The Help - Bryce Dallas Howard
Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is charming, and manipulative © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

Bryce Dallas Howard has quickly become one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses appearing in such movie as Spider Man 3, The Twilight Sage: Eclipse, Hereafter, Terminator Salvation and The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond.

In her new film, The Help, she portrays Hilly Holbrook, a mean upper crust bigot living in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960’s, who fires her maid Minny (Octavia Spencer) because of an act of defiance.

Hilly’s best friend, Skeeter (Emma Stone) disagrees with her views on life, and decides to write a book focusing on the moving stories of the black maids that work in the area. Howard spoke about her iconic evil role at the press junket for the movie.

Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis, standing) attends to the needs of Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, seated center) and her friends Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O'Reilly, left) and Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone, right) © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

What was so great about your role in this is it addresses the civil rights movement from a woman’s perspective.

That was something that actually my mom said to me was really important. She spent a lot of her childhood in Louisiana. She was born in 1953, so in the early 1960s she was still really young, but she has a lot of memories of that time.

She said, ‘Don’t play this character like she’s Cruella De Vil. You have to find the real woman in this, because this was real and people need to know.’

That was really hard for me because the Cruella De Vil version was really fun to play and surprising and dynamic. But to get into that psychology was really scary.  I had to believe in the things that I was saying and believe that what I was doing was right.

She actually thought that she was doing good, which is so scary.

Was it important to have a person like your mom say that it was an accurate portrayal of the times?

Yeah, I think it was. You can watch documentaries, and we were shooting in Mississippi and I could talk to people who went through that.

To have someone as personal to me as my mother, who I knew spent a lot of her childhood in the south, say to me, ‘You better do right by this period of time,’ made me take it that much more seriously.

Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), Missus Walters (Sissy Spacek) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

When she saw the movie she said, ‘Yep, that was it.’ That made me feel, the word is definitely not proud, I played the worst person, but I was glad for that. The book resonated with so many people in such a powerful way, my mom being one of them, and you want to do justice to a story that a lot of people are rooting for.

Did you use the book for research or did you rely only on the script?

I listened to the book on tape. I wanted to portray the character with as much accuracy as possible so that it would resonate, and I always take as much help as I can get. For me it was a backward journey getting to the book because I read the script, auditioned for the film, was offered the part and then read the book.

Can you talk about working opposite Octavia Spencer? Some of the best lines came between you two.

I had listened to her do the book on tape, so I had a little preview to Minny because I had heard her play Minny in the book. I think Octavia being cast in this film was such an important moment for the movie because she was so involved. The character’s based on her.

The fact that she is actually playing the character I think just brings such an authenticity to the whole experience. That doesn’t always happen in movies and this business. And the fact that it happened in this case gave us so much confidence. She was like our leader

Do you think Hilly is filled with hatred or ignorance?

Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard, left) has words with her longtime friend Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone, right) © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

I think it’s ignorance. In the last moments of my character’s journey in the film, you see her come to some kind of a realization and for me it was really important that it wasn’t that she was wrong.

Her realization is that she’s overwhelmed by all of the change that’s happening and doesn’t know how to control it anymore. I don’t feel like this is a woman who at the end of this movie is thinking that she’s wrong.

I think you did an extraordinary job, how do you feel about playing Hilly?

As an actor the most important thing at the end of the day is good story well told, and my role in this is that I am the villain, and so my goal was to play that successfully.

I had a lot of help from reading the book and from Tate Taylor’s direction and just from the circumstances of being with the other actors, so I feel like the movie is really wonderful.

Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone, back to camera) makes a remark that shocks her bridge-playing friends Elizabeth Leefolt (Ahna O’Reilly, seated right), (right to left) Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Jolene French (Anna Camp), while Aibileen Clark (Academy Award® nominee Viola Davis, far right) looks on © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

I don’t always feel that way about the movies that I’m in. So I’m very, very grateful and very proud to be in this film. And it’s just a great role. When I watched it the first time, did I leave patting myself on the back?

Absolutely not! I actually saw it for the first time with my parents, and I was like, ‘Are you sure that was okay? Are you sure that worked?’

Do you think you’ll get behind the camera one day like your father, Ron Howard?

I’m going to direct a short film for Canon in September. It’s something that I’m going to be doing with my dad actually. He’s going to be producing it with Canon. It’s a fun project. It’s not meant to be a commercial endeavor.

There were almost a hundred thousand photos submitted to Canon for this project, and from that we took eight of them and we’re piecing together a story right now that is inspired by those photos. It’s going to be fun.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter. More by Judy Sloane