It would seem an impossible task: play a character that toes the line between ornery, funny, battered, distrustful and scared, all against the backdrop of one of America's most turbulent times. But Octavia Spencer did just that, earning rave reviews for multi-faceted role as the housemaid Minny Jackson in this summer's hit drama, "The Help."
A victim of abuse at the hands of both her husband and racist employer, Minny perseveres against the odds in early 60s Mississippi to help eager young journalist Skeeter Phelan (played by Emma Stone) chronicle the untold tales of the generations of housekeepers and maids in an effort to bring attention to their plight. The film, directed by Tate Taylor and based on a novel by Kathryn Stockett, was a smash hit, earning nearly $200 million worldwide at the box office.
Spencer, who has earned Oscar buzz for the role, spoke with The Huffington Post about the difficult, emotional and ultimately rewarding process of being part of the film and the discussion it has spawned.
So how'd you get involved in the project?
Tate Taylor grew up with the author, so I was one of the privileged few who got to read [the book] before it was ever published. I was asked to read the manuscript before it was even published.
What'd you think when you read the book?
Well, I had an aversion to the dialect at first, and I thought it was going to be another 'Gone with the Wind,' which I didn't care for. That was actually the first page. And then as I continued to read, I realized Kathryn wasn't making a statement about race in using the dialect, she was actually just writing people of a certain socioeconomic and education level, and she had written them with such a depth and breadth of emotion that I couldn't put the book down. It was, it actually is one of my favorite books.
Did you know it'd be a movie?
I knew that he had, he had optioned the rights right after he read it, so he optioned it right after it was ever published.
I read that your character was at least somewhat modeled after you.
The physicality, yeah. I didn't know Kathryn, I met her when she was actually writing the outline for the book, and the day that I met her, and under the circumstances that we met, they weren't really good -- actually I would say they were fortuitous, but at the time, I didn't want any part of it. We were in New Orleans in August, like 108 degrees, humidity, and I don't like being hot, and I was 100 pounds heavier and I was on a diet and I don't like being hot, I don't like being hungry, I was just miserable. And so I was complaining and just very, very combative with Tate, because we were doing a walking tour of New Orleans, and basically Minny was born. I guess the combative nature of Minny was based on me.
So she's kind of like a bizarro you.
What I hate to say is, because when you ever own anything like that, people think you're playing yourself. And there is so much about this woman that is foreign to me that I have to always clarify, because you can't let that be out there. So no, not bizarro me, just bizarre [laughs].
A role like this is so fraught with emotions and filled with potential landmines, did you go back and do a lot of research?
Absolutely. With any role, to basically refer to the text a lot, thank God we had a book, but there was a lot about the character that wasn't in the book. I had to understand why she stayed in the abusive relationship. First of all, I did a lot of research about battered spouse syndrome, a phrase that wasn't even a term during that time period. But in order to understand it, I really had to do the research on it.
And then I just researched the era, and I worked with an acting coach after that, once I was able to relinquish my judgment on the whole spousal abuse thing and why she stayed. And we built perhaps Minny's teen years, because a lot of who we are is determined in our formative years. And I had to try to figure out why she stayed. I know that her dad was an alcoholic, but did that mean that he was also abusive? That was never alluded to in the text. So we created that, my acting coach and I. And then I also had the luxury of having a close relationship with Tate, and any ideas that I needed to bounce off him, I did.
Minny is a very complex character. How difficult was it to master all of her emotions?
It was not easy. It was definitely the most difficult part I had to play, because of the time period -- it was socially one of the most horrific times in our nation's history with regards to African Americans in that region. And on top of that, there was what she was enduring, and the discomforts of her own home. I don't know, it's very difficult to play a character that is so discomfited in her own life that the only outlet in her life that brought her joy, besides her children, was cooking. And I'm not a cook. I find no joy in cooking at all, it's a stressor for me, and yeah, it was very difficult. And it was great because I knew that my fellow actors were having the same issues, with the characters they were playing. So, it wasn't anything we took lightly, I'll say that.
Minny has very different interactions with different characters. She obviously has the tight bond with Viola Davis's character, but then such an awful one with Bryce Dallas Howard's, who I've gotten to know a little bit, and she's so sweet, but so awful in this movie. Was that difficult, to create detailed relationships with so many people?
What was really wonderful was that we were all together for a two-week rehearsal period, got to know each other really well. And our relationships on-screen, basically, all of the people that were really good friends on-screen, became really good friends off-screen. And our cliques formed. I was really close with Jessica and Viola while we were shooting, and now, subsequently, we are all very, very close. And we just bonded in a really wonderful way, all of us. So that part wasn't difficult at all, because we are actors, so even if wasn't true, we would have to make it seem true. But it definitely became true for us, because we were all open to those real friendships.
But Bryce's character Hilly was just so mean! How do you shoot a scene with someone being so abusive to you, and then they say cut, and all of a sudden, they're not.
Well, I have to be honest with you, knowing Bryce in that rehearsal period, I thought it was going to be very difficult to hate her, but she's a brilliant actress, and the minute Tate said action, Hilly would emerge, and it wasn't hard to hate Hilly. But Bryce and Hilly are so different, and Minny and I are so different, and Aibileen -- we're all so very different from our characters. It was easy to meander in and out of the different worlds of the characters, and the different relationships of the characters.
The producers did a lot of courting of different communities to win them over before the film's release. Did you feel pressure to win people over?
I never felt like we had to win people over. I think there will be varied tastes for any art form, whether literature or film, and there will be people who like this film and the book, and there will be people who dislike it. For the people who dislike it based on what other people say, and were misinformed about what it's about, I would say, form your own opinion.
But I do understand why, to a certain extent, why there was what I like to call a 'blacklash,' because you know, people don't -- African Americans have progressed beyond being maids, and unfortunately, a lot of the character work for African American women is just that. We're cast in such subservient light, and to a certain extent, I understand it. But I think these stories are important to tell, because these women have not seen their story told, and have not been the focal point of a film in that their voice is the main one being heard. So I think it was necessary to be part of this project to pay homage to the many, many men and women who paved the way for me to be where I am today. So, for me, again, there will be people who love or hate this project, take it or leave it, and that's about all I can say. Take it or leave it, love it or leave it.
Did you feel a sense of responsibility, given that it was a tumultuous time, and though this wasn't a true story, these things happened, and you're representing the burdens of other people?
Here's what I will say to that: This project is a direct result of source material that is a historical fiction. The narrative is fiction, and uses real events in history to enliven the actual text. Now I say if we were writing a text book or doing a documentary, then yes, there is a responsibility to get everything right, and to portray things a certain way. But at the end of the day, it's about edifying one's self, not necessarily educating. And that in and of itself is the difference. It is, again, a historical fiction, a work of fiction.
People were expecting the movie to be big, but it was such a tremendous hit. Did you expect that huge success? Did it surprise you?
This is why I think it's a big success, beyond the fact that there was the huge book: Helen Keller said it best, 'The most beautiful things in the world can't be seen or even touched, they can only be felt with the heart.' And I think that's what happened here: people felt this film, and whatever their personal stories were, they could empathize with the plight of these women, and they perhaps saw themselves in any one of these characters. And at the end of the day, it's about humanity and the human condition, so I attribute the film's success to that, as well as we were riding on the back of a hugely popular novel.
"The Help" is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.