Truth Be Told, Apple TV+’s latest drama, follows Poppy Parnell (Octavia Spencer), a journalist-turned-podcaster who made her name investigating the murder of Chuck Buhrman. Now twenty years later, Parnell uses her podcast to question the facts of the case and whether or not her reporting helped put an innocent man (Aaron Paul) in prison. As her podcast grows in popularity, and the case begins to unravel, so do the lives of everyone involved.
We spoke to Nichelle Tramble Spellman, Truth Be Told‘s show runner and executive producer, to discuss what drew her to the project, America’s obsession with true crime, her incredible cast, and much, much more.
Read our full conversation with Tramble Spellman below. And invest your time in Truth Be Told. It’s worth it!
Awards Daily: Starting at the beginning, how did you get involved with Truth Be Told?
Nichelle Tramble Spellman: I had a relationship with one of the producers, Kristen Campo, she and I worked together on a previous project about four years ago. When she moved over to Chernin [Entertainment], I went in for a general meeting just to catch up and see what we were both interested in, and at the end of the meeting she said, “Oh I have a manuscript of a book that hasn’t been published yet, would you like to read it over Christmas break? That was two years ago. So I read it over Christmas and called her back in January and said, “I think there’s something really interesting there,” and we went from there. She arranged a meeting with Hello Sunshine [Reese Witherspoon’s production company]. We talked about the book and Octavia came on board shortly after, before there was even a script or a pitch.
AD: What was it about the book [Kathleen Barber’s 2017 novel Are You Sleeping?] that made you go, “I really want to do this.”
NTS: I liked the idea of exploring true crime and our addiction to it, and the way that we consume it as if the people involved in the crime are not real people. We almost watch it like they’re fictional characters and there’s a disconnect between the viewer and the victim. You don’t consume the pain as if its real people. That was really interesting to me. That coupled with a journalist who has no checks and balances, and how that’s sort of mimicking what’s going on in the world a little bit. Those two ideas were really interesting to explore
AD: In the novel, the Lizzy Caplan [in a dual role, Caplan plays the victim’s adult, twin daughters] character is the focus, you’ve switched things around and made Octavia’s character the center of Truth Be Told. Why make that change?
NTS: I really wanted to look at tragedy and crime and the ripple effects in families. If we used the twins [Caplan] as our main point of view, then we couldn’t really explore Warren Cave [Paul]’s point of view and the journalist’s point of view in the same way. But, by putting Poppy Parnell [Spencer] at the center of the story, we were able to travel through all three families and see what this murder had done to them.
AD: I’ve heard you talk about the idea of the “unreliable narrator”. Why was that appealing to you? And how did you go about creating that?
NTS: It was appealing because I wanted to take on what journalism looks like if the person doing the writing or reporting doesn’t have anyone over their head. There isn’t an editor or publisher saying, “Let’s fact check this. Lets be more diligent here.” It’s the idea of opinion being presented as fact.
Several different people can experience the same moment, experience the same tragedy, and have a completely different point of view. That’s where the unreliable narrator really works in crime fiction
AD: What’s your personal view on Octavia’s character as a journalist? Do you think she was responsible in how she went about creating her podcast?
NTS: She starts out as a responsible journalist with this formidable background. But, because this story is personal, and because of her involvement in the story goes against the principle rule [of journalism] that the reporter should not be part of the story…Once she lets that go, what does it do? It bleeds and affects everything in her life and she has these blinders on that disrupts everyone’s life that she touches.
AD: As you were saying there’s so much true crime and crime dramas saturated in our culture at the moment. What makes Truth Be Told unique?
NTS: I think because we follow the podcaster. And a podcaster who is involved in the story. It’s not interesting to her from afar; it’s interesting to her because of her direct connection to the accused.
AD: What podcasts did you listen to for inspiration in preparation for this?
NTS: You know, before podcasts, I would watch true crime just like everyone else. I would watch Cold Case or 48 Hours. My sisters and I have this weird tradition of watching true crime marathons at Christmas when we are all together. That’s where I’ve taken [Inspiration] from my personal life. We watch it as if we’re watching an episode of CSI and not, “My goodness this person is really dead.” Or,
“Oh, that whole family is devastated.” We just follow the facts and the salaciousness of it.
