Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
July 9, 2011

Based on the beloved, bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is set against the backdrop of Mississippi in the 1960s, amidst a burgeoning civil rights movement, and told from the viewpoints of several women within the community from different social backgrounds.

Tasked with writing about a subject that disturbs her, wide-eyed young journalist Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone) decides to chronicle the story of the black housekeepers who help to raise the children of white families, yet are still not afforded the same basic rights as their employers. Wanting to unveil the truth from their unique perspectives, she enlists the assistance of two maids: Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who is dealing with the loss of her own son, and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), whose brash and outspoken attitude has gotten her fired from numerous jobs. The trio faces opposition from not only a world of systemized inequality at large, but also specifically in the form of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), a local community leader who enjoys enforcing the status quo of segregation based on race and even social status, as evidenced by her disdain of Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), a friendly, well-meaning woman who is shunned because of her impoverished upbringing.

In this interview, Emma Stone and Viola Davis talk their experience of working on The Help. We also follow up with Emma on fulfilling a lifelong aspiration when she had the opportunity to host Saturday Night Live after the success of her film Easy A.

MEDIA: Viola, was Aibileen the character that immediately appealed to you as an actress?

VIOLA: Yes. Aibileen did appeal to me, but only if it were written right. You know, all the characters are like right at the cusp, that if they're not handled properly, could be total stereotypes--you know, everyone from Celia to Minny to Aibileen. So only if it were written right. I thought if it's written right, I could play this role. But that's it. So it was that huge stipulation on it.

Emma, what was the key that allowed you to relate to a character like Skeeter, who comes from such a different social era?

EMMA: Well, I was lucky in a way because Skeeter's a relatively modern woman with the kind of goals that I had in my life--of having her own career and not necessarily wanting to get married and have kids at 22. And, you know, I'm 22 now, so I can relate to her in that way. [laughs] So in terms of relating to that time period, she felt a bit different than her peers. But it was the other things [that helped]...It was learning about that time period and how limited my knowledge was, and getting to realize that Skeeter's knowledge was actually also relatively limited, and she learned so much as that process goes on. And [watching] Eyes on the Prize, which I had never seen, which was an incredible documentary series, and reading about the Jim Crow laws, and reading about Mississippi in the early 1960s...And learning the dialect. [laughs] That alone was a huge part of the process...It's like you have this filter in your head and you've got to go through that. And it's such an interesting addition to the process. It's just wild.

Both of you have dealt with entertainment reporters a lot in your careers. Did the character of Skeeter show you a different facet of journalism, and demonstrate how it can actually be a great thing?

EMMA: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to go to school for journalism. I've always seen why journalism can be a great thing. I think that was another reason why it was exciting to play Skeeter. "I get to be a journalist, that's fantastic!" You know, I grew up loving Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Like that's the stuff I read. I just thought it was incredible. [pauses] Sorry to kind of "have that." [laughs] "I was already a big journalist fan!" Because I think we do something very similar, which is looking at people--you know, we read scripts, you interview people, and we break them down and try to get these points across, or get these parts across. And we both have a lot of interest in humanity and what makes people tick, and the psychology of human beings. And I think, you know... [lightens the mood with a slightly melodramatic flair] We're not so different, you and I!

Nice. [laughs] So what did you take away from the experience of working on this movie?

EMMA: I learned a huge amount. In terms of life experience, I highly doubt I ever would have lived for three months in Greenwood, Mississippi and gotten to know people in a town like that, and seeing what that part of America is like. There's a lot of interesting facets to our job, in that you get to be paid to enter a different life, and to enter a different mindset of your character, and to learn about the history of that time or of what you're playing, or learn new skills. You know, I've learned to shoot guns for other movies. [laughs] And in this, I got to learn about a part of history that was incredibly important and hugely informative to where we are now, and still being struggled with now. And the way it helped me to grow as a person is irreplaceable, and I'm so grateful for the experience. And the friendships that we made and the fun we had.

VIOLA: Oh, it was fun...

EMMA: It was just an incredible summer. It was just a wonderful memory.

Viola, you always command such a great presence in everything you do...

VIOLA: Well, thank you!

Do you take some sort of specific approach when you tackle a role?

