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Tate Taylor, Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer talk racism in 1960’s America

The Help
25 October 2011

Growing up in Mississippi, best friends with author Kathryn Stockett – who wrote the original novel; it seems that Tate Taylor was destined to direct ‘The Help’, an emotional tale of race and friendship and the complexity and courageousness in combining the two.

Sitting alongside leading actresses Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer – Taylor and his cast members told us how the film came to the big-screen, and the difficulties in portraying characters engulfed in such racism, when being such a close-knit group off-set.

The film, set for release on November 26 – looks deeply into the civil rights movement, another topic discussed in length at the press conference for the upcoming feature…



Tate, it seems that you have been born to make this film – could you tell us a little about how it came to be in the first place?

Tate Taylor: Well yeah it began with the book. Kathryn and I were about 5 years old and have consistently been friends since. We were always there for each other in Jackson, Mississippi, and we have always supported each other. When 9/11 happened and she and I still shared an apartment in the East Village, she was with her husband and I was in LA and she just called me completely depressed and blue. And she said, “Tate, you know the only thing which could help me feel better right now is if I could go back in time and be with Dimitri in my grandparents’ kitchen, she would tell what me to do.” And that was the woman who worked for her family for 29 years and she is now deceased and Kathryn became immediately grief stricken and ashamed with how she selfishly knew very little about her as a person, didn’t know much about her outside of her uniform and as an exercise that day just to be comfortable to be able to talk to the woman who had now passed away she began to write short stories in Dimitri’s voice, just rambling, guessing, where her friends were, what they talked about and she couldn’t stop, and about 5 years later, that became The Help.

I knew she was writing a book, she wouldn’t let me read it, she didn’t want her family or friends to judge her, so after her 60th rejection I was having lunch with her she said “Do you know what? You can read this thing, nothings ever going to happen with it, you’ve been driving me crazy, go ahead, you’re probably going to hate it.” I started reading it on the plane and was just blown away and immediately started seeing it as a film. Beyond the nostalgia of both being from our home town, what really hit home with me was the relationship with Mae Mobley and Aibileen, because I had that relationship with a woman in my life. My mum was a single mum, like Kathryn’s, trying to feed and clothe me and she brought a woman into our home to basically co-raise me so my mum could work. That was when I realised that these women were such pivotal parts in my life and so many peoples’ lives and that we never we got to hear about them and who they are, outside of being in a uniform and in the kitchen, especially in movies. So I wanted to show people who they are, not to say thank you, not really as a tribute, but I just wanted them to know who these people really were, they deserved to be known about, and I wanted to make the movie. I got the rights and wrote the script and all that before the book came out. We thought we were going to make this an independent film to help my friend get her book published and then that business model kind of flip-flopped.


Emma, your character Skeeter goes on a really enriching journey, being exposed to multigenerational, interesting women. I wonder if you related to that, as you were suddenly working with such good actresses, including these two sitting beside you, amongst others, did you feel that Skeeter and yourself were having a kind of parallel journey?

Emma Stone: Yeah, absolutely, in many ways.  Also Skeeter is learning about the truth and the reality of the every day life of these women and I was too. I felt like we were learning in tandem about that because I had been educated on the most well known stories of the civil rights era but not the day-to-day life of the ordinary woman, so getting to live in the South and getting to place here was so enriching for my life, not just as an actor, but as Emma.


Viola, Aibileen is such a compelling character but were there other considerations for you, in accepting and going ahead with the film?

Viola Davis: No that was the only consideration at the end of the day, there was a lot of hesitancy playing a maid in 2011. I remember playing a maid in Far From Heaven and I remember telling some friends, and I’m glad they haven’t held me to this, I said “I am never playing a maid again, ever.” But then Aibileen came along. I remember getting these roles in television and they were always described in the same way ‘late 30s to mid-40s, strong and sassy…’ or I remember the last one I got and I looked at it, and I looked at it all night because it said ‘police officer, mother of two, married, strong with no vulnerability whatsoever.’ So when Aibileen came along and I saw how multifaceted and rich she was, for me it was a no-brainer.


I know that Mississippi has changed a great deal over time – but did any of you get a sense that there are some parts of the state that haven’t changed at all?

Octavia Spencer: Well I’m from the South but I venture to say that the amount of racism which is prevalent at this point in America would be on par with what is prevalent throughout the world. For Mississippi, as well as all Southern regions, it is definitely something which is part of our past, it is not something that I think didn’t play a part in making us grow as a nation, certainly as people, but it definitely helped being there to bring the story to life, for me anyway.

Tate Taylor: As Octavia said, it has definitely changed from the period in which the film was made.


Would you have ever contemplated shooting it anywhere else?

Tate Taylor: No, I had to shoot it there. It’s a character, its beautiful, its complex and I wanted every frame of the film to be packed with Mississippi. All of the homes, all the buildings, those are practical, real locations which were there except for two sets which we had to build for practical reasons, and then the love of the community. It had to be filmed there; it would have been a different film if it had been filmed anywhere else. 


Emma, do you think you could ever be as brave as your character is in the film?

Emma Stone: You know what was great about a film or character like this in a different time period, is that I can say “yes, definitely, 100%.”

I have no idea, but I would hope so and putting myself in Skeeter’s position and playing the character, I imagined it all the time but you don’t know.


