In Their Own Words

01.12.12

The Help: An Oral History with Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Co.

One of the year’s biggest hits, the historical comedy-drama The Help is riding a massive wave of Oscar buzz this awards season, and is considered a major contender in several categories, including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress. Here, cast members Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, director Tate Taylor, author Kathryn Stockett, and producers Chris Columbus and Brunson Green give an oral history of the movie’s key scenes.

Based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help follows the plights of a pair of middle-aged black maids—Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer)—during the Civil Rights era in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. The entire town is terrorized by Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a myopic mother who is pushing a bill she calls the "Home Help Sanitation Initiative” that will provide for separate bathrooms for the black help—since she believes that black people carry different diseases. Skeeter (Emma Stone), a fledgling journalist disgusted by the treatment toward “the help,” decides to pen a controversial book from the point of view of the maids—in particular Aibileen and Minny—exposing the racism they face from their white employers.

Directed by Tate Taylor, The Help, which also stars the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, became one of this years feel-good box office hits, earning over $200 million against a budget of just $25 million. It’s also garnering heaps of Oscar buzz.

Here, stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, director Tate Taylor, author Kathryn Stockett, and producers Chris Columbus and Brunson Green—provided The Daily Beast with an oral history of the Oscar hopeful’s key scenes (shit pie, included).

Aibileen Hurries Home After Medger Evers is Shot

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Viola Davis: We shot it at, what, one o’clock or midnight, Tate?

Tate Taylor: That was a very long and tragic day for the Aibileen character. That same day you were told to hurry up when you were in the bathroom. What’s great about us shooting it at night was that Aibileen is really at her wit’s end and exhausted, and you were, too!

Viola: I felt like that scene represented something that you don’t see in cinema—the everyday fear that people had. Oftentimes, when you see the Civil Rights era onscreen, people are being whipped and killed, but it’s the everyday—you’re going home, you’re tired and on the bus, and all of a sudden something happens that could be life-threatening. Then, as soon as it’s over, you’re back to your life again. It’s the everyday fear you have to live with. It woke Minny and Aibileen up to the fact that they were risking their lives writing this book.

Taylor: What I really, really loved about the Medgar Evers storyline and backdrop was that he was in their neighborhood. While they were doing this clandestine project, this Civil Rights leader who’s their neighbor gets murdered, and their characters are wondering, “What’s going to happen to us?”

Kathryn Stockett: It was very important for me—and for Tate—to not make this into a Civil Rights piece, but they were being infiltrated and hunted down for their color. So when that bus driver agrees to drive the white people to their destination but tells the black people to get the fuck off, he’s reminding people of the rules. I think it also makes the audience very protective of Aibileen when she’s running through the dark like that. It hurts watching it!

Brunson Green: One thing that Tate wanted to make sure of was that kids under age 30 don’t really have any idea of where the Civil Rights movement was at its most violent and Jackson, Mississippi, was right in the middle of it. So it shows that for the women, writing this book is putting them in a life-threatening situation without beating it over our heads and having a noose in the tree.

Aibileen and Minny Realize What’s at Stake

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Octavia: The exterior was shot maybe two weeks prior to the interior, because we shot that the next-to-last day of shooting, so Viola had to carry that emotion over. People fail to realize that it’s a movie about ordinary people. Medgar Evers was a Civil Rights leader in Jackson, Mississippi, so if something happened to him—I’m a mother of five in an abusive relationship who doesn’t want my husband raising my kids, so what’s going to happen to me? It’s really funny, though, because it’s kind of like my personality in real life! Viola, on the other hand, is very calming.

Viola: I think the backdrop of history is what raises the stakes in the story. When it first starts, you’re just introduced to Skeeter, who’s an aspiring writer, and this whole Medgar Evers storyline has to be introduced to see what it’s going to cost all of them to create this book. And I think it’s an important scene because it’s the first time you see Minny and Aibileen being fearful. I think any hero should have some fear in them. You see it so many times in movies where they strap on the guns and fighting these huge aliens and you’re thinking, “By this point, I’d have crap and urine in my pants!” Real-life heroes have fears.

Octavia: I think that’s why this movie has been so successful, Viola. It resonates with them on a personal basis because they can relate to these people and it’s so tangible. Superhero movies like you just described require escapism, but our movie doesn’t really let you escape—you have to participate with these characters emotionally.

Stockett: Aibileen is desperate, tired, starved, but has nobody at home, so she goes to the back door of Minny’s house, and I just love in that scene how Minny’s kids are all sardined in bed together. It’s so important to show that even in these women’s homes they were in such grave danger.

“The Terrible Awful”

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Taylor: That was actually one of the toughest scenes for me to make real just because what she did is so dangerous. For me, the way I had to make it work was that Minny never intended to even tell her what she was eating but her mouth, once again, got the best of her. I had to make it as much about Hilly pushing Minny’s buttons to where she just couldn’t help it but say, “Bitch, you ate my shit!”

Octavia: Oh my god! [Laughs] People always ask me if we were laughing hysterically through that scene, but I always say no, because it was never a funny thing for Minny. She always knew the danger. We never played the comedy of it; the comedy is knowing when it’s revealed. 

