Fans love to dream-cast their favorite books, but what if the ideal actress was in place before the first words were even put down on paper?
Such was the case with Kathryn Stockett's bestselling novel "The Help," which already had a flesh-and-blood inspiration for caustic maid Minny Jackson in the form of Alabama-born actress Octavia Spencer. The actress herself explains how a tight circle of friends and one irritating visit to New Orleans changed her life and helped bring "The Help" to movie theaters (and now, to DVD and Blu-ray).
So you were actually the inspiration for Minny from the very start?
Yes, as far as the character's physicality. And the feistiness of her personality. Kathryn met me at a weird time, on a weird day. We both had [director] Tate [Taylor] in common as a good friend, and he thought we should meet and we ended up meeting in New Orleans when Kathryn was basically formulating the story. And she had an idea of where she would go with Aibileen, but she really didn't know who Minny was. So after walking around New Orleans for about four hours in 108-degree heat - I was about a hundred pounds heavier then - and listening to me complain and carry on with Tate, she thought, "Well, a very opinionated, chubby woman." From there, she created the rest of who Minny was. But I inspired, I guess, the severity of her personality. [laughs]
When you heard there was going to be a movie, did you feel that the part was yours by right?
Tate always thought that I would play the character, but I was smart enough to distance myself emotionally from that because if they did go to a studio I knew that perhaps there was a huge chance I wouldn't get to do it. So I basically practiced a little self-preservation by not really investing much in that idea.
Because you distanced yourself beforehand, what was it like that first day on set in character as Minny?
I was so proud. I was proud because it was basically working with people I've been friends with for years: Tate, [producer] Brunson [Green], myself, Kathryn and Allison Janney, and Melissa McCarthy is a really good friend of ours as well and she was actually going to be in it but she couldn't get out of her show to film for a week. But she was going to play Leslie Jordan's wife. Tate basically has put me, Allison, and Melissa in everything he's ever written or done. So I was really proud. I felt like they were giving birth and I was an aunt to the baby that was being born…called "The Help." [laughs]
At first, it seems like Minny is almost comic relief, but she has a lot of emotional heavy-lifting to do. How do you prepare for something like that?
You definitely have to do your homework…I mean, I thought Minny was funny, but I never approached her as the comedic relief. She just says what everyone else is thinking, and the hilarity of that in that setting is what made her, perhaps, so funny. I did a lot of research about the time period, I did a lot of research about being a battered wife, I did a lot of research and emotional work with an acting teacher - and then the other thing, we were a very tight group. That whole cast was a great ensemble and we literally we were each other's cheerleaders. So it was easy to work with that group, it was really wonderful.
Are you the type of actress who can shake a role off at the end of the day, or do you bring it home with you?
At the end of the day, it was very difficult. Because that emotional space and that time period is not something you can easily shake at the end of the work day. At the end of the shoot, I was happy to mail that home. [laughs] One of the ways to not go clearly to the dark side - Ahna O'Reilly, who played Elizabeth, Viola [Davis's] boss, she and I are friends, and were friends before we ever started shooting, and we basically decided to room together and it was great because then I would come back to reality that all white people aren't bad and this time period isn't the time period that we live in. It was really imperative to have touchstones from my own life to ground me, because I did not like the reality that my character lived in.
Speaking of which, you have a lot of scenes with Sissy Spacek and Bryce Dallas Howard that are tense - did that spill over behind the scenes? Did you avoid them on set?
I actually thought it was going to be really difficult to hate Bryce. We had a two week rehearsal period where we rehearsed on the actual set and Bryce is really quiet, she's actually shy and she is one of the most accommodating people you will ever meet. Gracious in every way. She's sweet, beautiful, and I'm thinking, "it's going to be difficult to hate this girl." But sure enough, the minute Tate would say "Action" Hilly would show up and I went, "OK, we're not going to have a problem!" [laughs]
Has "The Help" made things easier for you and your career? Maybe opened a few more doors?
Up until the last month, no. But more roles are becoming readily available, I'm certainly meeting different echelon of directors and producers, but my life hasn't really changed that much. At first, I was being offered more maid roles and I was like, "If this role isn't better than the one I just played, I can't do it." I definitely don't have anything to complain about.
You're friends with Melissa McCarthy - any desire to do a big, "Bridesmaids"-type ensemble comedy?
I'm open to whatever. I'm now addicted to playing a very substantive role. I'm excited about the project I'm about to do with Diablo Cody. But I think there's nothing that I'm dying to do because I want to do everything.
What is the Diablo Cody project?
It was tentatively called "Lamb of God," with Russell Brand and Julianne Hough. [Cody] wrote it and is directing it. I don't know what I'm at liberty to say, I know there's a blurb about it on IMDB but how that is worded I don't know. I just can say that Julianne Hough's character is at a very interesting stage in her life and, because of an accident, she loses her faith and basically spends the movie, I guess, finding herself again. And I get to go on that journey with her. Russell Brand and I do. really excited about that.
"The Help" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray December 6th