[July 11, 2011] - Filming had been underway for about three weeks when DreamWorks Pictures invited a few online journalists to the set of The Help in Greenwood, Mississippi. Set in the South in 1963, The Help is an honest depiction of the lives of African American maids during that racial turbulent time in American history, with their stories set down in a book by a young college grad who wants to give the women a voice. Emma Stone plays Skeeter, the college grad who wants to be a writer. Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis star as two of the maids who risk their homes, their families, and their lives to participate in Skeeter's book.
On the day we visited the set, Spencer had completed her scenes in the morning before we arrived, however she was gracious enough to hang out in the heat to talk about her role in The Help. Spencer actually had more of a connection to the project than the rest of the cast as she's been friends with the writer/director, Tate Taylor, for more than a decade. She's also a friend of the book's author, Kathryn Stockett, and in fact it was Spencer's personality that helped to shape the character of Minny.
Settling in in a tent in the backyard of one of the main houses featured in the film, Spencer explained her history with the project and what it's been like to work on this much-anticipated film.
Octavia Spencer Interview:
Is this character based on you?
Octavia Spencer: "Very, very loosely. I’ll give you the nuts and bolts of the story. I met Tate about 15 years ago on A Time to Kill. We were both PAs. They filmed in Jackson and Canton. We moved out to L.A. about six months later, separately, and we just remained friends. He and I became the best of friends and he was always telling me stories about living in New York with Kathryn [Stockett] and his other friend Laura. Maybe about 7 or 8 years later, we were in New Orleans on a vacation with a big group of friends and that’s when I met her for the first time. Needless to say, my personality is not the best when I am hungry or hot. You can imagine it was hot and I probably was hungry. [Laughing] I know they were dillydallying and wanted to go shopping. We needed to go eat."
"At the time she was making all of the different characters and didn’t know how she was going to go with Minny, as far as her beautiful physique and her personality. So that part of Minny is essentially that part of Octavia that people sometimes see."
You did the book on tape. How did that come together?
Octavia Spencer: "It was kind of funny because when I first met her, she’s like, 'I’m writing a book,' and I’m thinking, 'Who isn’t writing a book?' But she made me promise to read it. I didn’t ask her what it was about because I thought it was in her head and would never happen. That was at the New Orleans trip and then a couple of years later, she’s like, 'I’m writing that book.' I’m like, 'Okay.' Then a couple of years later I saw her and she came to our set and made me promise to read it. She said, 'I based a character loosely on you.' I thought, 'Oh my god, am I the love interest in the deal? What's going on here?'"
"When I read it - I’m not a big fan of Gone with the Wind and I thought immediately, 'Oh my god, another Gone with the Wind. I’m going to kill her.' I literally got past that first page - it was the first line or two of the book. I had a bachelorette party to attend that night, it was raining, the manuscript came and I hated her even more. But I said, 'I’m going to sit there with that book,' and I read it and I ended up staying up all night to finish it. I called her the next morning and I was so relieved. How often do your friends write something that’s good? Never! It never happens."
How long have you and Tate known each other?
Octavia Spencer: "16 years."
What’s it like being directed by him?
Octavia Spencer: "He’s my best friend, so it’s like a brother, but I have to separate our friendship and continue to look at him as a director because we’ve worked together. He’s written me in every single solitary thing he’s ever done, so it's just about separating the relationship. Brunson [Green], his producing partner, is also a very close friend. I have to remember when we’re on the set we’re not pals. They are the boss. I kind of keep it in."
Did you have to audition, because there’s a studio that had to approve you as well as Tate?
Octavia Spencer: "Yes and no. They kept a lot from me, I’m sure, but I have to applaud and be very, very grateful, because we’re coming off the heels of Mo’Nique, Taraji Henson, Jennifer Hudson, Queen Latifah. They had their pick of women."
"Kitty [Stockett] had this idea. She’s never had a book tour before and she didn’t want to try to do an African American voice, and she said, 'Will you come and read with me on the tour?' I thought, 'That’ll be fun…in the middle of pilot season,' but I did and it was one of those experiences. It’s the reason why I’m here. It was a crazy choice. My agent was not happy that I was leaving town for three weeks to go on the road. But having done that, when the book came out it set the stage. Having heard my voice as Minny in the readings, she was the one who suggested that I do the book on tape. And I thought a book on tape really was a play - that all the actors would be in a room. I said, 'Yes I’ll audition for that.'"
