Spinning Platters Interview: Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Tate Taylor on “The Help”

by Jason LeRoy on August 10, 2011

Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in THE HELP

Emma Stone has a lot on her mind this summer. After a star-making and critically acclaimed turn in Easy A transformed the now 22-year-old into one of Hollywood’s most in-demand young actresses, Stone filmed three consecutive high-profile projects: Friends With Benefits (for her Easy A director Will Gluck), Crazy, Stupid, Love., and The Help. And now, as these things sometime happen, all three films have been released within just one month of each other, with Stone doing press for the latter two. Add in her Comic-Con duties promoting her role as Gwen Stacy opposite Andrew Garfield in next summer’s highly anticipated The Amazing Spider-Man, and you’ve got one hell of a busy summer.

But right now Emma Stone only has one thing on her mind: cookies. Specifically, the giant chocolate chip cookies available at the Four Seasons.

Tate Taylor, Brunson Grenn, and Emma Stone on the set of THE HELP

When Stone and her The Help director, Tate Taylor, were first led into our Four Seasons conference room, Stone immediately bolted over to a generous plate of cookies sitting inconspicuously in the corner. “Oh my god, I’ve been hearing about these,” she exclaimed to no one in particular. Returning triumphantly to the small roundtable like a press junket scavenger with her chocolate chip bounty, Stone began analyzing the treat’s appeal. “Oh, so it’s because the chips are huge,” she mused, fascinated. She enthusiastically shared this information with her costar, Octavia Spencer, when she joined us a few moments later (Spencer later explained that she had been “re-underwearing,” prompting Stone to purr, “Sexy.”).

With the cookie situation under control, we were now free to begin discussing the real reason for our gathering: The Help, a film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s runaway bestseller about the complex relationships between white society women and their black domestics in early-’60s Jim Crow Mississippi. Stone stars as Skeeter, a recent college graduate who returns to her small southern town to become a writer. When she learns that the caregiver who raised her, Constantine (Cicely Tyson), left her family’s home on short notice while she was at school, she asks Aibileen (Viola Davis), the maid of Skeeter’s Junior League friend Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), if she knows what happened.

Skeeter and Aibileen begin forming an illicit friendship, as Aibileen pensively confides in her about her life and struggles. Skeeter is stunned by what she hears, and successfully pitches a book to a New York editor (Mary Steenburgen) telling the previously untold stories of black maids raising children and keeping homes for white families while suffering discrimination, degradation, and abuse. Aibileen introduces Skeeter to Minny (Spencer), who works for nightmare socialite-monster Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). But as Skeeter continues collecting stories, race and class tensions begin boiling over, threatening to consume Skeeter and everyone brave enough to step forward and speak about this forbidden subject.

The film, which is much heavier and more dramatic (not to mention longer) than the lighthearted 30-second TV spots would lead you to believe, is like The Color Purple by way of Steel Magnolias. Its stunning ensemble cast also includes Allison Janney, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, Aunjanue Ellis, Leslie Jordan, Chris Lowell, and two True Blood alumni: Nelsan Ellis and Anna Camp. Its story is quite personal for Stockett, who wrote the novel as a tribute to the caregiver who raised her as a little girl growing up in Mississippi; it is equally personal for director Taylor, Stockett’s best friend from the age of 5, who grew up in the same town and was also raised by a black caregiver.

When Hollywood inevitably came knocking, Stockett resolutely insisted that her best friend direct it and write the adaptation, which was a remarkable thing: the book had become one of the hottest properties in town, and Taylor had only directed one little-seen feature film, Pretty Ugly People (it should also be noted that he played Casey Deegan in Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion). But the two friends stuck together, refusing to budge. They also made sure that Spencer, their longtime friend and an inspiration for the character of Minny, would play her in the film. This, too, was a big deal, as Spencer had only played much smaller roles in her 15-year acting career; with her large eyes, down-turned mouth, and prominent chin, you will likely remember seeing her in something. But if you don’t, you’ll definitely be seeing her now; her funny and unaffected performance has been garnering major awards buzz (as has Davis’ devastating work as Aibileen; Chastain and Howard also make indelible impressions).

The Help is truly a passion project for everyone involved, but particularly for Taylor and Spencer. So, it is perhaps not surprising that Stone kept politely quiet for the majority of our discussion about the film. Below, Spinning Platters chats with Stone, Spencer, and Taylor (a very handsome man who speaks in a too-good-to-be-true southern drawl) about adapting the novel, navigating racially sensitive material, and what prompted Spencer to declare The Help “a funny, fun-filled film.”

