we make our choices, as actors, you lock it in.
PAUL: Yeah, you have to.
SPENCER: Building a character, when you get the wardrobe and the wigs, is about those details. When you start skipping details, the audience just doesn’t engage.
PAUL: You’re doing a disservice to the character that you are playing. As performers, you tend to add a lot more stuff that you don’t even see onscreen. With this show, our creator and showrunner, Nichelle [Tramble], would plant information about other characters, like secrets, and say, “Do not tell anybody this secret. This is just for information for you to have, to know about these characters.” I’d never done that before, which was great. It was planting a seed of a backstory about another character, and not necessarily your own character. It was interesting. It’s just more things to help you play with creating and molding this person.
True crime is obviously very culturally relevant. Why did you specifically feel like it was important to tell the stories of these individual characters?
PAUL: The reason I jumped on board was because of [Octavia Spencer]. She was attached and producing it. We were the first ones to actually roll our cameras for Apple. I read the first two episodes and I just fell in love with how messy everything became, so quickly, with these three very different families. I just loved the twists and turns and the feeling of, did these things happen? Was it caused by this particular person? Who was it? When your past comes to haunt you, what happens? Are you ever really, truly free from your past, and your past sins? I just found it so interesting. And to go head to head with this brilliant woman is a dream. We just had the best time.
SPENCER: Definitely. Aaron was at the top of everybody’s list. You don’t want to call and pressure anybody, but when he showed interest, I called him and said, “Here are some things to think about.” I was excited that he said yes because he’s brilliant. For me, telling this story, we get a chance to view ourselves, and society as a whole, and how consume so much true crime and how we forget that at the center of those crimes are real people. For Poppy, for the podcast and how it all plays out, and feeling so episodic in her mind, she realizes, “Oh, my god, at the center of this, a man was killed and all of these lives were affected.” She has to reconcile her role in that. When she started, there wasn’t social media. People still read newspapers and magazines. Now, fast forward 20 years, it’s just something that I thought about today. If this little kernel of information had leaked out, what if someone else saw that he could have been innocent, and she may have put an innocent young man in jail. Would she have been a part of cancel culture? So, for me, it was just about dealing with our fascination with true crime. At the end of the day, we have to remember that there are people at the center of those crimes. What does that mean, and what does it say about us, as a whole?
Aaron, your character is not so straightforward and black-and-white. What did that allow you to explore with him?
PAUL: That’s exactly right. All stories are perceived so differently. We all have our own point of view. Because of past circumstances that we personally went through, you may view someone completely different than someone else. That’s what really drew me in. After reading the first two episodes, I was like, Did he do this? What is this show about? What’s his point of view? And they wouldn’t tell me until the very end of shooting the show, whether he was guilty or not. I thought that was information that maybe I needed, playing the guy in the show. Nichelle was like, “No, you don’t need to know that.” I was like, “Okay, I trust you.” But I wanted to know, whether he did it or not. It also allowed me, throughout shooting this first season, to go this way and then that way. I was like, “Oh, he definitely did it.” And then, in another episode, I was like, “Okay, this is the episode where they explain that he’s innocent,” because it completely takes you down another road. Very early on, you see that he has these tattoos, plastered all over his body, and you automatically assume that he’s an evil man. But then, more and more layers are revealed that not everything is as it seems. It doesn’t necessarily make an innocent, but it’s just a little more complicated.
There very clearly is symbolism that makes a specific statement, which those tattoos do. What was it like to see yourself with that?
PAUL: Honestly, it’s hard. I had to jump into Ubers quite a bit because my car had broken down on the way to work, one day. I had this old classic car, and it was in the shop for awhile. Sometimes, late at night, I was like, “I’ll wash this off when I get home,” and I’d forget that I had these tattoos on. I’d jump into the car and I’d see that obviously people treat you so differently. I was like, “This guy is different. What’s his issue?” Then, he actually started playing a Christian station and started preaching the word to me. I was like, “Oh, my tattoos!” I had to explain to him, “I’m working. I’m an actor. I really don’t feel comfortable in these tattoos.” When they put the first tattoo on, it was just really hard to see that on my skin.
SPENCER: Every aspect of it is disturbing, but that’s why you hire the best actor of his generation to play that role. I say some pretty awful stuff to him.
PAUL: It was just so great working with [Octavia]. We always just mix it up a little bit, so you’re not really sure what you’re gonna get, from take to take. And then, we would stop and check in with each other because one take got a little more aggressive and a little more raw, and we were like, “Are we still friends? We’re good? You still like me?” We just have such love and respect for each other.
A big part of this story is the fact that this woman did a story that changed her life forever and set her career going. In your own career, was there a decision that you made to take on a role that set you on the path to where you are today?