"But all of those were little steps and because of the book on tape, they were able to hear my voice in the character. They probably weren’t 100% sold, even though Tate, Brunson and Kitty and ultimately 1492 [the production company] - those guys were always on board. But it’s a business and people didn’t know me. They know all these other women, so they did want me to go on tape. I don’t know if it was an audition or what, but I was thrilled to, honey. I would have been doing the WB high kick. 'What else do you guys want me to do?' They’ve always been extremely supportive, so if it wasn’t a 100% I never knew it. But as a business woman I’m thinking, 'Oh god, there’s Mo’Nique out there and Gabourey Sidibe.' There are so many other people they could have gone with. So, I’m happy."
Was it hard for you to get into this era and this character?
Octavia Spencer: "It’s still very hard because Greenwood has a lot of history -- and not good history. I’m still kind of reconciling that and I’m using it for Minny. It’s interesting, pretty interesting. It’s a tough time in our history and what I love about the book is that it makes this time in history very palatable. Even though it is the 'A' story, it’s not the focal point. It’s about these relationships that these women form and the bonds. It’s really hard to go back and watch all of the footage."
"The biggest challenge for me [was] not being an abused woman and not being a person who had those types of limitations that Minny and Aibileen have. I also have a multi-cultural group of friends who are from all socio-economic backgrounds and Minny and Aibileen knew poor people. Minny especially did not trust or want to be a part of anybody else's world that didn’t go through what she went through. That was a challenge for me: how to take a person out of 2010 and go back to 1963. It pre-dates me, so it’s been a challenge."
Has it been a learning experience? You're living through it as one of the angrier, more put-upon characters in the film.
Octavia Spencer: "Yeah. What I love about what Tate has done with Minny is with the book, you have all their stream of consciousness with their perspective being first person. You can’t necessarily tell that, because Tate is only doing one perspective, so you have to show who Minny is and you have to do it all within the confines of the two hour time limit. You don’t just get to see just angry Minny, you get to the multifaceted person. That’s what I’m really liking. I get to be all of these different things in one sitting. Whereas if you look at the book on tape, it’s 18 hours. I only did six of those 18 hours. It’s a challenge, but I’ve learned a lot. And I have to tell you, I’m so grateful I was born when I was born."
Are you a good cook?
Octavia Spencer: "Not at all."
So talk about playing a good cook and giving lessons.
Octavia Spencer: "I’m taking lessons myself. I’m going to the Viking Cooking school, at some point. [...]I’ve scoped it out and I’ve met my person who’s going to help me, but we aren’t there for a little while because if I start cooking and I get good at it, I’m going to eat more than I need to eat.[Laughing] I’m going to wait a couple of weeks out for the actually shooting with Jessica [Chastain]."
"I don’t understand it, cooking. Tate is an amazing cook and Kathryn actually went to culinary school, so they are great cooks. I’m going to tell you a story and it’s the truth. When Tate and I first met each other and we moved to Los Angeles, he made some chicken one night and it was so good. I thought, 'It’s chicken, how hard it can be?' So I went back to my apartment and I called him the next day and I said, 'Hey, I want to make that chicken you made. What did you do to it?' He said, 'I broiled it.' I said, 'Okay, but what did you do to it?' He said, 'I broiled it.' I said, 'Okay, you have to tell me what you did to it.' He said, 'You put salt, pepper, soy sauce, onion powder and you broil it.' I said, 'Tate if you don’t want to tell me how you cooked it, that’s fine.' He’s like, 'Oh my god. Walk to your oven. Do you see the knob? There’s a setting that says broil.'"
"I literally did not know that. I grew up in the age of microwave dinners and the stovetop. If you don’t cook, you don’t look at the oven. Now I know what the broiler is. I’m not kidding. I’m so not kidding! We have laughs about that. He’s amazing. It was kind of funny."
Are you scared about learning to cook?
Octavia Spencer: "I’m only cooking a little bit [in the movie], but I’m telling her what to do. Then we start out doing that and then I’ll have to pretend to cook and then it comes out beautifully. I have to look as though I know how to flop it in the oven or plop it in the skillet. I want to learn how to cook for me. I want to have a couple of dishes that I can make for myself. I don’t have any. I live on peanut butter and jelly and vegetable pizza. It’s true."
So you actually don’t have a lot in common with Minny, except for maybe your attitude when you’re hungry.
Octavia Spencer: "Attitude when I’m hungry and hot, so you see it a lot here! [Laughing] And then the girdles. Everybody, all these tiny little girls are in girdles and we're in the pointy bras and the pantyhose and then it’s 100 degrees, with the heat index it’s going up to 115. For a 200 woman, I’m sitting here and everything is squished in and it’s sweaty and all of sudden the smile is gone. A couple of the other women that play maids, we walk around in our slips. I can’t put that dress on till they say action. It’s just so hot and I never let my arms show, we’re doing it down here."
Are you jealous that you don’t get to wear the pretty costumes?
Octavia Spencer: "I have one costume that I’m foaming at the mouth over. It’s my church costume. Every day, I can’t wait to see what Bryce is wearing."
Is it fun to be able to take on such a dramatic role?
Octavia Spencer: "I do a lot of drama and I’m usually the humorous sarcastic person in the drama, but this is great because I get to show different levels. It’s like when you exercise. If you don’t exercise, the muscles atrophy. Now I’m having to flex that muscle and working with Viola [Davis]... Let me tell you, working with these women. This is the most amazing cast. Sissy Spacek, Bryce Dallas Howard, Emma Stone and all these girls whose names you don’t know, necessarily, I promise you after this they’re going to [be huge]. They're amazing. Getting to work with these women who are so brilliant at what they do elevates everyone's performance. I look forward to the challenge and just getting to stretch a little as an actor."
Does the fact the cast is almost all women change the vibe?
Octavia Spencer: "It's so thrilling. We haven’t had this since Steel Magnolia and I think The Women, but how often do we get that? No explosions and it's real conversations. They have their guy movies all the time. I’m thrilled that it’s a largely female cast. I think there are only four [guys] in the whole movie. I’m thrilled. It’s wonderful, and everyone is doing their parts beyond brilliantly."
There was some criticism about a white woman writing about African American characters, and then you’ve got a white man directing a movie about women of different races. What's your take on the issue?
Octavia Spencer: "We’ve gotten so PC and we’ve gotten so weirded out. We start labeling. You have to be a black person to write about black people. You have to be a white person… But when you think about the dialects - I love to read. I was an English major and I remember re-reading Wuthering Heights and their broken English dialects, and they are Caucasian people. And Huck Finn is written with a strong dialect from Louisiana – a Southern white boy. I love it - and either you love it or hate it."
"As a black woman, I grew up in Montgomery, Alabama and I had relatives who were much older in rural Alabama and a few of them had this dialect. A lot of them didn’t. But if she wrote every black character with the same exact voice, then there would be like a cause for concern, but she didn’t do that and I think that gives it authenticity. It made me feel that I was walking in someone else’s shoes. I also think it’s very lyrical and beautiful to have the differences in the dialect. Abilene’s dialect is more distinctive that Minny’s. Minny’s dialect is more distinctive that Yule Mae’s, and Yule Mae doesn’t really have a dialect. I have a problem with the fact that people are making that an issue. 'Oh, a white girl,' and then they read the book and they say, 'Oh, it's not Mamie.' I did it too. I was like, 'Oh, this is Mamie from Gone with the Wind."
You know how Southerners talk in Mississippi and Alabama, but this is set in 1963. Was there an issue of making it so historically accurate that it would distract people?
Octavia Spencer: "It actually is extremely accurate, as far as the dialects are concerned. Viola and I had this conversation and she said, 'You can’t tell the same story or why else would people watch it?' There has to be that sense of what it was like or what the danger was like for these women, because it’s visual. We had all of this exposition in the book, but it has to be visual and we have all that peril there. But, at the same time, you had to make sure these relationships are intact."
"I applaud Tate because he is Southern and he knows the fine line that you have to walk and the sensitivities that need to be there. Also he knows what he needs to do to make people understand that those relationships definitely existed, even though we’re talking about fictitious people. The relationships were there. If we believe that the relationships between Celia and Minny or Mae Mobley and Aibileen existed, we also have to know that the Hillys were out there. It's not a lie, because we have footage to show that - any footage of 1963. So it’s there."
