Actresses Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, who play maids in the movie adaptation of “The Help,” joined author Kathryn Stockett and screenwriter-director Tate Taylor at an advance screening of the film Monday night. The movie will hit theaters Aug. 10.
On Monday, following a pre-show cocktail party, the theater at Atlantic Station was absolutely packed. There was not an empty seat or a dry eye, at the end.
Afterward the actresses, author and director participated in a discussion moderated by Judge Glenda Hatchett.
“I think it’s wonderful that these women are ordinary,” Davis said of Aibileen Clark and Minny Jackson, the characters she and Spencer play. “I didn’t want them to just see a maid. I wanted them to see the woman. Octavia and I were committed to making these women as authentic as possible.”
The longtime New York Times bestselling novel, currently at the top of the combined print/e-book list, tells the story of domestic employees in Jackson, Miss., at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement.
Stockett, a Jackson native who now lives in Atlanta, was living in New York when she began writing, in the days following the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
“I got so homesick,” Stockett said. She began to think of Demetrie, the woman who worked for her family for decades. “I told Tate, ‘the voice I want to hear right now is Demetrie’s.’ ”
So she started writing, never imagining her book would be published, much less become a movie.
“Once I hit page 300, I started getting a little nervous about what I’d done,” Stockett said. “On the one hand, I thought, ‘I don’t have the right to tell these stories. I’m still very conflicted about what I’ve done.”
Spencer said she was apprehensive at first but quickly became eager to get involved.
“At that first bit of dialect I thought, ‘Oh God, it’s Mammy from Gone with the Wind.’ I hate Kathryn Stockett!” But she kept reading.
“By the end of page one I was hoping there was something in it for me,” Spencer said. “I missed a friend’s bachelorette party to power through the book. I thought, ‘Please Lord, let there be a chubby little woman in there,’ and there was.”
The success of “The Help” followed a long season of rejection, Stockett said. She and Taylor – her close friend since preschool – were sharing an apartment in New York when she completed the book. He then headed west to try to launch his film career.
“We were both getting doors slammed in our faces,” Stockett said. “Mine came in the form of letters that said, ‘We don’t want to publish this. Don’t write us again.’ His in the form of, ‘Next. You didn’t get the part.’ ”
Taylor said that as soon as he read the book he knew he had to make it into a film. He optioned the rights before it was even published, and contacted his friend, Spencer.
“Octavia was a buddy of mine,” Taylor said. “We thought we were going to make a little indie movie based on my friend’s unpublishable novel.”
The movie stars Emma Stone as Skeeter, the idealistic young writer who gets the idea to tell the stories of the domestic employees of Jackson. Bryce Dallas Howard is perfectly devilish as Hilly, the Junior League harpy who reigns over Jackson society with an iron fist. Sissy Spacek adds levity in her role as Hilly’s mom, who is kinder but ultimately unable to stand up to her domineering daughter. Leslie Jordan is utterly charming in his role as the newspaper editor who gives Skeeter a crack at writing.
And Cicely Tyson is heartbreakingly wonderful as Constantine Jefferson, who is officially the maid at Skeeter’s home but in truth, was the woman who raised her.
The movie pays careful attention to detail, authentically capturing the 1960s of the Deep South.
“The challenging part for me was being a product of the Civil Rights generation,” Spencer said. “It was difficult to have not existed during that time but to go back emotionally.”
Davis could relate to the horrors of that era.
“When I grew up, every day I would run home from school from the time the bell rang to the time I got home,” said Davis, who grew up in Rhode Island. “Eight or nine boys would chase me with sticks – until I threatened them with a crochet needle.”
She and her husband have launched a production company dedicated to creating more roles for African American actors.
“I don’t want our stories to die,” she said. “People ask me, ‘What do you think happened to Aibileen?’ I don’t know.”
She and Spencer bonded on screen and off.
“We talk every day now,” Spencer said.
“The laughter was authentic,” Davis said. “The love was authentic.”
- Jennifer Brett/The Buzzfirstname.lastname@example.org