The leading ladies of the upcoming film “The Help” — Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain — sat down with The Times last week to discuss their movie, race, and being women in Hollywood. Based on the novel of the same name, “The Help” is set in 1960s Mississippi and arrives in theaters Aug. 10.
Stone plays Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, a career-minded college grad who persuades a group of black maids to tell their stories so she can publish them. Spencer plays sharp-tongued maid Minny Jackson, a role written for her by the book’s author, Kathryn Stockett. Davis plays Aibileen, the stoic housekeeper, still grieving over the death of her son.
Howard plays the villain, Hilly Holbrook, junior league president who is happy to initiate and embrace the segregationist laws of Mississippi. Chastain plays Celia Foote, the poor white girl who marries into money but can’t fit in with the high-society women of the town.
Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
How did each of you connect to your character?
Chastain: I connected to the feeling of being an outcast and wanting to be part of a group. When I was in elementary school, I found it really difficult to make friends because I wasn’t the pretty blond girl. But it was on my very first audition when I met Octavia that all the magic happened for me. It was like love at first sight. Working with her, I realized the scenes would be such an amazing combination that wouldn’t happen with another pairing.
Stone: I found it hard to not fall in love with Skeeter. She’s so charmingly idealistic, and I thought she was so very human. I loved her relationship with Constantine [her maid while growing up, played by Cicely Tyson]. I was lucky enough to have that relationship with my own mother, someone that made me feel that I was OK even though I was different than the other kids.
Spencer: I was scared to death to play [Minny]. They hyped it up to the studio: “She’d be great, she’d be great,” and then I’m thinking I don’t know if I’d be great. Quite honestly, I don’t know if I’d stay in a marriage where I’m physically abused. When I finally stopped judging Minny and I embraced her, then I was happy.
Davis: I don’t know how much of Aibileen is in me. She’s kind of quiet. I guess I’m kind of quiet. But quiet characters are always hard, I don’t care what anyone says. Once I tapped into her losing her son, then she made complete sense. It made sense why she was holding onto Mae Mobley [her charge] for so long. It was her way of holding onto her son. I know how that feels. I had a father who passed. I was with him on his deathbed, and I know how difficult it is to say goodbye to someone.
Howard: Well, I related to everything about my character. On a surface level, I was so amazed by how much easier it is to play a character when they don’t have to be likable, or appealing or even attractive. There were so many scenes that were outrageously fun for me because they were funny scenes and Hilly was being made fun of, or getting what she deserved. And there were scenes that I would never, no matter how much anyone paid me, would never want to play again.
You’ve traveled around the country already promoting this movie. Has the reaction differed in different regions?
Spencer: It’s very interesting. It’s not the South [where the reaction was surprising]. All the cities have welcomed the movie with open arms. I just found in one [Northern] city in particular where there was the most interesting Q&A. They really homed in on the civil rights and one woman asked, ‘What’s it like down there, are those people still domestics?’ The way she phrased the question was as if she didn’t know that black people had progressed beyond that.
The statement that I made and that I think I will continue to make is that racism and bigotry isn’t just relegated to the Southern region, it permeates the history of our nation. It’s not to say that we haven’t made progress. Obviously we have with our first African American president, and I never thought that would happen in my lifetime. There’s so much bigotry that needs to be overcome. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve made strides as a nation, but going back and re-creating this time in history has been a challenge and it’s one that has shaped the course of my life from this point forward.
Spencer: I want to be proactive in bringing about change and enlightening people. I think the first way is to get as many people to see this film as possible, especially youth. They have no idea about this time period, no idea.
How important was it to stay true to the book versus the script?
Davis: I was reading that book every single night. I had a lot of trust issues with the script because of the responsibility I have with humanizing this woman: a quiet, dignified black maid who takes care of a white baby. I mean, sorry, but I had trust issues. So everyday I had to put Tate [Taylor, the director] to the task of humanizing her and making her as heartfelt and deep as possible because I didn’t have the benefit of words, I just didn’t. And I didn’t trust the fact that the audience would get it if I can’t speak. So I did rely on the book a lot. [I would often say to Taylor,] “There was something in the book that was good, and I don’t know why you left that out. You need to put that back in.”
Stone: I read the script, then I read the book. Then I just kind of went with it. I would refer back when it felt necessary, but I’m always afraid of over-complicating because my whole life I’ve been such an anxious kid. I over-think too much. My moment’s done once I over-rehearse, then I’m just dead in the water.