What is it like for you to go from a movie like The Help, a very character and emotion driven picture, to a huge blockbuster like Spiderman?

Emma Stone: Just like going from one movie to another.



Is it not like a completely different scale? Is it different acting wise?

Emma Stone: At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what the background is, you’re sitting in a room with another human being playing a scene, trying to find out more about each other, getting to the route of the character, so no. As an actor your focus is what’s happening between you and another person.


When researching and making the film, what did you learn about the civil rights which may have shocked you, or surprised you that you didn’t know already?

Octavia Spencer: Well I think it shocked me because I knew it but I didn’t really process how many Skeeters, in the form of young, white men and women were actually involved in the civil rights movement. I knew it was a struggle for African Americans and people of colour but then I realise it was a struggle for the nation, when I actually went back to do research and how many young people Skeeter actually truthfully represented.

Viola Davis: There are certain things which don’t make it into the history books, its just how people felt on a day-to-day basis, when you get into a character you are walking in their shoes for 3-and-a-half months and you’re feeling what they’re feeling when they go to work and when they come home. Like being on the set and being in Minnie’s home, with the one bed that her kids got into, the tea scene at the bridge club, which we shot for two weeks, where I had no lines, I was just serving tea and picking up ashes all day and trying to pretend I was invisible, because I was, those are the things that are not documented in history books and that’s how it affected human beings, the degradation. I think that was the biggest surprise for me, I had in some ways dismissed that in the past and thought ok well ‘if I lived in that time I would have overcome, I would have spoken up’ but to actually to live in that body I could not imagine living like that everyday.

Tate Taylor: For me, when I was researching the Jim Crow laws, which were all across the various states in the country, which is truly very telling in how much racism is fear based – some of the laws in the books are so laughably ridiculous. There was one where schools for the blind cant have blacks and whites go together. Think about that, they’re blind. It makes you laugh and makes you realise that as humans we can be ridiculously fearful and it’s just absurd, and I was continually shocked. It just shows how ridiculous any form of racism or bigotry is.

If you go online and try to find them, you won’t believe some of the laws which are on the books.

Emma Stone: I learnt so much, I don’t know if it’s generational or education but its fair to say that my generation doesn’t talk about it much, it happened in the past, time’s gone by. People say that when there’s something dirty in our past we want to sweep it under the rug because we want to remember all the positive things from history and all the great accomplishments, so you don’t learn so much about what actually happened, how much actually changed and how far we have come in 50 years. What I learnt was so enlightening and horrifying and reading about the Jim Crow laws, which I had no idea existed, and realising just how separate everything was, it was all new to me. Thank god I learnt about it. Just to appreciate how far we have come has changed my whole life now, in terms of being opinionated and open minded and being able to hear peoples’ stories in a much more open way and realise why people are the way they are – because of their history.


There is so much racism in the film, which must have felt so alien to many of you as actors, was it strange doing that on-set?

Octavia Spencer: Oh absolutely. To be on-set in the 1960’s and not trust Tate because he’s white, even though he’s just the director. Or not trust this sweet little face right here (Emma Stone) just because she’s white – it made it a very dark place for me and what was wonderful coming out of that darkness was that I felt so embraced by this group of people and we all carried that burden, but for me that was the hardest thing to do on set.


Emma, the role of Skeeter is quite a different part for you to play, was it quite refreshing to play a part that wasn’t studying in college, or engulfed in a romantic storyline?

Emma Stone: I don’t think Easy A was engulfed in a romantic storyline, or at college?


But Skeeter was more of a mature role – no love interest, no homework to do, just a bit different to some of your previous roles.

Emma Stone: Viola has played a bunch of different roles too, as has Octavia. I think many of my movies were seen in quick succession, but every role feels different to me, I loved this role because I loved this role, not in comparison to anything else that I’ve done before or will do in the future. I think as an actor you just fall in love with the role, so of course it felt different. Of course there were new experiences and new accents, a new time period and a new story, but every role is a challenge and every role feels different.


Viola you were born in South Carolina, do you know if any of your parents or grandparents experienced anything like that goes on in The Help? And if so, did you use that as part of your research process?

Viola Davis: Well, they grew up black on a singleton plantation, with lots of shanties with no running water or electricity – that’s where I was born. My grandmother was a maid, my mum said she got paid 25 dollars a week and she worked her fingers to the bone and was treated like crap. My mum has an eight grade education and had to quit school to start having children. My grandmother was a maid and she had 18 children. That’s 18 children to take care of other children, seven who did not survive. When we moved to Rhode Island when I was one year old, I got rickets and I was sent to the hospital and put on tubes, and the doctors said I wasn’t going to develop correctly, a distended stomach, and the doctor wanted to experiment and wanted to break my legs to see how they would grow back. And my mum says she was sure the doctor was only doing that because I was a little black baby and she was not educated, and she just felt that they were gonna do it because she wouldn’t speak up for herself. So she had to sneak in to the hospital, take the tubes out and take me out. There are lots of cases that I drew on in my life, and memories make the character rich.


And lastly, Tate – what would you hope people take away from the film?

Tate Taylor: Lots been said that perhaps the movie could have dealt more with the in-your-face horrors of this time period, but they were just the backdrop of a film that is about beautiful, ordinary, courageous people, who have come together and find love between each other when they’re not supposed to, which is so hard, and they find a way to better each of their lives, independently, but for one another, and with each others help.



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