LOS ANGELES -- A period drama set amid the explosive racial politics of the 1960s South. An all-female ensemble cast. An inexperienced director.
It sounds like a recipe for a movie that would send studio executives running. Yet “The Help” -- a complex tale of white women and their relationships with the black maids who clean their houses and care for their children -- didn’t just get made. Arriving in theaters Aug. 10, the DreamWorks film is vying for the attention of audiences more interested in substantive fare as Hollywood begins to shake off the popcorn movies of summer.
Based on Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, the film project had one thing going for it: the book’s popularity. Reviewers loved it, and readers couldn’t finish it fast enough; it stayed atop bestseller lists for close to two years.
Still, there were prominent detractors. Some critics carped about a white author writing in a black dialect for a pair of maids who serve as two of the book’s three narrators. Others felt the white narrator -- an idealistic college grad named Skeeter Phelan, who persuades the black maids of Jackson, Miss., to tell their stories to her and causes a sensation when she publishes their tales anonymously -- was too much of a savior.
Before the novel hit big, Stockett’s childhood friend Tate Taylor -- a white, Southern actor who wrote and directed the 2008 indie “Pretty Ugly People” -- optioned the work, determined to direct the film himself. When Hollywood came calling, trying to take the property away, he held on tight, set to work on a script and enlisted the support of producer Chris Columbus to make the movie. DreamWorks and Participant Media came aboard, and improbably, Taylor, 42, had a greenlight.
With so many juicy parts for women, casting his leading ladies was not particularly hard. Octavia Spencer, best known for her small but powerful role in “Seven Pounds” starring Will Smith, came aboard first to play Minny Jackson, a sharp-tongued maid with an abusive husband. Taylor had introduced Spencer to Stockett, and the author actually wrote the novel’s character with the actress in mind after the three of them, along with producer Brunson Green, spent a memorable day walking around New Orleans before Stockett finished her novel.
“I’m not the nicest person when I haven’t had my coffee or if I’m starving. I was 100 pounds heavier then and on a diet. I needed some breakfast and I was complaining,” Spencer, 39, recalled with a laugh. “So the complaining back and forth and the ability to speak up for herself, I know that part of Minny really, really well. Plus the fact that we are both short, chubby, gorgeous women -- I know that part of her really well too.”
Oscar nominee Viola Davis (“Doubt”) was more circumspect about agreeing to the role of the stoic house servant Aibileen. After all, it was 2010 and this was a role as a maid -- in a uniform, no less.
“There is huge responsibility within the African-American community. I mean huge,” says Davis, 45. “There are entire blogs committed to saying that I’m a sellout just for playing a maid.”
Taylor persevered, spending hours making Davis feel comfortable with the role and ensuring that “The Help” would not be a watered-down portrayal of race relations in the 1960s South.
“My key objective was to give this movie street cred especially within the African-American community, to represent them and not sugarcoat it,” said Taylor.
Taylor found his Skeeter in 22-year-old Emma Stone (“Easy A”), while Bryce Dallas Howard, 30, landed her first role as a villain, playing against type as Hilly Holbrook. As head of the Junior League, Holbrook starts a segregationist initiative to encourage whites to install separate toilets in their homes for their black servants (an effort, she says, intended to stem the spread of germs).
Jessica Chastain, 30, seen opposite Brad Pitt in Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” this spring, rounds out the cast as Celia Foote, an unpolished white woman who marries into wealth but can’t win acceptance into the Junior League crowd.
Taylor was determined to film in the South to give the production authenticity. The movie was shot primarily in the small town of Greenwood, Miss., population 15,000, some 100 miles north of Jackson.
History lurked around every corner -- the nearby Tallahatchie River, for instance, is where in 1955 a group of whites dumped the body of a 14-year-old black boy, Emmett Till, who reportedly had whistled at a white woman. The slaying helped mobilize the civil rights movement.
Last week, the five actresses gathered to discuss their roles, race and the challenges for women in Hollywood. Some highlights:
What did being in Greenwood do to your performance?
Spencer: I went back in May, after the film, and I realized I liked it a lot better. But while we were down there, I was not happy.
Davis: When you are shooting right around the corner from the Tallahatchie River and you know that ... Emmett Till’s body was found in that river ... and you know (Michael) Schwerner, (Andrew) Goodman and (James) Chaney (the civil rights workers killed in 1964 about 100 miles east of Greenwood) and the history of that and the history of Medgar Evers, and the fact that those people look just like you, it’s hard to relax.