Octavia is also a huge true crime fan so that’s how we bonded when we initially met. We talked about watching true crime with our sisters and old cases that were we still think about. This project just brought all these things together that really interested me
AD: And I have to know, Is Octavia Spencer as nice and sweet in real life as she comes across on-screen and in interviews? She seems like a blast!
NTS: She is the ideal number one on the call sheet. She’s the perfect leading lady to me. She’s just as you think, and that’s what was interesting to me because she has such good grace with the audience. You look at that sweet face, that trusting face, and in the first episode you’re like, “Oh, she’s a little unethical!” I thought playing against that was so great and she had fun with it. She’s wonderful! I would do every project with her if I could. I think she’s fantastic.
AD: The cast list for Truth Be Told is insane.
AD: Truly, everyone from the minor characters to your lead stars is a just insanely talented. What was the casting process like?
Yes! I talked about it at the premiere. There was one day where I had the entire cast list for the first time and I just couldn’t believe it. I think what happened is that we went out and pitched the show with Octavia as an executive producer so that added a level of significance to the show. She has such a good reputation and she’s such an amazing actress that as we approached different people they were like, “Okay, here we go! I actually couldn’t believe that we just kept hitting it out of the park. It was Lizzy [Caplan] and then Aaron [Paul] and Ron Cephas Jones, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Beach, Elizabeth Perkins… it just kept going. That excitement was there on the set when they all started working together. That was the biggest challenge for me, not letting them down with what we were producing in the writers room, because I was super aware of how amazing the cast was and how it felt once in a lifetime
AD: You mentioned your sisters. In the show, one of the central relationships is the one Octavia’s character has with her sisters [Played by Tracie Thoms and Haneefah Wood]. How much of your own experience did you draw from?
NTS: Yes, I’m the oldest of four and we are all very, very close. We lost our parents years ago, so it’s really the four of us. So, there was a little bit taken from that, this longing that Poppy has for her mother, and trying to be that for her sisters. The love that they have for each other and the squabbling that’s mixed in, I drew upon my own interactions with my sisters.
She may not have checks and balances in her professional life but she has it in her personal life and I love that idea. A lot of the interactions
AD: Another theme in the show is this idea of, “What makes a mother?” There are so many maternal characters within the show.
NTS: It was interesting to me because I don’t have children myself. I have my two dogs that I love like they’re my kids (laughs). I don’t have children, but I have a mothering presence with my friends and my family. You can still fulfill that role without giving birth, and Poppy is that way. She made the choice not to have children so she could pursue her career, and on some level she wasn’t interested. That was interesting to me, having a female character that’s unapologetic and doesn’t have regrets about not having children, but still is this mentor/mother figure for the people in her life.
AD: One of the main conflicts of the show is that Poppy, a woman of color, is defending Warren Cave [Paul] who is in this Nazi gang in prison. It creates this racial tension. Can you discuss that?
NTS: I thought it was interesting that because this is a murder mystery and a thriller, everything you learn in the first episode, may or may not be true. That’s where the unreliable narrator comes in even with those two characters. Even with those two characters, their involvement, and what you think [as the audience] when they meet each other.
AD: Interesting! First impressions and the judgments we put upon people play a big part in the story
NTS: Yeah, and how you may dismiss a person, how you may not listen to someone else, and just the idea of what you see may not be true. You can watch eight episodes and then go back to the first and go, “Oh interesting!” I’m trying to talk around your question without giving away spoilers…(laughs).
AD: (Laughs). You’re doing a good job, trust me! Lets go back to your first meeting with Apple TV+. Truth Be Told is one of their first projects to premiere. Did you have any hesitation going in because it was such a new platform?
NTS: No, that was exciting to me! I liked the kind of wild, wild west aspect of it, we’re all going to get in here together and make a show. They were supportive and generous in letting us do everything we set out to do.
We pitched the idea of exploring a crime series as a family drama. On its face, it’s like this is a mystery, this is a thriller, but you watch it and realize it’s a family drama with crime infused in it. They were super open to me shifting that paradigm.