Spencer, Taylor, and Stone

You’re in the middle of a big press tour right now. Do you ever get used to doing all these back-to-back interviews? Does it just feel like part of the job?

Tate Taylor: Well, I guess I’d have to get paid for it to be a job, so… [laughs] No, I’m getting used to it. I’ve never done this, I’ve never had a press junket. So I’m getting used to it, finding out it’s part of the job, and learning how to do it all at the same time.

Emma, obviously you’ve done this before.

Emma Stone: Yeah, I always start apologizing to the people who have to stay in the room. Like, “Sorry, you guys have heard this before, but…” [laughs] It’s so dumb, having to answer the same way every time. But necessary, you know? But I gotta tell you guys, we get so damn excited when you ask a new question! Like, you have no idea. It will be a better answer.

TT: But the more times you answer a question, the more refined it sounds!

[Spencer enters]

Octavia Spencer: Sorry I’m late! What are we talking about?

Doing press junkets and answering the same questions over and over again.

OS: You know what, this is my first press junket, and I’m having a good time! [long pause] That’s it from me. [laughs]

ES: Octavia out.

OS: We get punchy. Yesterday I was asked, “Describe the film, Octavia,” and I was really earnest and honest, and I felt very eloquent, and said, “This is a funny, fun-filled film.” And as I was about to launch into what I meant by that, Jessica [Chastain] said, “Did you just say this is a funny fun-filled film?” [laughs]

Where do you see these characters in the pantheon of great southern female characters in movies?

TT: There’s the great woman of the south right over there. [gestures to Spencer]

OS: Well, I see them as myself! [laughs] No, I think that we haven’t actually seen these women represented, not even the white women. I think it’s a beautiful expression of strength and vulnerability, and hopefully these will be archetypes that other males – whether African American, Asian, whoever is writing these female heroines – will draw from.

What did you draw from it personally?

OS: I realized that the subsequent generations, especially African Americans and people of color, we don’t realize the contributions that our forefathers – and I don’t want to say “forefathers” as if it were hundreds of years ago – made, so that we wouldn’t necessarily need to know what the struggle was. I love this film because it’s a celebration of those contributions. And I realize that I have a lot of work to do, because to whom much is given, much is expected, and when you feel like you haven’t been given much, you don’t expect much. But I realize there’s so much that I’ve been given, and hopefully as my life continues to flourish and people come in and out of it, I will continue to be a Minny or an Aibileen or a Skeeter or a Celia [Chastain's character]. We can only hope.

What was it like adapting such a beloved book?

TT: I was a fan of the book, and also had a responsibility to my best friend, who wrote it. But really, I felt a greater responsibility – for so many years, as southerners, Kathryn and I would roll our eyes at outsiders trying to depict it. Something would usually be right on, but the rest would suffer; it would be seersucker suits and missing teeth, and on and on. So I felt like I had this privileged chance to honor my friend, these women, the woman who raised me, and to try to really show Mississippi truthfully. So, when I was adapting it, and I had the five million women looking over my shoulder who I knew I had to respect and honor, I just focused on the adaptation.

The first script I wrote was over 200 pages long. As an exercise, I said, “I wanna write it as if we were going to film every single scene and facet of the book.” Which isn’t the most efficient thing, but actually turned out to be efficient for the storytelling because when I did call out the stuff that just couldn’t make it into the movie, I’d look at a scene and say, “What did I love about this scene?” It may just be a glance between two people, a location that hadn’t presented itself in other scenes, or a line or a joke. And I’d take it and look at all the other scenes, and try to find a place to put that one aspect of the scene I was killing. So it’s kinda like when you read CliffsNotes for a teacher, and you’re like, “It sounds like I read the book so I don’t think they’re gonna notice!” The screenplay, it may not be exactly like the book, but I think the audience members will get it.

How do you decide what stays in and what stays out?

TT: It’s painful. Like Emma, one of my favorite scenes is when Hilly kicks Skeeter out of the Junior League, which was really cool and powerful and some of Bryce’s best work in the film. But the film was long, and even though you love the work they did, you ultimately have to say, “Are we gaining something we don’t know that’s moving the story forward?” And you can lie to yourself because it looks great, you can say to yourself, “They gotta see this!” But when I took it out, and Skeeter had put the toilets on Hilly’s lawn and we didn’t really see a confrontation between them, and then she’s eating alone at the diner and all of her friends come in and she’s clearly ignored and cast out, it just immediately made the whole dynamic of what [Skeeter] did more powerful without telling us what had happened. Hilly just comes in, and [Skeeter] is sitting up there by herself where previously there had been a group. And then Nelsan, who plays Henry, tells her to go over to Aibileen’s. She’s been kicked out of the family and brought into another one.

