Bryce Dallas Howard (Hereafter, Twilight: Eclipse) has the difficult task of bringing to life the most despised character in Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel, The Help. Stockett's book is set in Mississippi in the 1960s and follows aspiring writer Skeeter (played by Emma Stone), a Southern society girl, who returns from college to find she's moved past the small town racist views of what once were her dearest friends. Encouraged by a publisher to write something with real truth and meaning, Skeeter convinces her friends' African American maids to open up about their lives working in the households and raising the children of white families.
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer star as two of the maids, Aibileen and Minny, whose stories fill the pages of Skeeter's book. Howard plays Hilly Holbrook, leader of the Junior League and a staunch advocate for the separation of whites and African Americans. She's a social climber who smiles as though she's been your best friend all of her life while aiming a knife squarely at the center of your back.
DreamWorks Pictures gathered a small group of journalists to the Greenwood, Mississippi set of The Help to watch Stockett's book make the leap to the big screen. Writer/director Tate Taylor, a longtime friend of the book's author, chose Greenwood as the location to shoot because many of the small town's immaculate neighborhoods look as though they were lifted straight off a postcard from the '50s and '60s. The invasion of Hollywood types didn't phase Greenwood's citizens who embraced the production, helping out with items needed (including a massive stuffed bear) to recreate the look Stockett described so well in her novel.
The costumes, hair and make-up were equally as important as filling the houses used with authentic furniture and appliances. Costume designer Sharen Davis was tasked with making the outfits accurately reflect the '60s of a small Mississippi town, and Howard was wearing a gorgeous dress for the bridge party scene being shot while we were visiting the set. In addition, her hair was immaculately sculpted into a fashionable style from the era, with every hair in place. As Howard sat down with us to discuss the film, neither the heat nor humidity could force the hair to budge one centimeter.
Bryce Dallas Howard Interview:
Your hair is really impressive.
Bryce Dallas Howard: "It’s pretty amazing."
It looks immovable.
Bryce Dallas Howard: [Laughing] "Yeah, it’s not going anywhere."
Have you adjusted to seeing yourself this way when you walk by a mirror?
Bryce Dallas Howard: "It’s really weird. And, also, just because the character’s so despicable there’s a couple of times that I’ve gone to watch playback, to watch the scene over again just to see a gesture that I did so that I can match it, and I literally kind of cringe. I don’t really want to look at it, it’s like, 'Ugh!' She’s just such a terrible person. But what’s interesting is when you start doing a role, at first the image of the character is really shocking but then you play the character 18 hours a day so then now I’m like, 'Oh, I have long hair! That’s so weird!'" [laughing]
So you’re more shocked by the real you now?
Bryce Dallas Howard: [Laughing] "Yes, because just proportionally, you’re more hours the character than you are yourself."
How easy is she to slip into, because she’s not a nice woman?
Bryce Dallas Howard: "No, she’s really not a nice woman. But it’s really fun to be such a terrible character, and I think that the feeling on set is so joyful. I mean, we’re having such a wonderful experience together. Because the truth is that in reading the book – and the script is the same way – it’s a really salacious read. It’s really juicy, but it does at moments get really quite heavy and so I think Tate has created this environment on set of making everyone feel really playful so that in those moments where it’s really intense and obviously incredibly loaded given our history as a country, that we don’t sort of fall into this lull as actors of just being like, 'Oh my gosh, this is too much.' So I think for that reason... I mean, normally for a character like this I would not be able to sleep at night and all of that kind of stuff, but I think because of the feeling that Tate’s created on set, it’s just when she’s evil, it’s really more fun than it is scary, I think."
Can you talk a little bit about working on the accent? And is the accent not just a matter of place but also of time? Was there a different accent in the '60s than now?
Bryce Dallas Howard: "Definitely. Yeah, Nadia, the dialect coach, has been really specific and what she’s done is she’s recorded a lot of people whose dialect would be pure according to the time period. So, people who have retained their accent from the '60s and were part of the Junior League and just a part of the social circles that these women would’ve been a part of. So, it’s a mishmash of a bunch of different recordings ultimately and trying to find sort of the right balance."
Are accents easy for you?
Bryce Dallas Howard: "I mean, it’s really fun. I really love it and I look forward to it and I enjoy it, but I really appreciate and need the support of a dialect coach, for sure. I wouldn’t know where to begin in terms of the nuance of the accent. I would be able to do probably a broad Southern accent but..."
It might be the wrong city, the wrong time.
Bryce Dallas Howard: "Exactly, exactly! I mean, that was one of the things – like the only other time I’ve done a Southern accent, I played a character in the 1920s in Memphis. And so of course there are similarities, but there are some pretty distinct differences as well that Nadia pointed out when I first started doing it."
What’s the trick of playing kind of the snake in the grass? Hilly looks really friendly and open but you can sense the darkness in the there too.
Bryce Dallas Howard: "Right. She’s kind of this duplicitous character in that way. I mean, there’s always that duality. Someone actually told me, [someone] gave me some great advice about the character. Because I was doing sort of like more of this arch villain thing at first and she said, 'Bryce, you have to protect these women and this time in all this [and be] devastatingly honest. Most women were definitely not like Hilly; Hilly’s a particular person. Clearly. But it is really important to play that she’s not just a two-dimensional character. I mean, she believes in certain things and obviously it’s not only misguided, it’s evil. Her beliefs are evil, but there is an origin for her beliefs. So do not just kind of play this crazy character; it’s important to really kind of understand the psychology behind it.'"
Did you do a lot of research, outside of reading the book, to figure out this time period?
Bryce Dallas Howard: "Yes. The research that I did was, actually, sort of fascinatingly personal because my mom was raised a lot in the South in Louisiana. When she was growing up, she was born in the '50s so in the '60s and '70s, she was kind of, at times, ostracized and called 'The Northerner.' She actually started reading The Help and had to put it down because it was so intense for her to read it. And now she’s picked it up again and she was like, 'It’s such a good book, but I can’t read it right before bed.' She’s like, 'I can read Stephen King before bed, I can read Anne Rice before bed,' but she was like, 'I have to read The Help during the day,' because it rattles her. And so I spent a lot of time talking to her just about her experiences and what was normal and what wasn’t. Yeah, it’s fascinating."
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More from the set of The Help: