Cast and director of 'The Help' tell their stories
Emma Stone was hardly alone in her ignorance about daily life for many African-Americans in the Deep South during the days of segregation, at a time when the civil rights movement was just gaining speed.
Stone is only 22, and she grew up in Arizona, a long way from the tensions that still sometimes rear their ugly head throughout those southern states. But this summer's busiest actress (Easy A; Crazy, Stupid, Love; Friends with Benefits) now knows the story quite well thanks to her lead role in The Help, opening nationwide tomorrow.
In the film, Stone plays Skeeter, a new college grad who wants to publish the story of several black maids in 1960s Mississippi. Stone learned plenty about their lives in preparing for the role, in reading the best-selling Kathryn Stockett novel upon which the film is based, and through conversations with co-stars Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play two of the maids—"the help"—in the movie.
"I found myself learning the history of the time period in the Deep South," Stone said in a recent post-screening Q&A attended by CT. "Being raised in Arizona, my knowledge of the time period consisted of the stories of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. That's it. How are so many people from my generation not aware? This just happened. And yet we learned so much about ancient Roman history.
"On a personal level, I'm so grateful this film came into my life. It shone light on this period in history that I knew remarkably little about. I felt like Skeeter and I were learning at the same time."
Spencer (Seven Pounds; Dinner for Schmucks), who plays the feisty, outspoken Minny Jackson, had some reservations about playing a maid. "The first time I read through the manuscript I was a little taken aback," Spencer said at the same Q&A. "There was the dialect. But as I continued to read, I realized Kathryn wasn't making a typical maid story. She was sharing from a perspective that hadn't been done before and I thought that was really refreshing. It was one of the most special things I'd read in a long time."
Spencer, friends with Stockett and director Tate Taylor for years, admits being in the film wasn't always easy. "It was a very oppressive time in those days," she said, "and that wasn't a great mindset to be in every day. But it made me realize how much we've forgotten and how grateful I am. Even though Minny and Aibileen and Skeeter and all these women are fictitious, they represent scores of real people. I felt compelled to be so grateful for my life today and all the opportunities I have, and I think that's what made The Help even more meaningful to be a part of."
Davis had plenty to say about the film and her role as Aibileen, a withdrawn maid who takes her Christian faith very seriously.
"It wasn't just a chance for me to create a character that was interesting and complicated," Davis (Doubt; Eat Pray Love) said in the film's production notes. "But it was also a chance for me to be in a movie that illuminated a part of our history that we have a tendency to be silent about." She also admitted a reluctance to play Aibileen because of the "stigma attached to playing a maid in 2011," but notes that her mother, Mary, who spent years as a maid, was part of her inspiration.
"[My mother] had an eighth-grade education," Davis told The Chicago Sun-Times. "It's not that she wasn't capable. It's not that she didn't have gifts. She didn't have the opportunity to live out her gifts. It's the saga of being a woman of color in those days and knowing there were no choices for you.