PAUL: Yeah, for sure. Before Breaking Bad was the lowest point in my career. I had lots of ups and lots of downs, and more downs than ups, but I was also just super happy to be working. But there was this looming writers’ strike, just around the corner, and I was terrified. I had a film that was accepted at the Berlin Film Festival, that I was starring in, that was a super small indie that my friend directed. We are all going out to Berlin to represent the film, and the day before I was supposed to leave, I called my reps and went, “I can’t go. It’s during pilot season. I can’t be gone for a week.” I was so stressed. Everyone got super mad at me, but I insisted that I had to stay. Three days later, I got the audition for Breaking Bad. If I was gone, I would never even have heard of that audition or that script. I would have been obsessed with the show, and I would’ve been pissed that I didn’t get to audition. It’s crazy how luck comes into play, but also destiny.
SPENCER: For me, my destiny began with my tribe of actors that I met, starting out, with Tate Taylor, Melissa McCarthy and Allison Janney. I have this whole little group of people, and we all worked on each other’s stuff. If you had an acting part in it, then you also had to be the boom operator. For me, I always chose craft service. I wanted to be the person in charge of the snacks, so I always did craft service. That changed my destiny because who knew then that Tate Taylor would be best friends with Kathryn Stockett, and that my relationship with him would lead me to her. My relationship with him also had him and Brunson Green fight for me to get the role of Minny (in The Help). Of course, I had to audition, but the decision makers, who are producing, directing and writing, spoke on my behalf and took a chance. So, saying yes to working for free and to learning from the people around me, it was my relationships that helped me, early on, and it’s my preparation that has kept me in the game. In order to get that little part in the student film or the short project, I’m glad that I said yes to also doing craft service.
Aaron, when you did that Breaking Bad audition, was it just an audition to you, or did you have a feeling about what that could become?
PAUL: I read Vince Gilligan’s pilot script and was like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever read.” He’s just such an incredible writer. He writes to the reader. It’s not just the things that you’re seeing on screen, but the description is just so beautiful. I knew that I could have the opportunity to really take the character to another level, and thank god he cast me.
SPENCER: He would have been crazy not to.
Are you typically drawn to intense dramas?
PAUL: Have you seen my resume?! Honestly, that’s just what I love watching. I love good comedy, but I’m just not funny. I just love heavy-hitting dramas that really force me, as a person, to feel intense, deep-rooted emotions. As actors, it’s so nice to be able to really sink your teeth in there and to just transform. Even though, obviously, I’m not a fan of those tattoos, it’s putting on a different skin, and it’s incredibly helpful. I just love deep, crazy dramas. I just found my rhythm there. The story’s gotta speak to me. I guess I just like being dragged through the mud.
Octavia, you seem comfortable with comedy and drama.
SPENCER: I wouldn’t say that. I’m actually doing a comedy right now, opposite Melissa McCarthy, and she’s the best there is. I’m thinking, “I’m incredibly unfunny. Thank god, you guys like write these zingers for me.” She can improv, and I’m like, “But there are words.” They give me words, and I’m happy to do the words that they give me.
PAUL: On set, we were telling a very serious story, but she had us all in stitches, the entire shoot, which just was so nice to be around, and needed.
SPENCER: You have to laugh, when you have heavy scenes. We laughed a lot.
You’ve been producing a lot of your projects since Fruitvale Station. Has that been about taking control of your career, as opposed to waiting for roles to come to you?
SPENCER: It might appear that way, but I’ve always been a puzzle person, and I was working on Fruitvale, and I’m always a person who’s behind the scenes, doing something. Some of their funding fell out, and I had some nouveau riche friends from The Help that I could call, so I just started calling people, to try to come up with the money that we lost. And I tried to get actors who would come in and work for a dollar. So, it was just about doing little things. I have to say that Forest Whitaker and his producing partner, Nina Yang Bongiovi, were gracious enough to say, “Look, you’ve been doing a lot of work behind the scenes. We’d love to give you an executive producer credit.” That was the first time that I was like, “Oh, it has a name, what I’m doing.” I knew about producing, but to me, it was just something very different. Now, it is about finding interesting roles in things. Eight years ago, it was just about doing what comes naturally. If you’re involved in a project and they don’t have any money, I’m not gonna let you put me up at an expensive hotel when we still have other actors that we have to hire, so put this money back in the pot and let’s make sure that we get per diem for these other people. Them being so gracious to give me that credit made me know that, whenever I had it again, it would not be a vanity credit. It’s usually a vanity credit. But if my name is on it, I’m gonna be working, and I don’t put my name on just anything.
Truth Be Told is available to stream at Apple TV+.