Special Photo: Dreamworks. Aibileen Clark, played by Viola Davis, attends to the needs of Hilly Holbrook, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, seated center, and her friends Elizabeth Leefolt, played by Ahna O'Reilly, left, and Skeeter Phelan, played by Emma Stone, right, in "The Help," based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett.
ATLANTA — “To be honest, I was a little scared the first few times I met Octavia (Spencer),” author Kathryn Stockett said.
While writing, Stockett immediately thought of actress Octavia Spencer for the part of Minny. They had met numerous times through Stockett’s life-long friend and the film’s director, Tate Taylor who also grew up in Jackson.
Stockett knew Spencer from afar, but was able to officially meet her on set of “Pretty Ugly People.” Stockett was in the back of an SUV while Spencer sat up front reading a magazine on her break.
“She was annoyed because it was her only alone time,” Stockett said recently during an interview at The Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead. “I said in a small voice, ‘Octavia, I wrote a book and I kind of based one of the characters on you.’”
Spencer’s only answer was, “Uh-huh,” never leaving the page she was reading.
The rest just came together.
“I just drew out the pieces that I wanted (of Spencer) when I was writing,” Stockett said. “It was about authority — about using your body to give authority to what you have to say.”
Spencer agreed. “That’s right, Minny is fiesty and chubby and I love that.”
Released in 2009, the New York Times bestseller “The Help” was written by Stockett, an author and Atlanta resident. She was raised in Jackson, Miss., and grew up with black women taking care of the house, children and food.
Once Stockett was an adult, she realized to herself that no one asked her own caretaker, Demetrie, how she felt being a black woman raising a white family.
That’s how the book came to life, with Stockett writing the fictional account of that answer.
After the book was released, Taylor wanted to create a screenplay of the story, since it was close to both of their hearts.
“I was relieved to give it to a Mississippian, who would film in Mississippi, who would cast all the right people, and he lived that life,” Stockett said. “We lived down the street from each other.”
Taylor began writing the adaptation for two reasons: He thought the characters were strong and he hated how Mississippi was usually portrayed in movies. He wanted to change the misconceptions.
“(In movies) everyone from Mississippi is missing teeth, they have charcoal dust on their face,” Taylor said. “The whites hang black people and black people, all they can do is cook and run around. It’s the worst.”
Once the manuscript was finished, he passed it on to Spencer while casting the other parts.
“The manuscript was the size of a phone book,” Spencer said. “But when I read it, I was pleasantly surprised.”
Two-time Tony winning actress and Oscar nominee Viola Davis was given the script and immediately wanted the part.
“I didn’t just see domestics or maids … who have only one stark word of wisdom,” Davis said. “This is a whole book and novel dedicated to exploring these black women. Everything. Their humor, their joy, their grief, their shortcomings and frailties.”
Both Spencer and Davis researched the parts by reading biographies, the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and old newspaper stories of the South because each black character in the story battled their own trials and tribulations besides being second class citizens. The women dealt with spousal abuse, raising numerous children on low wages, and poverty.
“I wanted to do the role justice,” said Spencer. “After I realized that it was a different time and that women had to suck it up and I said, ‘She is what she is,’ there was a freedom to do my best (as Minny).”
The cast traveled to Mississippi to film for the summer and they all felt they were actually sent back in time.
“The whole time I was shooting, I felt transported. Every set piece, the cars, the wardrobe … I felt transported every single day,” said Davis.
After the audience sees the movie, Taylor hopes it will open a dialogue about these problems that still haunt the South and Davis agreed.
“There is something about talking about it is frightening to people,” Davis said. “I think that’s why sometimes we hold on to our grief and our pain because we think that forgetting is a part of healing, but it’s not.”