VIOLA: Yeah, I do--you know, theatre geek, acting, training, school, the bios, finding out the meat of the character and all of that stuff. But I'm also...I will give myself one compliment, which I never do, which is that I've lived my life. I grew up in Central Falls, Rhode Island--a very, very small town, one square mile, 18,000 people, smaller than Greenwood, but just as many people. And I grew up in abject poverty, and I feel that one of the things that I benefited from growing up with poverty is that people, when you grow up poor, don't have filters. Nobody's really trying to keep up with the Joneses, because how can you keep up with the Joneses when you live in a second floor apartment [where] I know what you do behind closed doors because everybody can hear you through the thin walls? So everybody is absolutely who they are. And it's a ripe ground for observation. It's a ripe ground for an artist. So I've seen a lot, I've experienced a lot. And so therefore, I bring it to every experience. That's not the case with a lot of actors. Because especially if you're good, then you're always working, so you live in a kind of incubator. So what you do is you intellectualize experiences...And I'm telling you, it still works. Because people will look at it on screen and they'll swear it's the truth, especially if they're entertained by it. For me, I know the truth. For me, that's what I bring to a character. Some battles I lost. But for me...I mean, one of the things that I couldn't even understand even in the book--even though I love, love the book--is everybody had a phone. That's one thing I didn't understand. I mean, probably 95% of the homes in Jackson, Mississippi in the poor neighborhoods were substandard. People lived in poverty. They don't have phones. A phone is the first thing that goes. Now some people may have a phone, but in this book, everybody had a phone. Even Minny had a phone! [laughs] But see, the way I work in everything is, "Okay, you may want me to do that because it may look good, but I know that's not true." So I think that's what I do. That's the approach I have with every character, every situation.

Aibileen has an intense showdown with Hilly in which she refers to her as "godless." What sort of preparation went into that pivotal moment?

VIOLA: Oh, man...Well, that last scene was why me and [director Tate Taylor] got into many of our battles. [laughs] Just to be completely vulnerable with you for a moment, which I never do with journalists... [laughs] I always feel like the quiet character always gets the crappiest end of the stick. I always feel like the flashiest character always gets the attention. So when you asked me which character I wanted to play, I really wanted to play Aibileen because I love the quiet characters, but I always think that they're the underdog. Always. Because they're not in your face. They take more work for the audience to get in. So for me, the only way a quiet character can pay off is if they explode. Throughout the movie, you don't know what they're thinking, what's going on, and it's boiling, and then there's got to be a release--for me, personally. And so at that moment, I said it needs something else. I've got to call Hilly out on something about her character that I strip away--not just "screw you, you can kiss my behind," you know? And I asked Bryce Dallas Howard, who is the sweetest girl by the way, can I just tell you? [laughs] Cannot be any different [than Hilly]. So I said, "What could I say to you that would just tear you apart? That would just take that mask off? What if I called you godless?" She said, "Oh, that does it!" So that's how I discovered it. [laughs]

Emma, when we interviewed you for The Rocker a few years back, you talked about your appreciation of Gilda Radner and doing sketch comedy as a little kid. So I was so excited for you when you got to host Saturday Night Live...

EMMA: Thank you... [laughs]

Was it everything you had hoped for?

EMMA: [excitement bubbling] Yeah! It was the best thing in my life!

Will we be seeing you back in comedy, or is it all dramas and blockbusters going forward?

EMMA: Oh, no. Oh God, no, no, no! Sketch comedy's my theater. Oh, I just love it! More than anything in the whole world. It makes me so happy. Saturday Night Live is literally...I'm coasting from that experience. I don't even know, I have no other goal...That was it! [laughs]

VIOLA: [laughs] It's all downhill from here!

EMMA: [laughs] No, it's just all gravy from here! Like nothing could ever be bad again. [laughs] No, absolutely, I should be so lucky to continue to get to do anything along the lines of comedy. But you know, it's just so amazing to have an opportunity to do anything that you love and that you're passionate about, whether it falls under the comedy or the drama umbrella, whether it's a movie or a play or hosting a variety show. I'm just incredibly grateful to be in any of those circumstances where I feel lucky to be a part of something.

In this film, Skeeter is asked to write about a subject that disturbs her, but not necessarily everyone else. If you were given that assignment in today's social climate, what would you write about?

EMMA: Ummm...Addiction to notoriety?

VIOLA: Mmm-hmm. Yep, that's a good one.

EMMA: A culture addicted to escapism and avoiding some truths? I think we're in the middle of another huge civil rights movement right now. There's a lot, but I think a lot of people are disturbed by this stuff. [laughs]

VIOLA: All the "isms"--classism, racism, sexism. There's never any kind of honest discourse about it, because, I mean, even talking to you, it's like before you get to the table, you feel like there's so many things that you just don't go there. And when you have any honest discourse, especially if it's going to change the world, you can't have any filters. People have got to be able to just let loose. But that's with all the isms. And we really have it in our business.

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