Stockett: Tate was such a prankster! He still is. The horrible things he did to the people he even loved, or in high school, to me—he told me at one point I had to stop telling people what he used to do. [Laughs] For me, it was, “What was the worst thing you could do to Hilly Holbrook?” And it was her having the image in her own mind that she had eaten Negro shit. It’s kind of corny, the whole concept, but what saved that scene was Sissy Spacek.

Chris Columbus: “Run, HillyMinny, run!” was a completely improvised line. People were falling down behind the monitor because we had no idea how Sissy was going to react. But the way that scene is shot, it’s a textbook scene of how to direct a comedic moment.

Taylor: Bryce is such a trooper, too. She was all gluten-free and we had this really nasty pie made for her. She just kept shoving that shit in her mouth—no pun intended.

Green: Bryce wasn’t eating dairy at the time so they switched out this nasty, vegan pie with the camera-ready pie, and she had to eat about four of those pies over the course of four hours! She was a trooper.

Columbus: She was game! Literally, there was one take where she was putting the chocolate all over her teeth and licking it. It was almost too disgusting so it didn’t make the final cut of the picture.

Octavia: And I did the “eat my shit” line about five or six times. That was the fun part!

Stockett: It’s fucking hysterical!

Aibileen Stands Up to Hilly

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Taylor: We thought, “How do we do [Bryce’s herpes scar] without making it look like Fred Savage’s mole?” But it represented her stress and her biggest damn fear: what would happen if you came in contact having anything to do with African-Americans, and boy did she. I love that.

Green: There were about five or six different levels of herpes outbreak camera tests to make sure it wasn’t too distracting, but noticeable enough.

Viola: For me, I had to remember that it’s Aibileen’s heroic moment. In the book, it takes everything Aibileen has just to speak up. This is not a woman who goes about her life slaying dragons. It’s a quiet woman who finds her voice in the scene. Me, Viola, probably would’ve wanted to jump on her, slap her, and rip that herpes scar off her lip, but with Aibileen, it took everything she has to speak up because she doesn’t want to leave Mae Mobley, or the only life she’s known. That’s where she gets her identity. 

Stockett: And that little girl was just perfect.

Viola: Working with a baby was difficult because you’re trying to get a three-year-old to hit a mark and say her lines, and to stay in a scene that is very emotional is difficult for a three-year-old. At the same time, in order to coax her to speak and stay on her mark, it required me to break character to do that, and then jump back into character for my close-up.

Taylor: Viola’s literally got tears streaming down her face and she’s looking at little Emma and saying, “Remember what I told you?” And she’s like, “Eh, I’m hungry.”

Columbus: Mae Mobley was played by twins with very different personalities. You’d think Ella would be the one, and then she’d be in a bad mood, so we’d have to switch her out with Emma.

Green: The funny thing is: Here’s this three-year-old child with Viola Davis, one of the best actresses of our generation, and around the corner there’s eight people looking into the monitor on pins and needles hoping that this three-year-old will deliver the emotion that we needed. It was really nerve-wracking.

The Final Shot: Aibileen’s Long Walk Home

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Columbus: We had several discussions about how we should actually end the movie. All of us went back to the last paragraph of Kathryn’s book, and we all agreed it was key to the finale of the movie. We shot a scene where Emma [Stone] went to the graveyard in Chicago to see Constantine’s grave, and we also had a scene where we saw Aibileen 20 years later, which we didn’t shoot. But those last lines of the book: “Maybe I ain’t too old to start over. I think and I laugh and cry at the same time at this.” That line is essential to what’s going on with Viola at that moment in her performance.

Viola: It’s always hard to telegraph a story without words and do it.

Taylor: You make it look so easy, Viola.

Viola: In the book it talks about how she’s crying and laughing at the same time, and it’s the kind of laughter and tears that comes from liberation but doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending; it means relief. So it was more about that release you get when you finally speak up and burst out of the confines of any restraints that you’ve been in—whether it was a marriage, a job, or a friendship that’s gone awry. Who knows what will happen after that. But Tate made me do it…. I don’t know, how many times?

Taylor: Well, we had a shitty 1950s Chapman crane that was wobbly and it kept shaking, so we didn’t shoot it a bunch of times because she wasn’t good!

Viola: I did give Tate the one-eye after the second take.

Taylor: Oh yeah. “Like, really?” But I got to give Viola a lot of credit in that scene because with her talent and skill, she helped make that scene more grounded than it was on the page.

Octavia: I wasn’t a part of that scene and it was one of the days I didn’t go to the set, but watching it in the theater, not only does Viola’s character run the gamut of emotions, but so does the viewer. You hope the little girl isn’t going to turn out like her mother, but like a Skeeter or a Celia, and you worry what’s going to happen to Minny and Aibileen, but then you hear Aibileen say, “There’s going to be a writer in the family and maybe it’s going to be me.” That’s when I was sobbing the most, like, “Oh, god!” I think that might be my favorite moment in the movie.