20 Questions: Abigail Spencer Fills Us In

Abigail Spencer, our August 2015 guest editor, is starring in two of summer’s most gripping dramas: She has an integral role in the second season of HBO’s “True Detective” as Gena, the ex-wife of Ray Velcoro (played by Colin Farrell), and she’s back for the third season of the Sundance Channel’s gothic hit “Rectify.” She also recently wrapped filming on the indie drama, A Beautiful Now, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June. Spencer took a break from her busy schedule to chat with us about her work, how motherhood has influenced her career, and being a “boy mom.”

MT: What inspired you to take on the role of Gena in “True Detective”?

AS: I’d auditioned for Nic Pizzolatto, the creator of the show, a few times previously. We happened to run into each other and we just ended up hanging out. We’re both southern folks and had a lot to talk about. The next day he offered me the part!


MT: Gena’s scenes with Ray are incredibly heartbreaking and emotional. How did you prepare before filming?

AS: Sadly, my life has prepared me for this role. I’ve been through a divorce and I’ve experienced a lot of loss and pain. Like Gena, I’m a mother. I have a 6-year-old son, Roman. So, it doesn’t take much for me to think about her circumstances…and my body responds.

MT: Are there other ways that you and Gena are alike?

AS: I really like that even though she was a victim of rape, she’s not a victim. Part of her backstory that Nic has is that she helps other rape victims. She’s very willing to use what has happened in her life for the good of others. I respond to that. I don’t allow myself to be debilitated by the negative things that have happened in my life. I use what has happened in my life to enrich my experience and move through the pain. She’s also incredibly loving. She could have tried to get Ray out of her 10-year-old son’s life a long time ago because of his predilections, but the fact that she tried to keep Ray in her son’s life demonstrates a level of empathy that most people don’t have.

MT: How is Amantha Holden, your character on “Rectify,” different this season?

AS: Amantha has really woken up to the fact that she’s totally co-dependent on her brother Daniel. She’s breaking up with Jon because he’s so enmeshed with Daniel, and she’s got a job. She’s her own person for the first time, and she’s going to start to make choices that are best for her.

MT: You have an incredibly busy life. How do you juggle it all?

AS: Now that I’m a mom, I’ve stopped thinking about everything I have to do and I just do it. Natalie Portman told Vanity Fair that she asked Cate Blanchett for her advice on how to balance work and motherhood and Cate was like, ‘You just do. Stressing about it doesn’t help.’ It’s so true. You just show up and do what you need to do.

MT: Has being a mom influenced the roles that you’re willing to take on?

AS: Absolutely. I’ve learned to prioritize what’s important and to say no to the rest. The characters and the roles have to be worth my time away from Roman. Of course, after he was born I thought, ‘I’m probably never going to work again!’ And I was fine with that. I really love being my son’s mother. But, I’ve been lucky enough to get really juicy roles since becoming a mom, like the ones on “True Detective” and “Rectify.” My first job after Roman was born was playing Suzanne Farrell, Sally Draper’s former teacher, on “Mad Men.”

MT: How do you stay connected with Roman when you have to travel for work?

AS: He has been on just about every set that I’ve ever worked on. I try to keep him close. In fact, we were just in New York City together, during my press tour.

MT: What’s the most memorable thing you did while in NYC?

AS: I took him to four Broadway shows in three days. It was so fun! Aladdin was the first stop, and I highly recommend it to parents. It’s quite a show! Several of my friends are starring on Broadway and one of my best friends, Leslie Odam Jr., is starring in Hamilton on Broadway, so Roman and I got to go backstage and hang out with him. Roman also got to go backstage at an American in Paris, on Broadway. And I was just like, ‘Roman, you have no idea how lucky you are!’ I didn’t get to go to New York until I was 17-years-old and auditioning for theater schools. So Roman is getting exposed to all sorts of things that I never even dreamed of at his age.

MT: Is he interested in acting?

AS: Definitely. When he’s watching a movie, he wants to know what the actors really look like and then how they made the transformation into their characters. He asked to do a play this year, so he was just in The Sound of Music at the Youth Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles. They had incredible costumes and these little head-mics. Mini-Madonna mics.

MT: How do you nurture his passion for acting without pressuring him to follow in your footsteps?

AS: I didn’t work with him at all on The Sound of Music, because I wanted him to feel like he was doing it all on his own merit. In fact, I didn’t see him perform until I went to the show. Not only did he remember all of his lines, but he knew everybody else’s lines and everybody’s choreography, so when somebody missed their mark, he’d pushed them into place and tell them, ‘Come on! Come on!’ He was mouthing all of their lines along with them. He had three solos, which he did in perfect pitch. I was just sitting there crying and laughing and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh! What is happening?’

MT: Roman will be 7 in September. Is he testing out his own independence at all?

