Based on the critically acclaimed No 1 New York Times best-selling novel, The Help tells the inspiring story of the relationship between three different and extraordinary women who build an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project that breaks societal roles and puts them at risk.
Emma Stone portrays Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan who has just graduated from college and is looking for a writing job. When she lands a job writing the Miss Myrna cleaning-hints column for a local newspaper, she seeks help from Aibileen, her best friend’s maid, and finds herself embarking on a clandestine project, initiated by a book editor in New York and inspired by the moving stories she uncovers from the black help in the area.
Viola Davis plays Aibileen, who has been a housekeeper her whole life, raising 17 children for her employers and one son of her own, who was tragically killed in an accident.
Emma and Viola spoke of their roles in this much anticipated movie, which already is generating Oscar buzz.
How would you describe Skeeter?
Emma Stone: She’s a bit of a misfit. Someone who has never been rebellious, she has always conformed to the laws of her society, her family. But, when it comes to writing, as time goes on, and as the story unfolds, she begins to understand that her way of thinking is more progressive than the people in her town.
In a way, it’s a coming-of-age story for Skeeter.
What was it like stepping into this world, were you able to drop your 2011 attitude?
Viola Davis: It’s difficult because you have to monitor your every move as a 21st century woman in a movie about 1961. It was a lot of negotiation on my part, because I felt, ‘Do I want to play a character that could be viewed as so subservient?’ But I see her as more than that, behind the nodding, behind the fact that you’ve got to get by in life.
We’re all survivors by nature at all cost, but I think ultimately she would be defined as a liberated woman.
These women are so courageous.
Emma: Oh absolutely. I think that’s why the story means so much to so many people. Every person has something extraordinary within them that they can access. And a lot of people just choose to go through their lives being ordinary. [In the movie] you’re seeing these women overcome and be brave and change the world by their bravery.
The secrecy that they had to have at the time period and how everyone could have found out about this and the repercussions would have been so immense obviously as to what you saw. It just could have been such a mess. And for such a valid reason, what they were doing was right.
Viola: It’s really interesting when you have someone fighting for something and risking their lives, because I’ll tell you one thing right now, not a lot of people do that. They may risk a paycheck. They may risk a couple of hours of their time, but risking a life, I think that’s pretty courageous.
That’s how I defined Aibileen, and that’s what ultimately made me want to play her.
Where do you think Skeeter got her courage from?
Emma: I think Skeeter was unlike a lot of her friends. I don’t think that she was accepted by her mother. Her mother wanted her to fit in this mold in Jackson, Mississippi, to grow up and have kids and get married young and be in the junior league and continue that tradition.
And the problem was she didn’t think Skeeter was very pretty. She didn’t think it was going to be easy for her and she didn’t really support her. Skeeter found that support in Constantine (her black maid).
Constantine made her feel worthy and Constantine told her, ‘You have a choice. You get to pick your life. I didn’t get to pick mine, you get to pick yours. Pick your life. Do what you want to.’ That was the only support she ever had. That was her true mother.
So she went off with Constantine’s strength in her and was living out a life for herself and for Constantine, and she decides to write this book and to team with Aibileen, who so courageously teams with her because Skeeter’s very idealistic, and is crazy to think that this would be exciting for Aibileen to be a part of.
I think that her viewpoint comes hugely from Constantine.
How important was it to portray this history accurately?
Viola: You have to put it in the hands of an artist. You have to put it in the hands of people who understand excellence.
The only reason why you’ve ever seen a movie where it was not portrayed accurately is because either the people didn’t have the talent or they didn’t have the insight to say, ‘I’m just going to play these people for who they were.’
What do you want the audience to come away with?
Emma: I hope they come away with knowledge and with hope, and that it makes them feel like they’re leaving church, like something changed within you. I know that happened for me because my knowledge wasn’t very extensive before I was involved with The Help and I [researched] things that taught me about this era and time.
Viola: I just want people to walk away and think it’s a great movie.
If they came in with any expectations that it would not be a good movie, that they’re going to be blown away by it.