Chastain: The great thing was we didn’t have to prepare on an island. Octavia helped me with the voice. She went with me to take this woman out to lunch, this woman whose voice I copied. And with Bryce, we were doing the benefit scene [where Chastain’s character tries to endear herself to Bryce’s character, with disastrous results], we thought everything was fine. We wrapped. And then an hour later, I was drinking with everyone and I get a call that everything was perfect, except my close-up was out of focus.
Davis: Are you serious?
Chastain: So the next day we show up and most of the cast isn’t there and only 20 extras show up. It was really an awful, scary, scary moment for me. I was really shaky. I was trying to figure out how to get there again. And Bryce was there, saying we’ve got this, we’re here. She helped me get through that day. We were always doing that for each other.
How do you all handle the constant scrutiny placed upon you now that you’ve become a public persona?
Stone: I was with a really smart journalist the other day who was asking me “How do you maintain balance and calm and your life, when it is your job to have thin skin?” And I thought that was such an intelligent question. To say how do you not let yourself harden in an industry that’s forcing you to when it’s your job to stay thin-skinned.
Howard: $20,000 a year in therapy sessions. My dad [director Ron Howard] said, and he said it kinda in jest, but it’s actually true, the reason why actors are paid so much is so they can afford therapy.
Davis: Well, you get it with your SAG insurance. You know they pay for 10 sessions.
Howard: Yeah, I know. [laughing]
Chastain: I’ve never been before, but three months ago, when all this stuff started happening in my life, I decided it was time to go to therapy.
Davis: Smart. Really. Six years.
Chastain: Did you just say six years? (laughing)
Davis: I haven’t gone in a while, but yeah, six years.
Stone: Since I was 8 or 10, but I haven’t gone in a long time. I had my first panic attack when I was 8. I’m a real neurotic. Genuinely.
Davis: I’m neurotic too.
Spencer: I’m definitely neurotic. I don’t cross streets and stuff.
Stone: Maybe neurosis is also a sense of hype-awareness. I have such a necessity of being aware of all your little facets and how your moods are changing. God, I hate it. Everyone always tells me I’m projecting because I’m constantly asking, what’s wrong, what’s wrong, what’s wrong?
Davis: But don’t you think that’s beautiful about what we do too? We are so sensitive about people. We pay attention to things most people don’t notice. And then when we pay attention to it, we think even frailty in people is so great. When we see someone who is so screwed up, we find the thing in them that’s redeeming.
Chastain: It does not help when you are dating. You’re dating someone and you see all these signs, this is not the road you should be going down. But you know what, you think, they just need a little guidance.
Davis: They need Jessica!
Chastain: I could bring out the goodness in them. Oh, man, that is not a good place to be. I can’t believe I just said that out loud.
Jessica, you witnessed a lot of Octavia’s on-set outbursts. Can you share?
Chastain: There’s the scene where she’s [teaching me the technique for] cooking the fried chicken. You watch that on screen and you think wow, that woman knows how to cook. Octavia Spencer has never cooked a meal in her life. I’ve cooked more meals for her than she’s cooked in her entire life.
Spencer: That is so true.
Chastain: We’re filming the scene with the fried chicken and the Crisco. And I’m goofing around about it. Talking to her in character as I do before every take. And she turns to me and says, “You have to stop talking to me right now. I don’t understand if the chicken goes in first, if the thighs go in first.” It was like she was about to perform brain surgery. And then you watch the scene and think, “Oh, I want some fried chicken. That girl can cook.”
If you didn’t object to the dialect, were there aspects of the book that did bother you?
Davis: The one thing I don’t embrace in any book about black women is I don’t embrace how the looks are described. I always erase that. I don’t care if it’s the greatest writer in the world. I know these black women. The first woman of beauty in my life was my Aunt Joyce, and she was over 300 pounds, and we thought she was Halle Berry to us.
Every time she came to visit, she would have these earrings, and these clothes and the beauty of her skin. We would all sit around her touching her hands and her face and her skin and she was beautiful. I didn’t see the bigness. I just have a different idea of how we look, the hues of our skin, how we exude sensuality and sexuality and how our hair looks. So I always just interpret that for myself. It’s like Chris Walken cuts out all the exclamation points, and the periods. I cut out all the descriptions.