IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'The Help'

Monday, 08 August 2011 09:40 Written by  Krystal Clark
Rate this item
(2 votes)
IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'The Help'

After a summer of robots, superheroes and wizards audiences can look to DreamWorks’ The Help for a refreshing blockbuster alternative. The drama is based on Kathryn Stockett‘s bestselling novel that takes an endearing but honest look at one of the most tumultuous times in American history. It tells the story of a group of women from different backgrounds, who despite their race and class bond over an unlikely project.

The Help takes place in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. This is where Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate, embarks on a career as a domestic columnist for a local newspaper. For inspiration, she seeks advice from her best friend’s maid Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), which spawns a friendship that dramatically changes both of their lives. Skeeter’s love of writing and her connection with Aibileen creates a domino effect that forces others to acknowledge their unequal and highly prejudiced society.

A few weeks ago, I along with several members of the press attended a press conference with The Help’s talented cast and production team. The group included Emma Stone (Easy A), Viola Davis (Doubt), Bryce Dallas Howard (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), Academy Award winner Sissy Spacek (Get Low), Allison Janney (Juno), newcomer Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life), Octavia Spencer (Peep World), director-screenwriter Tate Taylor and author Kathryn Stockett.

Both Tate Taylor and Kathryn Stockett were born and raised in Mississippi and are well aware of the state’s segregated history. “It was taboo,” explained Stockett. “Not a dirty secret ... it just wasn’t polite. There was a good fifteen to twenty years where people stopped talking about race. It was so un-P.C. because you were afraid you were going to say the wrong thing.” Because of this code of silence, Taylor was unsure if his Mississippi brethren would embrace or balk at the idea of him shooting The Help on location.

Taylor was pleasantly surprised when the residents of Greenwood, Mississippi were more than happy to cooperate with him and his production crew. “I had to get permission from the University of Mississippi to talk about what went on at Old Miss and the Junior League at Jackson. People all said, ‘Yes, that happened and it was awful and we’re proud that we’re making strides to change. Please talk about it.’ People embraced it and said, ‘Yes, this is history.’”

The plot of The Help heavily hinges on the blossoming relationship between the characters Skeeter and Aibileen, therefore the right casting was integral to the film’s success. When asked about their on screen chemistry, both Stone and Davis felt that the development of they’re personal relationship off screen closely mirrored their characters in the film. “Skeeter and Aibileen don’t really know each other very well at the beginning and slowly get to know each other better and better, which I think was kind of our experience as well throughout the movie,” revealed Stone.

Despite the negative stigma that surrounds movies dominated by women, Davis clarified that all the actors got along great. “Everyone is always asking, ‘You were in a movie with all those women and nobody fought?’ she said. “Nothing. Not any evidence of that whatsoever. We had a lot of parties and we ate a lot.” She joked, “We ate a lot of lemon pie, caramel cakes and fried green tomatoes. We gained a lot of weight.“

Every great story has a great villain and Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly Holbrook is no exception. Even though Howard has played her fair share of bad girls in the past, she feels that Hilly is her vilest role to date. The character is the exact opposite of Skeeter and comes across as a real thorn in her side. “She’s a real person,” said Howard. “There’s a psychology behind her behavior. It’s not like she’s a sociopath or anything. What I felt was scarier was the fact that she had justified her actions and she felt like she was right. She was cruel.” The actress explained that women like Hilly “actually believed what they were doing was good.”

Howard used some of film’s nastiest and most terrifying villains to inform her performance in the movie. She said, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my favorite movies and when I read the script that was one of the first thoughts that came to me. Nurse Ratched obviously was a control freak but what was so scary was that she really thought that she was helping her patients. That’s what was so eerie about her and dangerous about her.”

Besides Skeeter and Aibileen, another unlikely relationship that develops is between Aibileen’s best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) and her new employer Celia (Jessica Chastain). Even though Celia doesn’t share the same discriminatory beliefs as Hilly, Minny is weary of her. Because of her negative encounters with White people in the past, Minny tries to keep Celia at a distance. “In Minny’s mind they’re from two different worlds and because of that they should not have a relationship,” said Spencer. But according to Chastain, Celia’s background sets her apart from the other women in the story. “Celia comes from Sugar Ditch, Tennessee, which in the 1960s and 1950s was predominantly African-America and is one of the poorest areas in the United States so Celia’s completely color blind.”

Because of Celia’s outlook on the social relations in Jackson, she feels isolated from both races. “She doesn’t see that White people have to be together and Black people have to be together,” said Chastain. “Celia’s discriminated against from this group of women but then she’s also discriminated against with Minny. With Minny not wanting to hug her and not wanting to have lunch with her, it’s all because she’s White.” On the other hand, Spencer feels that Celia’s fish out of water mentality is what forces Minny to put down her emotional walls. She revealed, “I think Celia made it possible for Minny to start having an open mind because her interactions with White people had all been the same. One White person represented all of them and then she meets Celia and I think because of her interactions with Celia she was open-minded to what Skeeter was doing.”

Skeeter’s writing project unexpectedly changes the behavior of several of the women in her town, including her own mother. Allison Janney plays Charlotte Phelan, who’s the perfect example of a Southern Belle who doesn’t want to rock the boat. When she sees Skeeter moving away from the traditional life she has planned for her, she’s initially reluctant. “She sees her daughter becoming somebody that she never thought she’d be,” explained Janney. “But she’s actually going to let her daughter be who she is and not who she wants her to be. She realizes that she has the courage that Charlotte never had.”

Considering the time and placement of the film, veteran actress Sissy Spacek (who plays Missus Walters) was very familiar with the subject matter. She exclaimed, “We lived it. They read about it.” Spacek is a native of Texas, so she knows a thing or two about the checkered past of the deep South in the fifties and sixties. The actress thinks The Help is a perfect way to educate the masses about American history under the guise of entertainment. “You know that old saying, ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach?’ I think this is a story that’s entertaining ... it’s real but it’s very relevant and it’s about tough things. You kind of have to add a little bit of sugar to have it go down,” she said.

To accompany one of the most heartfelt and emotional scenes in The Help, the film needed the right music. The producers and director reached out to contemporary R&B singer-songwriter Mary J. Blige to compose an original song for the feature. The single is called “The Living Proof,” and it’s the perfect companion piece to each character’s struggle especially Aibileen’s. The song appears during the end credits and plays out after the film’s dramatic yet cathartic climax.

Blige saw an earlier cut of The Help twice before finally coming up with the lyrics for "The Living Proof." “I began to write different things down in my pager when I saw the movie," she said. “I wrote down when I cried. I wrote when I laughed. I wrote different things that jumped out at me,” explained Blige. “I went through all kinds of different things and by the time I got to the studio to write the song it was almost basically written.” The Help is the second film that Blige has composed original material for. The first was the Academy Award nominated feature, Precious.

Overall, the experience of making The Help had a profound effect on everyone involved. But even with the commercial success of the novel and the release of the film, Kathryn Stockett gets the most gratification from changing the way individuals view each other. “One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever gotten about the book was when a reader would come to me and say, ‘You know what? I had a conversation ... as a White woman with a Black person and I never would have had that conversation if I hadn’t read the book.’”

The Help opens in theaters everywhere August 10.

More in this category

Follow ROGUE

Latest Trailers

view more »