Race, class, gender – these can be really big, scary ideas, and you usually don’t see a studio film addressing any of them, let alone all three. Was it daunting to take them on, and to now be out on a press tour being called upon to speak about them?

TT: I think what helped is what Kathryn did so brilliantly, which was to make them all intertwined. An overbearing mother [Janney] wanting to be in a certain class; Celia, Aibileen, and Minnie wanting respect – if you look at these four women, they’re all wanting the same thing, to be different and thought of differently, and they’re meeting a struggle. So what Kathryn did, and I only brought to the screen, was to show their similarities and how their struggles were all hard. [Skeeter] lost everything. Everything! I mean, Minny said it: “You’ve got no life here now because of what you did.” And all she wanted to do was be a professional. And then Minny lost a lot of things, but gained a lot. Aibileen lost everything, but at the end, she’s like, “Wait a minute, I’m starting over.” They’re tough issues, but when Kathryn brought them all together and showed how similar they were, it made it easy.

OS: And I think it’s important that this kind of dialogue is taking place. I mean, there’s so many things that are taboo to talk about, racism being one of them. But it’s not the only -ism we need to overcome as a world at large. Sexism, ageism, homophobism – I’ve coined that word, you can use it. [laughs] I think this is a great way to expose those dirty little things that we don’t like to discuss, and really make us put a mirror up to our own faces and make us say, “What do you really think?” Like Skeeter does with Aibileen.

TT: And not even dirty. One African American guy came and spoke with us and said, “My aunt was a caregiver in a house, and I had never asked her about it! I saw the movie and I got on the phone and called her. She was like, ‘Why are you asking me all this?’ I never thought to get her to talk about it, and now we’ve talked about it.” So that’s cool.

Do you think the film will be an inspirational guide for people? Have you personally taken any lessons from it on how to live more compassionately?

OS: I think that begins with the individual. If you’re open to that, it shouldn’t be that anyone has to tell you that. Hopefully what the film will do is have any person walking away from it take a moment of reflection. And it’s not just relegated to the United States, it’s the world at large. I think it’s bigger issues. When we lose our humanity, we lose who we are as a race of people. I am forever grateful for having had this opportunity, because not only have I gained a better insight into what it means to be an African American woman in this day and age, with our first African American president and First Lady, you know… I’m taking that away from it. I’m taking away that they are the first, not necessarily just the first African Americans, but they are pioneers for any people of color. I may just decide to run. [laughs]

Could you talk about your decision to position Aibileen as the emotional center of the film, but to have so much of the plot stem from Minny?

TT: I think that the ultimate catalyst for the women making their decision was when Yule Mae (Aunjanue Ellis) was wronged by Hilly and was struck. That final act was a line in the sand that divided these two people. That’s what brought them all together. Minny is just a sounding board. She’s saying what we’re all thinking.

OS: And I threatened him.

TT: What drives it for me is Skeeter’s quest to find out who was wronged in her life, which was Constantine. And Minny kept saying what everyone was thinking and wanting, commenting on it, challenging people, really giving them the resolve to continue what they were doing.

Is there any scene in particular that speaks to your upbringing with Carol Lee? [Carol Lee was Taylor's caregiver growing up; she has a cameo in the film and accompanied him to the premiere]

TT: The cooking scenes. She and I cooked together all the time. She taught me to make chicken fried steak, she taught me to make salmon croquettes. I remember Thursdays were hamburger day. Me and Carol, we would cook. I was an only child with me, my mom, and Carol until I was 12.

OS: And now he has an African American sister!

[pause]

TT: [to Stone] We haven’t really let you speak.

OS: I know, Emma!

ES: [mumbled] Oh, I don’t really have anything exciting to say…

How about this: how tired are you of Spider-Man questions?

ES: Oh my… Well, my new thing is just, “I’ll talk to you next summer!”

OS: Ooh, that’s good!

ES: No, but it is funny. There’s a lot of questions about Spider-Man. I understand, I totally understand.

Are there any questions you really don’t like getting?

ES: Anything really, like, personal. You know, about dating. That always happens because… I don’t know.

OS: You’re young, girl!

ES: It’s always like, “Who are you dating, who are you dating?” I’m like, “Oh my god, you’re a stranger.” [laughs]

So…who are you dating? Just kidding!

OS: She’s dating me and Tate.

ES: [laughs] Yes! I am dating Octavia Spencer and Tate Taylor.

The Help opens in theaters nationwide today.

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