One of the most provocative movies of the year, Luce is a dangerously uncomfortable film about race, privilege, and the American Dream. Kelvin Harrison Jr. stars as the title character, the black adopted son of two upper middle class white parents. Luce has undergone years of therapy to overcome his mysterious history of childhood violence. Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play his parents, while Octavia Spencer co-stars as Luce’s history teacher, who has a reputation for being particularly hard on some of her students. When Luce writes a controversial paper, everyone involved is dragged into a claustrophobic web of conflict in which nothing is as it seems and nobody can be trusted.
Directed by Julius Onah, Luce is based on the stage play by J.C. Lee, who co-wrote the script with Onah. Luce is unafraid to dive deep into its characters, showing the ugly side of sympathetic characters, and the relatable side of people who would otherwise be seen as villains. It’s a deeply complex movie about how easy it is to judge people and how difficult can be to understand each other and ourselves.
While promoting Luce, Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts sat down with Screen Rant and discussed their role in the film, including sharing the screen with Kelvin Harrison Jr and being directed by Julius Onah. They talk about the captivating nature of the script, and what motivated them to choose to star in this film in the first place.
This movie, part of me wants to talk so much about it, but I went in very blind, and I feel like that’s the best way to see this movie. There’s so many twists and turns. You don’t know what’s happening. So I just want to ask, when did you get introduced to this story? How did this movie come across your desk, and you said, “Wait, I need to look at this one!”
Octavia Spencer: Well, I met with J.C. Lee about something else, and he asked me to read Luce, and I read it. I then talked to Julius (the director) and I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters. Not just Harriet, the character I ended up playing, but I kept trying to determine… To see something, to see it from everyone else’s perspective. Because I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I knew I had to do it.
Naomi Watts: It came across my desk and Octavia’s name was right there, and I was like, “Yes.” I’m always looking for a good scene partner, and then, of course, I read it. It was such a quick, easy read. I went in not knowing much about it. It just got under my skin.
Such a big part of this movie is how badly we want to judge people, for better or worse, but the addition of knowledge makes it more difficult. I think that’s treated so well by this young man, Kelvin Harrison, who has been around, but I hadn’t seen that much of his work, and he completely gave me goosebumps in almost every single scene.
Naomi Watts: He’s extraordinary.
Octavia Spencer: He is extraordinary. I actually have seen a lot of his work, because I’ve been at Sundance for the past couple of years, and he has multiple films there.
Naomi Watts: He’s about to explode, isn’t he? He already has, actually.
What was it like working along side this really young person who has such a command over the space?
Naomi Watts: It was impressive. Most of my scenes were with him. He had done a lot of prep, and it was evident. He just was on top of it, all the way. It’s great to watch.
Octavia Spencer: Like you said, he had such a command over the role. He was impressive, he was professional. If you don’t believe him, then our stories don’t work. So he had a lot of work to do, and he did it well!
Naomi Watts: And Julius, the director, is incredible. You just instantly trust him. His vision is very clear, and it’s very vivid on the page as well, but I think the conversations you would have with Julius just makes you instantly trust him, you say, “I’m putty in your hand. I go over to your vision.”
Aside from this movie, looking back over your careers, this is a question I like to ask a lot of people, is there any project that you’ve done, that you’re so particularly proud of, but you feel maybe didn’t get the audience that it deserved?
Octavia Spencer: It would be like a parent choosing a child, honestly. I’m gonna say, “All of them!” Look at everything! (Laughs)
Naomi Watts: Yeah, lots of mine went under the radar! But I can say, you know, it’s interesting, because Mulholland Drive got more attention much later. It wasn’t necessarily at the exact time, but it was very good for me. But there was a film I did, called Painted Veil, which was with Edward Norton, and we shot it in southern China provinces, and it was kind of a life-changing experience for me, just being so far away in extraordinary places, and it was a beautiful story, and I wish it had been more seen.
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Luce is out in theaters now.