[July 11, 2011] - Mississippi of the 1960s comes back to life again in Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help, a book that's been on the bestsellers list since it was published in 2009. Stockett's popular novel delves into the way African-Americans, particularly those employed as maids, were treated by their white employers in the South during that racially charged time in American history. DreamWorks Pictures' film version stays true to Stockett's story, with production on the movie taking place in Greenwood, Mississippi - a town with pockets of neighborhoods that could have been lifted straight off of postcards from the '60s.
DreamWorks Pictures hosted a small group of journalists on the set of the film, written and directed by Tate Taylor, in Greenwood. With temperatures soaring (it was August in Mississippi), the cast of The Help set about bringing Stockett's story to life. After we were able to watch Oscar nominee Viola Davis (Doubt) film a scene in which speaks to Celia Foote (played by Jessica Chastain) on the phone about Celia's need for a maid, Davis joined us in an air conditioned tent set up in the backyard of the home being used as one of the film's main locations to discuss her role as Aibileen.
Viola Davis Interview:
How easy is it to go back in time wearing these costumes and being on this set?
Viola Davis: "It's a little easier because you're in Mississippi. It's a different world down here; it's a different energy, so it's a different character in and of itself. It almost informs everything that you do since being here. I've been here kind of off and on since July 12th , going into Baptist Town, and you kind of feel the spirits of the past. So, that helps. And then the way they decorated the set and the costumes...it really isn't that difficult. You really just kind of walk right into it."
What kind of accent and dialect work did you have to do, not only playing someone from down here but someone from 50 years ago?
Viola Davis: "That is a work in progress because I was born in South Carolina, I was raised in Rhode Island, and my mother still has a thick Southern accent, so it's her voice that I have in my head - which is not a Mississippi dialect. So I'm caught between two worlds right now. [Laughing]. We have a dialect coach on set and she keeps me honest. I told her to always tap on my shoulder."
"I didn't want her dialect to be as strong as it was in the book. For some reason, people always said that they had an issue with it, from what I understand. I've been online doing all kinds of research and that seems to be the constant criticism, that Aibileen's accent was just too thick. And for me, I don't want anything to distract from the character. I don't want anyone to feel like they're out of a movie, you know?"
So you made it more accessible?
Viola Davis: "I do believe that there are African Americans who have thick accents. My mom has a thick accent; my relatives have thick accents. But sometimes you have to adjust when you go into the world of film, TV, theatre, in order to make it accessible to people."
People don't always respond to reading that kind of dialect.
Viola Davis: "No, they don't, which is another conversation in and of itself. It goes into race which goes into cultures, cultural differences and all of that, which can be very frustrating because you just want to be as authentic as possible. But I just felt I had to tone it down a bit."
You said you did research. What did you look up? Did you get on the internet, read some books?
Viola Davis: "Books, everything. Eyes on the Prize documentary series. I saw a documentary on maids, although I know maids. And books - Freedom Summer is on the New York Times bestseller list. I read that book. I had a teacher in college who was a part of Freedom Summer. He came back a few years ago to do a big seminar and talk about his experience during Freedom Summer, which was very interesting. It's a part of history nobody talks about. It's our dirty little secret."
You played a maid in Far From Heaven and you had no internal life there, but it was the same kind of era. How is this different?
Viola Davis: "Well, you see more of her life. It's more of her story. You know, it delves more into her psyche and what motivates her, what her dreams are."
Do you feel out of all the roles you've done there's a little more pressure with this one because it's a story that hasn't been told?
Viola Davis: "Yeah, I do. I feel a lot of pressure because I feel like there's two stories going on. There's the story which is the experience of a lot of caucasians growing up with their African American nannies and maids, and them being the surrogate mothers when their mothers were missing. But then there's the other story, and it's the story of these maids - my mother's story - and that story's very different, of who these women were when they went home, when the public persona and the mask were ripped apart. And sometimes that picture and that portrayal, that's the part that makes it dirty. That's the part that sometimes makes it not palatable. That's the story that I need to honor - me, personally, as an actor. So I feel a tremendous responsibility to the black community, to my mother, to all the women who were surrogate mothers and who worked for people who didn't know who they were and didn't care to know who they were, let's be honest. So, yes."
Is it difficult being somebody from 2010 going back in that world and having to stand there and play someone who doesn't say anything when these conversations are going on around her? How do you convey those feelings without making it contemporary?
Viola Davis: "Well, exactly that. Your internal dialogue has got to be different from what you say. And, you know, in film, hopefully that registers and speaks volumes. It's always the unspoken word and what's happening behind someone's eyes that makes it so rich. At the same time, at some point you have to break out of that because if you stay in that place, then do you ever really hear the voice? I mean, in the book you do because you get stream of consciousness. On film, you don't. You kind of get the feeling."
Are there voice-overs in the film?
Viola Davis: "There's some voice-overs. I'm doing most of the voice-overs, setting up the characters and all that."
In talking about the era, did it help you doing Fences right before this?
Viola Davis: "Yeah, I guess it did. It helped. See, I'm so familiar with the era. I would think that I was very up-to-date with what's going on. You have to understand, Aibileen was born in 1911. So 1911 to...in the book I think it's 1962, but here it's 1963...so that's 53 years of really incredible history. And in terms of what was going on with the race relations, she was born in a time of reconstruction after slavery so what she's seen and what she's experienced is something very deep. I'm familiar with all of that through doing August Wilson's plays, actually. And that's the thing. You feel an incredible responsibility not to make it so sanitized. That's the problem I always had with Hollywood with race is stories about race are always sanitized. You've seen them time and time again, so what differentiates this story from all of the rest where two hours have gone by and you still have not heard the voice of the people that supposedly the movie is about, the indigenous culture, the voice that's never heard? And so if two hours have gone by and you still haven't heard that voice...it's difficult."
Reading the book, you get these twinges of disgust with human nature, especially with the language. Do you have any trouble separating yourself from this while you're working? Does it sometimes stay with you when you leave?
Viola Davis: "Oh yeah, definitely. You do. You feel it. You the rage, you feel the frustration, you feel the repression. You feel absolutely the intense level of sadness of not realizing your potential, of possibly going to your grave without really ever actually fulfilling any of your dreams and hopes. That's the part that you really feel. I mean, because let's face it, now we have a chance to actually speak our minds more. Everyone does. We have a culture where people talk all the time about how they feel, even when it's politically incorrect. And so to be silent so much, absolutely. It's hard not to carry that rage when you leave the set."
How are you dealing with the heat?
Viola Davis: "I've had heat rash already. I've been dealing with it. Like I said, that's another character in and of itself too. Another feeling of that feeling of being repressed and suffocated.
But you're having some fun here, too?
Viola Davis: [Laughing] "Well, there's a Wal-Mart. I love Wal-Mart. You can put that down. I love Wal-Mart. My husband and I hang out there."
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More from the set of The Help: