Octavia Spencer: 

The "Minny Jackson" Interview

 

Tate Taylor instinctively knew that the key to successfully directing The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel, was to base his production firmly in the South. For Taylor, it was a case of going back to his roots.

 

He chose Greenwood, Mississippi as the base for his film – an area he knew from his childhood - and shot in real homes where his production designer, Mark Ricker, lovingly recreated the early 1960s period in which the story is set with the kind of detail that gives the film its stamp of authenticity.

 

“Actually, it wasn’t difficult to recreate the period and the reason was because I was allowed to film in Mississippi and specifically Greenwood, Mississippi,” says Taylor.

 

“I knew this place and I was so adamant that we shot there. It was crucial. And it was about getting the right people to work with, too. I called Mark Ricker, who would be my production designer, and we’re good friends - we met as PAs [production assistants] working on J Crew photo shoots. And he’s a Southerner and so am I.”

 

Taylor was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi and has been friends with Ms. Stockett since they were children. A Southern sensibility was very important to the success of the film, he felt.

 

“I tried to crew up with as many Southern people as I could because it’s where we are from and it’s part of us and that was going to be important and I knew that,” he says. “I knew these locations were there and all the houses you see in the film are real homes – many homes that I’ve spent the night in.”

 

For Octavia Spencer, who plays Minny Jackson, filming in real houses on location in the South as opposed to working on a sound stage in a studio, was crucial and, she says, felt like stepping back in time.

 

“This time period pre-dated us so trying to be in that time period, not only physically but emotionally, we really needed those cues,” says Spencer. “And it definitely felt real when the cameras rolled and those locations played a part in how the characters were developed because everything felt so authentic.”

 

The Help is the powerful, moving story of how a group of black women find a voice and with that voice begin to break down barriers of race and prejudice and plant the seeds for change.

 

Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone) strikes returns home from college where she has been studying journalism to find that the maid who has been a part of her family all of her life has been mysteriously dismissed.

 

She decides to write a book about the lives of the African American domestics who work in the homes of the wealthy whites in her home town and approaches Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Spencer) and they strike up a friendship that defies the conventions of the tightly knit, deeply conservative and racially segregated society where they live.

 

In the process Skeeter alienates one of her oldest friends, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a social snob and a racist, who disapproves of anything that will upset the status quo.

 

“One of the big themes of the story is friendship,” says Taylor. “And not only friendships evolving and growing but friendships falling apart. I mean, to me one of the most tragic things is that Hilly and Skeeter can’t be friends anymore and it’s really sad that Hilly’s friends are swayed by her.”

 

 “Minny is opinionated,” says Spencer. “She is a dichotomy to the world – she’s a brazen, brash, strong woman but in the confines of her own home she’s a broken mother of five who is just trying to make it. She’s vulnerable, very vulnerable.”

 

Ms. Spencer admits that she doesn’t particularly enjoy watching herself on screen so she approached the first viewing of The Help – which she watched with Taylor and Ms. Davis and her husband – with trepidation.

 

The film was all that she’d hoped for and confirmed her belief that Taylor was exactly the right director for the material. Watching the film reduced her to tears, she admits.

 

“We stood outside the theatre for about thirty minutes and talked and cried. We were very proud. It was a cathartic moment and actually, we probably went through the same emotions that most people go through when they see the film,” she says.

 

“I was able to step outside of myself and just think of Minny as the character I was portraying and not looking at myself playing a character so Tate succeeded in doing that. And then after letting go of watching myself, it was just the same response that everybody has. It’s hard to articulate how I felt.”

 

The Interview: A conversation with Octavia Spencer & Tate Taylor

 

Q: When was the first time you showed the movie to Octavia?

 

Tate: I had to make her see it (laughs). A lot of actresses don’t actually like watching themselves on screen. But I told Octavia and Viola that because we were about the go on a press tour to promote the movie that they should see it. They were like ‘I don’t want to see it!’ But I’m glad to say they were both very happy with it.

 

Q: Octavia, why didn’t you want to see it?

 

Octavia: It’s the same with any movie; I don’t like to watch myself. You can’t be objective about your own work.

 

Q: Where did you screen it for them?

 

Tate: It was pretty swanky, because it was at Steven Spielberg’s screening room and there were four of us, Viola and her husband, Octavia and myself.

 

Q: How did you feel when it started to play?

 

Octavia: In my head I’m thinking about how I’m going to look, how I’m going to sound – just those things that we do when we nit pick about our own personal appearance on screen. I wasn’t necessarily anxious about the movie because I could remember shooting it and I knew it was going to be a good film.

 

Tate: I watched Octavia and Viola and it was so much fun for me to watch them go ‘screw it..’ and they just went into the movie and that was great.

 

Q: What did you say to each other when it finished?

 

Tate: They were bawling! (laughs). They were both crying…

 

Octavia: We stood outside the theatre for about thirty minutes and talked and cried. We were very proud. It was a cathartic moment and actually, we probably went through the same emotions that most people go through when they see the film. I was able to step outside of myself and just think of Minny as the character I was portraying and not looking at myself playing a character so Tate succeeded in doing that. And then after letting go of watching myself, it was just the same response that everybody has. It’s hard to articulate how I felt.

 

Q: Did it maybe exceed your expectations?

 

Octavia: I know Tate as an artist, we worked together and I had read the script long before anybody else had so I never had a doubt about what he was going to do.

 

Tate: I loved how much they laughed. They howled. Comedy is hard and if I can make Octavia and Viola laugh I knew I was doing something right. And they were really laughing – it was great fun.

 

Q: Describe Minny for me…

 

Octavia: Minny is opinionated. She is a dichotomy to the world – she’s a brazen, brash, strong woman but in the confines of her own home she’s a broken mother of five who is just trying to make it. She’s vulnerable, very vulnerable.

 

Q: There are many themes that the film touches upon but friendship is a big part of it. Was that in your mind when you were putting together the film?

 

Tate: One of the big themes of the story is friendship. And not only friendships evolving and growing but friendships falling apart. I mean, to me one of the most tragic things is that Hilly and Skeeter can’t be friends anymore and it’s really sad that Hilly’s friends are swayed by her. And it’s really sad that you know that Charlotte and Constantine were friends and yet you see the social ramifications and pressures in both of their faces. And that scene is horrific. And of course I love the friendship between Celia and Minny – I love that angle where you have this white woman chasing this black woman to be her friend. And she finally breaks her and when you see that on her face, I love what that says about humanity. So yes, friendship is a huge theme.

 

Octavia: Friendship is a huge part of the story and at the centre of all of it is the fact that these unlikely friendships are born. These women were from very disparate backgrounds and no one would have suspected that these friendships would come to fruition in the way that they do. Minny in her friendship with Celia let her know that she was OK not being a part of the “in crowd” – that the “in crowd” wasn’t good enough for her. So it was about these women finding their way. And then there’s the friendship and sisterhood that exists between Aibileen and Minny, knowing that whatever they were going to endure that they were going to be there for each other and I think that’s the kind of friendship that we all want.

 

Q: How difficult was it to recreate that period?

 

Tate: Actually, it wasn’t difficult to recreate the period and the reason was because I was allowed to film in Mississippi and specifically Greenwood, Mississippi,” says Taylor.  I knew this place and I was so adamant that we shot there. It was crucial. And it was about getting the right people to work with, too. I called Mark Ricker, who would be my production designer, and we’re good friends - we met as PAs [production assistants] working on J Crew photo shoots. And he’s Southerner and so am I. I tried to crew up with as many Southern people as I could because it’s where we are from and it’s part of us and that was going to be important and I knew that,” he says. “I knew these locations were there and all the houses you see in the film are real homes – many homes that I’ve spent the night in. Skeeter’s house in the movie is Senator Franklin’s house and I used stay in that house when I was in college. Celia’s house, where Minny worked, is Kat Williams’ old plantation house and I used to hunt and fish on her land when I was a boy. That’s what I knew – I knew that we could try and create it but if we got the real deal we would be sitting pretty. So I got Mark Ricker involved and he is Southern so he instinctively knew to get the Charles Chips can and the exact right kind of stuffed bird on the wall. I’m only as successful as the people I surround myself with so I made sure we were based in the city of Greenwood and Mark Ricker did a great job. So I can’t take credit other than picking some great people and great locations.

 

Octavia: This time period pre-dated us so trying to be in that time period, not only physically but also emotionally, we really needed those cues. And it definitely felt real when the cameras rolled and those locations played a part in how the characters were developed because everything felt so authentic.

 

Tate: Is it cooler to be on location like that? Like is it a better experience for an actor when you are at a real home than, say, walking on to a sound stage at a studio?

 

Octavia: It is so different because it’s real and you know that when you walk into the room people have lived there, it’s got its own history. When you are on a sound stage it stops at eye level and you have to keep the reality in your mind but we never had to do that with The Help. When we were in those real houses you never looked up and saw lights hanging down, we were standing in a real place.

 

Tate: You know it affected me too. There’s a line in the movie where Mrs. Walters tells Octavia to see if Aibileen has got some ambrosia I did not write that. We were rehearsing the scene that day and I was showing Minny her walk and then we walked into the kitchen and it was a real 1960s kitchen with a real 1960s refrigerator and I had a flash of my grandmother’s house, it just reminded me of my Nanna’s house so much and she would have had ambrosia there. I went ‘ask her for ambrosia!’ And that wouldn’t have happened on a sound stage.

 

Octavia: It’s tangible.

 

Q: What is on the Blu-ray/DVD release of the movie?

 

Tate: You know they were very sweet and asked me what I wanted to do and I said ‘you know, I don’t want to do a director’s commentary..’ So what we did is first of all we have about five deleted scenes that are wonderful. I also wanted to go to several key locations and tell the story of why I picked them. I wanted to do that. And Octavia and I went down there and we did something very special and it was emotional for both of us. We gathered some women who were alive and working in this period and we went to the Church that we used as Aibileen and Minny’s Church and we asked them to bring their daughters with them. And we talked about their sacrifice and what it meant and it was so touching to hear these women talk about that time period and how they made ten bucks a week and every one of their children were lawyers, doctors, school teachers. And they all said ‘that’s why we did it, for our children, that’s the only reason..’ And that’s on the Blu-ray and it will kill you.

 

© 2011 DreamWorks Studios. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

The Help (Creamworks Studios)

Image Credits: Dreamworks Studios 2011

Octavia Spencer

as "Minny Jackson" in The Help