Emma Stone, left, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in a scene from "The… (Dale Robinette / DreamWorks )
The leading ladies of the upcoming film "The Help" — Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Bryce Dallas Howard, Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain — sat down with The Times last week to discuss their movie, race, and being women in Hollywood. Based on the novel of the same name, "The Help" is set in 1960s Mississippi and arrives in theaters Aug. 10.
Stone plays Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, a career-minded college grad who persuades a group of black maids to tell their stories so she can publish them. Spencer plays sharp-tongued maid Minny Jackson, a role written for her by the book's author, Kathryn Stockett. Davis plays Aibileen, the stoic housekeeper, still grieving over the death of her son.
Howard plays the villain, Hilly Holbrook, junior league president who is happy to initiate and embrace the segregationist laws of Mississippi. Chastain plays Celia Foote, the poor white girl who marries into money but can't fit in with the high-society women of the town.
Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
How did each of you connect to your character?
Chastain: I connected to the feeling of being an outcast and wanting to be part of a group. When I was in elementary school, I found it really difficult to make friends because I wasn't the pretty blond girl. But it was on my very first audition when I met Octavia that all the magic happened for me. It was like love at first sight. Working with her, I realized the scenes would be such an amazing combination that wouldn't happen with another pairing.
Stone: I found it hard to not fall in love with Skeeter. She's so charmingly idealistic, and I thought she was so very human. I loved her relationship with Constantine [her maid while growing up, played by Cicely Tyson]. I was lucky enough to have that relationship with my own mother, someone that made me feel that I was OK even though I was different than the other kids.
Spencer: I was scared to death to play [Minny]. They hyped it up to the studio: "She'd be great, she'd be great," and then I'm thinking I don't know if I'd be great. Quite honestly, I don't know if I'd stay in a marriage where I'm physically abused. When I finally stopped judging Minny and I embraced her, then I was happy.
Davis: I don't know how much of Aibileen is in me. She's kind of quiet. I guess I'm kind of quiet. But quiet characters are always hard, I don't care what anyone says. Once I tapped into her losing her son, then she made complete sense. It made sense why she was holding onto Mae Mobley [her charge] for so long. It was her way of holding onto her son. I know how that feels. I had a father who passed. I was with him on his deathbed, and I know how difficult it is to say goodbye to someone.
Howard: Well, I related to everything about my character. On a surface level, I was so amazed by how much easier it is to play a character when they don't have to be likable, or appealing or even attractive. There were so many scenes that were outrageously fun for me because they were funny scenes and Hilly was being made fun of, or getting what she deserved. And there were scenes that I would never, no matter how much anyone paid me, would never want to play again.
You've traveled around the country already promoting this movie. Has the reaction differed in different regions?
Spencer: It's very interesting. It's not the South [where the reaction was surprising]. All the cities have welcomed the movie with open arms. I just found in one [Northern] city in particular where there was the most interesting Q&A. They really homed in on the civil rights and one woman asked, 'What's it like down there, are those people still domestics?' The way she phrased the question was as if she didn't know that black people had progressed beyond that.
The statement that I made and that I think I will continue to make is that racism and bigotry isn't just relegated to the Southern region, it permeates the history of our nation. It's not to say that we haven't made progress. Obviously we have with our first African American president, and I never thought that would happen in my lifetime. There's so much bigotry that needs to be overcome. I'm proud of the fact that we've made strides as a nation, but going back and re-creating this time in history has been a challenge and it's one that has shaped the course of my life from this point forward.
Spencer: I want to be proactive in bringing about change and enlightening people. I think the first way is to get as many people to see this film as possible, especially youth. They have no idea about this time period, no idea.
How important was it to stay true to the book versus the script?