Author, director and stars dish about the South, the film and the future

From left are Octavia Spencer, who portrays Minnie; Viola Davis, who portrays Aibileen; Tate Taylor, writer and director; and author Kathryn Stockett.

Photo by Nathan Self

The New York Times best-seller "The Help" will be brought to the big screen when the film opens Wednesday. Written by Mississippi native and Buckhead resident Kathryn Stockett, the book tells the story of Skeeter Phelan, a recent graduate of University of Mississippi, and two maids, Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson. It is the secret collaboration between these women in 1960s that changes the minds, attitudes and futures for everyone involved.

With the help of Stockett's childhood friend, writer and director Tate Taylor, and powerful performances by actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the film is already garnering award buzz and more. The foursome discussed their experiences working on the film, what they learned and what they want people to gain from watching.

Born and raised in Jackson, Miss., Stockett grew up in a single-parent household. Her mother hired a maid, Demitri, whom Stockett affectionately calls her "co-mother."

Stockett readily admits she isn't comfortable with the success from the book and the anticipated success from the film.

"Once I got into the story enough to think that I might have the guts to send it out, I became so crisply aware that these were not truly my own stories to tell, many of them," she said. "But I really wanted to tell the story and I really wanted to visit that voice of Demitri."

She began the book after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It took her five years to complete. From there, she faced rejection from multiple publishers.

However, Taylor was a fan from the beginning. When talks of a movie began, Stockett easily handed it over to her good friend, well before she secured a publishing deal.

"I was really relieved to give it to a Mississippian who would film it in Mississippi (and) cast the right people," she said of Taylor. Stockett said she and Taylor are closer now than they were before.

Spencer agrees, saying, "It was important for a Southerner to do it to show the humanity of that era."

The bulk of the movie was filmed in Greenwood, Miss., and the rest in surrounding cities. Davis, a Tony Award-winning actress, said she felt transported daily. She said, "The importance of shooting in Mississippi is that it is a different character in and of itself."

In the film, Davis portrays Aibileen who works for the Leefolt family. The Academy Award-nominated actress said making the loss of Aibileen's child authentic was important in her character's journey and the key to her humanity.

"This is a whole book dedicated to exploring black women," she said, noting the stories of these women are barely explored as well as the opportunities the film presented for black actresses.

"There are major roles for black actresses in a year filled with - actually the last two years - filled with nothing," she said. "There is a deprivation of roles for black actresses," she said.

Cicely Tyson, a legendary black actress, portrays Constantine, whom Skeeter considered a second mother.

Taylor regards directing Tyson as a learning experience. He said, "She has so much experience under her belt. She is hard worker. She doesn't want to do anything but her best." He noted that she is a method actor and stayed in character on and off the set.

Davis views Tyson as her idol, saying "She is the symbol of everything that made me want to be an actress."

Minny Jackson is another character that stands out in both the book and movie because of her quick wit and no-nonsense attitude. Stockett said she based the character on Spencer, who was not only good friends with Taylor, but a former roommate.

The actress said it was her good friend who put the manuscript in her hands. Although she playfully describes the large manuscript as a "phonebook," Spencer said, "I'm really glad I read the book."

Spencer acknowledges the challenges of playing Minny, especially being an outspoken black woman in the South during the 1960s. The themes of civil rights and domestic violence also plague the character. To prepare for the role, Spencer said she researched the Civil Rights Movement and spousal abuse and worked with Jamal McNeil, the acting coach actress Taraji P. Henson used for her role as "Queenie" in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

"Back then, women, and certainly African-American women, didn't (use their voices) and those who did were viewed as more radical," she said, "So it was very hard reconciling that and not having any anachronistic problems emerge from the performance.

"It was a challenge. I wanted to do the role justice," she continues. "It was tough, but I'm glad I took that journey. Minnie has made such an impact in my life."

Working with Tate was also a journey Spencer said she enjoyed. Taylor, a writer/director who is also an actor, can be seen in "Winter's Bone."

"The unique thing about Tate is that actors understand actors," Spencer said. "Tate is a very visual person. He has exquisite taste and style, but he also understands the insecurities we have as actors. He understands no actor thinks their performance is great."

With such a heavy film, Spencer said transitioning in and out of character was not easy for anyone on set. However, she said it allowed them to go on a complex journey together and gave them the freedom to be supportive of each other.

Both Tate and Stockett say they are discouraged about past portrayals of Mississippi on the big screen.

"I'm really defensive about Mississippi," Stockett said. "It always gets so much bad press. I wrote a piece at the end of the book in my own words that just brags about Mississippi, talking about the incredible things Mississippi has produced."

As the screenwriter, Taylor acknowledges the book is geared toward women. However, he said "being around female energy my entire life" was the reason he was able to develop the script and keep it that way.

"Women are more dynamic and interesting because of all the hats they have to wear as a human on our planet," he said. "I love female characters."

He said audiences' reactions from the film have ranged from embarrassing to empowering. He said, "A lot of people haven't discussed race and the past."

Taylor recalls watching the film with Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of the NAACP leader Medgar Evers. In 1963, Evers was assassinated at his home. This incident is relived in the book and in the film.

After the screening, Tate recalls Evers-Williams telling him although she remembers the tragedy, she was also able to remember the good times she had in Jackson.

Davis said talking about race is frightening to some people.

"We feel like forgetting is a part of healing. Forgetting is not a part of healing," Davis said. "Remembering, getting it out there, walking through it and understanding that it's a part of who you are, it's a part of American culture - that's where healing is."

With rumors of Academy Awards nominations, Taylor said with so many great performances in the film, it will be hard to pick a winner.

"I'm more worried about the box office results," he said.

Stockett said each day of her journey with her book is a new experience.

"I'm looking at it through baby eyes," she said. "It's crazy, it's wild."

"The Help" also stars Emma Stone, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek. For more about the film and the book, visit www.thehelpmovie.com.

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