AD: You’re a published author. How are TV writing and book writing different?
NTS: They are very different. I did a crime series for Random House [2001’s Dying Ground and 2004’s The Last King: A Maceo Redfield novel] and it was just me. I wrote what I wanted to write and that was it. I think if I had gone from publishing the books to doing my own series, the culture shock would have been profound. But, I’ve been working in TV for twelve years, so I was ready for the collaborative process and that’s where it’s different. There are a lot of voices in TV and there’s a single voice when working on a book.
AD: Let’s discuss your previous work in television [notably as a writer/ producer on The Good Wife and a writer/story editor for Justified] What lessons did you bring to Truth Be Told?
NTS: The Good Wife, I loved being on that show. I was a huge fan before I was brought in on season four. Robert and Michelle King were ideal show runners for me, so I tried to model a lot of what they did when I built the writer’s room [for Truth Be Told] on what they did. And Graham Yost [the creator/executive producer] on Justified, that was another [writer’s] room that was wonderful. I loved how all the voices mattered in that room and it was a great collaborative space filled with really interesting people and great storytellers. And a real adult level of respect for each other and what we were all doing. That was super important to me when putting the writer’s room together.
AD: Did anything come up during filming that you didn’t anticipate?
NTS: My natural protectiveness of people that I care about, that I love was a trait that worked on set. It was very important to me to protect the actors so they could do what they needed to do. I tried to act as a buffer and a safe space for them, that’s something that I do in my personal life that I don’t really use professionally. This was the first time I was able to bring that [protectiveness] into the creative process.
AD: What do you want audiences to take away from watching Truth Be Told?
NTS: I want them to question how they consume true crime. And question how they interact with journalism and social media where people can present themselves as journalists with no real background and no real training, but they are often given the same weight [as journalists].
And I just think that taking a step back, questioning, not just believing the whole story as just what’s in the headline. I think that’s the whole point of the show.
Not believing that the whole show is in episode one, wait and see, wait before forming an opinion. I think that’s the same thing with journalism and with true crime. Take a step back, take a breather. Remember the days when you had to write a letter to the editor and wait for a response? (Laughs). Take a breather. That’s what we want to do with the show.
AD: Has that approach permeated your own life and the way you consume news since doing the show?
NTS: Yes. Octavia had a great point when we were doing an interview, where she said there’s a tendency to, the second there’s an announcement, the second there’s breaking news, everyone tweets it out, and then a week later, they’re like, Oh that’s not what I thought it was.” And it goes back to that idea of just take a moment to considerate it all the way through. Just be thoughtful.
AD: Can you think of a time when you jumped to a conclusion and later regretted it?
NTS: I think that there was a ton. Whether it was meeting someone for the first time, forming an opinion about them, and learning later that there was something going on in their personal life that infused that moment so I couldn’t judge.
Take a moment to really get to know someone and learn his or her story. Professionally and personally, that really plays out for me.
AD: I couldn’t agree more.
NTS: I think we’re all guilty of it.
AD: My last question for you, we’re in this era of “Peak TV.” There’s so much content out there right now. What are you watching? What are you obsessed with?
NTS: I love The Crown, that’s one of my favorite shows. I loved Fleabag. I’m going to miss Game Of Thrones until the day I die. Watchmen is wonderful. Succession is great. Great British Bake Off… (laughs).
AD: You just listed all of my favorites! All the way down the line. I was [selfishly] hoping for some new recommendations. (Laughs)
NTS: Another show that I love is Vikings. I love that show.
AD: Well, I’ll start there. And then I’ll rewatch all of my favorites, and I’ll say that you gave me permission. (Laughs)
NTS: (Laughs) Yes!
AD: Anything else we didn’t cover?
NTS: Just that we are excited for the launch and we hope everybody tunes in.
AD: Well, I love the show and I’m rooting for you, and rooting for Truth Be Told. We wish you the best of luck. Thank you for your time.
NTS: Thank you so much!
The first three episodes of Truth Be Told are available now on Apple TV+. New episodes will premiere on the streaming service on Fridays through January 10.