Did you watch documentaries of that era to see how people coped?
Octavia Spencer: "I did. I was born in the early '70s and my mother made us watch this documentary, Eyes on the Prize. I was about 10. I had no idea what it was like for her in Montgomery, Alabama, and that's only a 10 year difference from what was happening in 1963. I told Tate when this movie was happening, 'Tate, every person under 40 is going to need to see this documentary because it’s foreign to any person in their 20s.' Emma and those guys, it was something that would be completely foreign to them. It was foreign to me and I’m 15 years older, so I said you need to watch this. He was moved by it. He was like, 'Was it really that bad?' I’m thinking, 'Yeah.'"
"It wasn’t hard for me to get the dialect. I never had a problem with the dialect because I had a cousin who was 97 who was more like my grandmother who spoke in that dialect, so I didn’t have a problem keeping that up. It was just the mentality of the people that you have a certain place that you’re supposed to be and there’s a certain way that women can act, and I’m thinking, 'Oh my god. It's going to be really hard to be confined in such a tight space.'"
Your character mouths off in 1963 terms, in today’s terms she shuts up a lot. That must have been hard for you to do.
Octavia Spencer: "Yeah, what’s funny is that I think all these women are very progressive. Skeeter is. Minny might say what everyone else is thinking, what Aibileen is possibly thinking, but Aibileen wouldn’t be a crass as Minny. She would be kinder, gentler, but she has the same views. She just has more diplomacy than Minny. But I think all of the women, even though they have different points of view, even Hilly. She believed what she believed."
Something that's really a part of the book is that people think about how they feel about you, but not so much what you feel about them.
Octavia Spencer: "Right, right. It was funny when you were talking to Tate about people’s perception of the South, racism wasn’t just here. It was all over the country. This was de jour segregation, by law or by practice, and people still segregate. It’s not necessarily based on color. It’s based on what type of music - teenagers congregate as teenagers."
[...]I just don't know. What I love to say, my analogy is in the South you are raised to hate the race but love the individual. In the rest of the country you love the race, but you hate the individual. People who have the most supposedly racist grandparents, you go to their house, and you don’t even know. It’s like, 'Oh my god! Your grandfather was a KKK?' That weird sort of grey [area]. You’re going to like who you like and you’re not going to like who you’re not going to like. Believe me, I’m not trying to justify anything, because racism is there, but there’s also sexism and ageism. As we women know, there are so many other hurdles that we have to cross that I would love it if we could stop having the race conversation so that we can get women further on. You know, a female president now that we have an African American president. Maybe we can get an Asian female, a gay person?"
It’s not always about race. Sometimes it’s class, music, it’s education...
Octavia Spencer: "Exactly. What’s funny is when you think about it, if you had to start pinning down...I have a lot of gay friends. I love my gay friends. They take good care of me, as a woman. When you start thinking about it, if I had to separate and worry about all the people who are worried about gay people and having these groups blend, you would never get any sleep. I don’t know. Gay men love big black women, thank god. I love gay men. I literally usually fall in love with a gay man. It’s not a good thing. We have so much in common. It’s very interesting. What I love about this book is that we are having these conversations so that we can stop having conversations."
Is it the hope that the movie will create conversations to move forward?
Octavia Spencer: "To move forward. We still have other issues that are plaguing us. Healthcare. Let’s get education [fixed]."
Have you seen the house that is Milly's home in the film?
Octavia Spencer: "I’ve seen the neighborhood. It’s heartbreaking. It’s actually a legendary neighborhood. Robert Johnson, a famous blues player, all those guys. With the guy that was taking us on a tour, I had to remind myself, 'This is this man’s home and he is so proud to show us everything. I don’t want him to feel like there’s no reason.' You know, there’s a hard realization, so I always say, "If I ever get mouthy and talking about how hot I am, just say Baptist Town.' I have it good. My mother, even though she had limited funds, I always thought that I could be President. I have never lived my life with any type of limitations and I can’t imagine people who live with a sense of hopelessness. It’s a tough thing."
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More from the set of The Help: