'The Help': Why It Took a Year to Cast the Film

30 FEA Help Casting Viola Davis Aunjeneu Ellis
Dale Robinette/DreamWorks

A behind-the-scenes look at how DreamWorks and director Tate Taylor put together the film’s diverse female ensemble.

The tale of how The Help was cast is almost as delicious as author Kathryn Stockett's characters. The story begins in Jackson, Miss., where Stockett and eventual Help director Tate Taylor, now 42, grew up together as children and later met eventual Help producer Brunson Green. They were in their mid-20s then, and Green helped Taylor get a job as a production assistant on the set of A Time to Kill, which was shot on location in Jackson. That's when Taylor became friends with Octavia Spencer, who had a bit part in the 1996 film, her first movie role.

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Not long after, Taylor and Spencer migrated to Los Angeles, hoping to get into the film business in a real way. Taylor spent his first two months crashing with Green, who'd already made the trek west. The trio ended up making a short film, Chicken Party, and that's when Allison Janney, who acted in the short, became a member of their posse. In 2006, the four teamed on the indie film Pretty Ugly People, which Taylor shot at about the same time Stockett was finishing the manuscript for Help. "Kathryn came to Montana to visit the set, and I think what she was really doing was spying to see if Tate could direct," recalls Green. Stockett gave Taylor and Green her manuscript, which had been sold but not yet published, and they quickly optioned film rights. As the book became a surprise best-seller, DreamWorks, Participant Media and 1492 Pictures signed to make the movie, which Disney is distributing worldwide.

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Most movies take 10 to 12 weeks to cast. Help -- one of the largest female ensemble pics of all time, with a rare range of actresses both older and of color -- took a year. Leslee Feldman, head of casting at DreamWorks, worked closely with veteran casting agents Kerry Barden (he's from Atlanta) and Paul Schnee of Barden/Schnee as well as with Green and Taylor. Because of the book's popularity, the blogosphere lit up with possible candidates for the film -- Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Hudson, Rachel McAdams, Oprah -- but DreamWorks and the filmmakers didn't want big movie stars. "It would have been jarring since there's no clear-cut lead," says Feldman. Barden and Schnee add, "It's complex because you are fitting so many pieces together." The strategy is paying off, with the film opening to nearly $36 million and earning early awards attention.

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It was practically a given that Spencer would play Minny Jackson because she provided Stockett with inspiration for the character in the first place. Janney signed early as well, followed by Emma Stone and Viola Davis. Spencer served as a muse throughout the casting process. At one point, she kept pushing a young actress that no one knew named Ahna O'Reilly. "When Ahna came in, Tate was ecstatic because she had a drawl. 'Finally, we have a real Southerner,' " Green recalls Taylor saying. But O'Reilly had been coached by Spencer and wasn't Southern at all -- she's actually from Northern California.

Men are almost props in the movie. An exception is Leslie Jordan, who plays married newspaper editor Mr. Blackly. Taylor and Green didn't want the character to be a stereotypical hard-charging editor, but rather fey, in a cultural nod to the married Southern gay men they knew growing up. "I remember these men," says Green with a wink and a nod, "and how I didn't think they were the type to have wives."

Looking For A Little Help Overseas

The Help couldn't have hoped for a better start at the U.S. box office, but will the film travel? The movie -- about white women and their black maids in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s -- faces a distinct marketing challenge overseas, where audiences aren't always interested in topics specific to American culture.

While many films are doing significantly more business overseas than domestically, 2009's The Blind Side, with its focus on football, topped out at $53.2 million internationally, compared with a domestic gross of $255.9 million (and unlike Help, it had an international star, Sandra Bullock).

DreamWorks and Disney, which is distributing Help worldwide, are gambling that a slow rollout, building on the film's U.S. box-office success and early awards buzz, will pay off as opposed to a more conventional day-and-date global release.

They begin their international campaign Sept. 2, when Help opens the Deauville American Film Festival in France -- a stopover designed to generate international headlines and woo the foreign press. Next, they will host a slew of word-of-mouth screenings in various countries including Australia, where Help opens in late September. Why is DreamWorks so sure of this strategy? It's counting on fans of the book, which is sold the world over and has been translated into more than 40 languages.