And then Baptist Town, where we shot the exteriors of Minny and Aibileen’s houses, it’s an all-black community, 85 percent unemployment, not a single high school graduate in years. It’s hard to separate, to have fun, to say, “OK this is pretend, we are in a movie. Let’s have a great time and eat fried chicken and cook cheese grits.”
Was there an extra sense of responsibility you felt in playing these roles because of the history?
Spencer: There are a lot of people who don’t like the idea of us playing maids without knowing anything about the story. Not knowing how proactive these women are in their community and how they are propagating change.
Davis: They don’t care. It’s the fact that we are playing maids. It’s the image and the message more so than the execution.
Did that give you pause before signing on?
Spencer: That’s one of the reasons that you were constantly talking to Tate. They had lots of consultations, text messages, emails, about the role, making sure Aibileen wasn’t a passive character.
Davis: A Mammy.
Spencer: That’s the thing I hated about “Gone With the Wind.”
Stone: The weirdest thing for me was going to the houses (in the community) and we would meet the housekeepers who were in uniform working for the family. Viola would be in costume and these women would be in uniform and they would avert their eyes when they were shaking my hand. It was mind-boggling.
Howard: There was this one woman, she was in her 70s, she was in uniform and she had worked there since she was 14 years old. This was the third generation of women she had worked for. ... I asked her if she had read the book. ... And she said, “I could tell some stories.” As an outsider doing this movie, it was an incredibly eerie thing to be close to this world and see that not much has changed.
Did all this estrogen on set create anything other than goodwill for you?
Davis: I don’t have problems with women on set.
Stone: I don’t know if you expect to have this incredible bond.
Davis: No you don’t. But you don’t expect to have conflict.
Howard: It’s more that you never get this many women together.
Chastain: I’m a bit new to the business but what scares me is I’ve done 11 films so far, and in all of them, I was the girl on the set. And with this movie, right before I went to film it, and even after I shot it, all the meetings I would go to, in the industry, they would always say, “ooh, how was that set, working with all those women?” They were expecting it to be a negative experience. But to be honest, it was the nicest set I’ve ever been on.
Davis: Maybe it’s deprivation mode that people are in. You throw a piece of cheese in a room full of rats and they claw at each other for that cheese. There’s such a deprivation of roles for women.
Bryce, how did you embody that villain, Hilly?
Spencer: I thought it would be so difficult to hate her because she’s so not at all anything like her character. I thought I was going to have to make it up. And then Tate would say “Action!” and this look would come over her face.
Chastain: Her ability to just switch it on like that (snaps her fingers) is like Nurse Ratched. We’d do the scene, cut so they could relight and I’d look over at Bryce and she’d be on the phone (working on another project) saying, “read that back to me.” I’m struggling to be in character and Bryce is producing a movie on the side. She was able to switch it on and off like that.
Howard: I’ve never done that before in a movie. I find it disrespectful if I’m not there with the actors. But I realized it afterward, that I was obsessively escaping into this thing that was very different.
Spencer: That’s what I felt about my character. I was a constant bitch on set. I’ve never had outbursts like that on set before.
Was it hard to leave your characters behind?
Davis: It was hard for me to shake Aibileen. Those first couple of lines that Emma says to me, “Did you ever dream of being anything else?” -- that just breaks my heart. I don’t think anyone has ever asked her that. And to be in the bodies of those women who never had any hopes of being anything other then what their grandmothers and their mothers were. That’s something.
How do you respond to the criticism about the book?
Stone: I don’t think there’s a shadow of “great white hope” in Skeeter. Skeeter could not do a single thing without Aibileen. She comes up with an idea, that’s it. ... Because of Aibileen’s bravery, Minny’s bravery and the bravery of all these woman, this book is able to be published.
Spencer: When I first read the book, I bristled at the dialect. But I realized that unlike other writers who wrote about this era, (Stockett) wasn’t making a statement about race. She was writing women of a certain class and a limited education. All of the black characters don’t have a dialect.
Davis: I’m not going to call Skeeter a “great white hope” but I’m not going to dismiss her as being this idealistic, idiotic young woman. Her idealism actually infused Aibileen with this energy. She gave her permission to dream. And Aibileen gave Skeeter the kind of wisdom to bring her dreams to reality.