Two-time Tony winner and Oscar nominee Viola Davis does not mince words when asked if she had any trepidation about accepting the lead role of a maid in director Tate Taylor‘s upcoming film “The Help” despite his paltry directing resume. The director and stars of the film ( based on Taylor’s Jackson, Mississippi childhood friend and Atlanta author Kathryn Stockett‘s best-selling novel) were in town Tuesday to do media interviews. The film opens August 11.
As Davis contemplates the question at the Ritz Carlton in Buckhead with a fresh cup of tea in front of her, Taylor tells her, “Be real.”
“Oh, I’m going to be very real,” Davis replies. “Here’s the thing. You’re thinking that I’m a two-time Tony winner and an Oscar nominee and there must be tons of directors out there coming at me from all directions with scripts. I’m reading 10 scripts at a time, thinking, ‘Now, what can a seriously trained, two-time Tony Award-winning actress do next.‘ I am telling you…”
Knowing that the inquiry has triggered a spirited reaction from Davis, Taylor exclaims: “Shit!”
Without missing a beat, Davis continues: “That there is a deprivation of roles for black actresses and this man right here came to me with a role like Aibileen, richly drawn and a major role for a black actress. I’m not thinking, ‘He only has one or two credits under his belt.’ I’m thinking, ‘He’s coming at me with a great project and he seems fully capable of executing it.’ And that’s it!
Taylor playfully interjects: “And I’ll feed you!”
Davis was committed to capturing on film the richness of the novel’s central maid character Aibileen Clark toiling against the backdrop of 1962 Jackson, Mississippi when black maids routinely raised the white children of their employers at below minimum wage while required to use outdoor bathrooms. “The characteristic I most wanted to focus on was making the loss of her child really authentic,” explains Davis. “I really wanted to capture that because I just felt that it was so important in her journey. Letting Mae Mobley go, letting her son go. I felt that was the key to her humanity. I really did. Because Treelore is really another character in the film. Even when you read the book, you get a sense of that. The richness of the humanity of these characters, these black women. I didn’t just see domestics or maids. Usually, you just see someone cooking in the kitchen, taking care of the kids and every once in a while, they’ll show up in the storyline for a sentence or two, have one little stark word of wisdom or a laugh line and they’ll walk out. You never know who they are. Ever. And this is a whole novel dedicated to exploring these black women. Everything. Their humor, their joy, their grief, their shortcomings and frailties. These are major roles for black actresses in a year, actually the last two years, filled with . . . nothing.”
The movie was shot on location in Jackson and Greenwood, Mississippi last summer. For Taylor and Stockett, it was imperative that the movie be filmed in their hometown. “Movies about Mississippi are usually awful,” Taylor explains. “In ‘Mississippi Burning,’ everyone’s missing teeth and has charcoal dust on their face. All the whites do is hang black people and black people, all they do is cook and run around and are victims. It’s the worst. So I was excited do a film about these fictional women who were based on the real women who raised Kathryn and myself. Kathryn and I made a commitment to get it right this time.”
Davis says she was transported back to the era, especially while shooting the film’s church scenes, complete with real summer heat, period costume and wigs and vintage Southern funeral home cardboard fans. “Absolutely,” she recalls. “The entire time we were shooting I felt transported. We were there. Every set piece, the cars, the food, the wardrobe, I felt transported every single day. I’ll credit Tate with this too: It was so important to shoot this in Mississippi instead of a soundstage in Vancouver. It’s another character that you have to either fight or embrace or be a part of. It’s just a different character in and of itself. It informs everything you do, every physical behavior, every emotional behavior. Just being in that small town. It was perfect, just perfect. We had women who were extras on the set with us who would talk about family members being murdered. The ghosts of the past were always with us.”
Davis is hopeful that “The Help” will open up a fresh dialogue about the civil rights era and race in America. “There’s something about talking about it that’s frightening to people,” she says. “Sometimes, I think that’s why we hold onto our grief and our pain. We think that forgetting is a part of healing. Forgetting is not a part of healing. Remembering is. Getting it out there and walking through it is what will heal us. Understanding that it is a part of who we are, it’s a part of American culture. You’re only as good as your secrets.”