AS: Yes! In New York, we stayed on the 11th floor at The Nomad and he’d say, ‘Mommy, I want to go in the elevator by myself and I’ll meet you at the top. I wear a FitBit, so I always take the stairs. So I’d give him the key and let him go in the elevator and he’d say, ‘Stay right here Mommy, until it closes.’ I’d stay there till the doors closed and then I’d walk up the stairs and meet him at the top and he would already be in the room. I would knock on the door and he’d open it and go, ‘Welcome home, Mommy!’

MT: Was it a little scary to give him that freedom?

AS: Yes, but it was so important. He felt so empowered and trusted. It really brought us closer together. I’m constantly trying to give him the tools that he needs to be independent and take charge of his own life. For example, at Joan’s on Third, our fave breakfast spot, you have to stand in line and pay so I’ll give him the credit card and say, ‘Would you like to pay for it?’ and he’ll say, ‘Yes!’ I stay at the table and let him go over and communicate with the person working behind the counter. He loves it so much. We’re also working on how to greet people and say goodbye, while maintaining eye contact. I’ve learned that it’s really important to connect when you say hello and goodbye, and I want him to know that as well.

MT: Did you always imagine that you’d be a “boy mom”?

AS: Yes! Oh my gosh, I have two brothers and I grew up with boys and I’m such a daddy’s girl, so I always imagined that I’d have a boy. But it’s so funny because now I’m thinking, ‘I want a girl next!’

MT: Roman could be a big brother! Describe what it has been like to raise a son so far.

AS: Even though he’s becoming more independent, he’s still baby enough that he wants to cuddle, he wants to be held, he wants to kiss, and he wants to hug. He never wants to hurt me. He’s just so sweet. We have that special mother-son connection.

MT: Are there parts of him that are just totally boy, too?

AS: Yes, in fact, he did something so funny last night. He’s super into Legos — he just got this giant 3,000+-piece Star Wars Lego set with jawas in it. At 10 o’clock last night he burst into my room and said, ‘Mommy, I’m gonna go poop!’ And I go, ‘Okay, son!’ He had all the jawas and the Lego set instruction book with him. He went to the bathroom and read the whole instruction book, with the jawas set up watching him reading while he was going poo.

MT: Adorable—and so boy. What else are you guys up to this summer?

AS: We went to Montana right after New York. My boyfriend and I produced a movie called Winter Light, which is coming out this year, so we went to where we made the film and showed it to James Lee Burke, the author of the short story that the film is based on. We visited friends who live in a cabin in the middle of the woods, which is something Roman has never done before. We went on a nature walk and pointed out every spider and every mushroom and every plant life and went into the river. I’m really trying to find more opportunities for him to experience nature since he’s growing up in a big city. Last year I took Roman to his first farm and he was like, ‘Mommy, the grass makes my ankles feel weird.’ I paused and thought, ‘Oh my gosh. We have to get out of the city!’

MT: So it sounds like Roman shares your passion for travel?

AS: He’s the best little traveler I’ve ever met. He keeps me calm because sometimes I get a little nauseous from motion sickness. In addition to New York and Montana, he’s been to Oklahoma, where his dad is from, twice already this summer. Flying is like getting in a car to him.

MT: What’s the most memorable trip you guys have taken together so far?

AS: The trip we just took to New York City. Roman loves New York and New York was the first place I moved when I left home, so it’s just a part of me and my story. I’ll never forget taking him to his first Broadway show and taking him backstage. I think traveling to New York will be a regular part of our lives.

MT: What would Roman say is the most embarrassing thing about you?

AS: If we’re in the car singing along to the radio, he’s like, ‘Ugh! Ugh! No Singing!’ He’ll want to sing, but he doesn’t want us to sing. I remember my mom saying I was the exact same way. And my mom is an incredible singer, but every time she would sing I was like, ‘Ugh, no! I just want to sing.’ But then at night when we’re in bed, he says, ‘Mommy, sing me a song.’

Now, can I say what Roman does that embarrasses me?

MT: Yes—tell us!

AS: OK, so we’re on planes all the time and obviously there’s a lot of weird smells on planes. And Roman has a really loud, husky voice. He doesn’t realize how loud he is, which is adorable and sometimes embarrassing. So any time he smells something weird, he’ll turn to me and in a super loud Roman voice say, ‘Mommy! Is that you? Did you toot?!’ And it’s so loud and I don’t want to embarrass him or let him see how embarrassed I am but I can tell that everyone around us is thinking, ‘Did you?’ And I sink into my seat and try and disappear. Meanwhile, he would think it was so super cool if I did toot! He’s not trying to embarrass me, he’s just really curious. And honest. But it is definitely the one time I want to go to Never Never Land. I’m a boy mom! Yep, definitely a boy mom.

Photo: Getty