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On Tuesday, I had the great privilege and pleasure of moderating a Q&A with four of the stars of The Help — Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer, and Ahna O’Reilly — following a packed SAG screening of the film in New York near Lincoln Center. They, along with their co-stars in the film, received the best ensemble award at the National Board of Review Awards later that night and at the Critics’ Choice Awards on Thursday night (where, additionally, Davis won best actress and Spencer won best supporting actress). Those victories, as well as pending nominations from the Screen Actors Guild of America, Producers Guild of America, Art Directors Guild, American Society of Cinematographers, and Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the film, Davis, and Spencer are all nominated), plus the rare nature of the film (its cast is dominated by women of all ages and races), lead me to believe that it is probably the strongest threat to upend the presumptive frontrunner The Artist at the Oscars next month. Therefore, I’d encourage you to take a few minutes to check out the video of our conversation and learn about these remarkable women and the unlikely way in which they came together to bring to the screen one of the most popular novels of our time.
Among the things we discussed…
- The lifelong friendship of Kathryn Stockett, the author of the novel The Help, and Tate Taylor, the director of the film The Help. Taylor had only directed one feature film — a small one at that — prior to The Help, but when Stockett’s manuscript was turned down for the 60th time she agreed to sell him the rights to adapt it into a film. He thought he might be doing her a favor by making a little indie film that could call attention to the novel, but between then and the time of the film’s release the novel was bought, published, and became a phenomenal best-seller. Taylor faced enormous pressure to cede the project to a more experienced director, but refused, and, under the watchful eye of veteran director Chris Columbus, who served as a producer on The Help, he wound up doing a fine job.
- Spencer has known Taylor for over 15 years. They met as production assistants on the set of A Time to Kill (1996), became fast friends, and even wound up rooming together for several years. He introduced her to Stockett, who based the character of Minny Jackson — the fictional maid whom Spencer wound up playing in the film — on Spencer!
- Davis’ personal history — which she emphasizes she shares with most other black women who were born before 1970 — and how it helped to equip her to portray Aibileen Clark with such authenticity and dignity. Her mother and grandmother worked as maids, had no formal education, and spoke with dialects; she herself grew up as part of the only black family in a small town in Rhode Island (“Whatever you can imagine your mind it was like is exactly what it was like”); and she has spent much of her life in abject poverty (“I have been down and out, living in Brooklyn, no money even for a subway, no food whatsoever, like, I remember just sitting in my room all day — even my television wasn’t working!”).
- Chastain’s doubts about her ability to play a woman as highly sexual and sexy as Celia Foote, and her ultimate realization that those doubts were appropriate because Celia shared them.
- O’Reilly friendship with Spencer, which began on the set of the unfortunately-titled indie Herpes Boy (2009), and to which she says she owes her audition for The Help. (She and Spencer also roomed together during the shoot.)
- Davis’ early fears that a portrayal of uneducated black maids from 1963 in a film adapted and directed by a white man could have been a “disaster,” and her insistence that it not “water down” issues of race.
- Davis and Spencer’s differing initial reactions to the broken dialect in which their characters speak. Davis had no issues with it, but Spencer did: “When I opened the manuscript and read that first page, I just wanted to kill her because I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is Mammy from Gone with the Wind‘… and then I realized that, very much unlike Mitchell, she wasn’t making a statement about race; she was writing women of a certain socio-economic and education level who have the depth and breadth of emotion… it’s an homage to all of the men and women who made it possible for me to be playing a maid and not actually having to be one.”
- Davis’ challenge of having to play a character whose feelings — or at least “98% or 99%” of them — are conveyed through internal dialogue.
- Chastain on being asked to gain weight for her part (she started stuffing her face during the last week of production on Take Shelter, and then, on the set of The Help, microwaved soy ice cream and drank it), and the almost-unbelievable story of how she spotted a curvaceous and sexual woman at a party, knew right away that she wanted to model her portrayal of Celia after her, and only afterwards learned that the woman was actually Kathryn Stockett’s mother!
- The amazing ensemble cast that Taylor assembled for the production, including Oscar winners Sissy Spacek and Mary Steenburgen, Oscar nominee Cicely Tyson (a childhood hero of and inspiration for Davis), Allison Janney, Bryce Dallas Howard, Emma Stone, and the list goes on, and the close relationships that formed between them all. (As Spencer put it, “The love that you see on-screen really developed off-screen.”)
- How The Help (which has earned $204+ million worldwide) and Bridesmaids (which has earned $288+ million worldwide) — two movies that star women of all ages, races, shapes, and sizes — blew away the notion that movies that revolve around female protagonists cannot make money at the box-office.
- The possibility of a sequel to The Help. (The idea was raised by a member of the audience, prompting Chastain to turn to Spencer and jokingly suggest, “We can open a restaurant!”)
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