Viola Davis on How She Questioned, Then Embraced, The Help
It's crazy to think that Viola Davis's Oscar-nominated breakthrough in Doubt came only three short years ago, considering how forcefully the theater and film veteran has emerged as one of the more compelling actresses of her generation. As Aibileen Clark, an unassuming middle-aged maid in 1960s Mississippi in Tate Taylor's ensemble drama The Help, Davis wears the emotional toll of the Jim Crow South in her gait and gaze, an everywoman living through one of the most difficult times in America's past. And yet, thanks to the film's origins and the controversy surrounding her role, Davis nearly balked at taking on the "extraordinary" project.
The Help is adapted from author Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestseller about three women whose lives intersect in segregated 1960s-era Jackson, Mississippi: Aibileen (Davis), a black maid still mourning the death of her son who pours her love into the white children she nannies; Minny (Octavia Spencer), Aibileen's friend and fellow maid whose backtalk lands her in trouble with her employers; and Skeeter (Emma Stone), an affluent, young, white recent college graduate whose desire to become a journalist leads her to write a book about the unacknowledged black experience in the volatile South.
It's meaty stuff, but Davis had one big reason for hesitation: The Help was written by a white woman. "I picked up the book and saw that this white woman wrote it and I went, 'Ugh,'" she recalled to Movieline. "My heart sank." But Stockett's novel won Davis over and the themes struck a chord, so when a script came in that did Aibileen's characterization justice, Davis dove into the project. As a result, Davis and her co-stars (including Spencer, Stone, Jessica Chastain, Cicely Tyson, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, and Bryce Dallas Howard as the deliciously malicious "Darth Vader"-socialite antagonist of the film) elevate The Help to something of a modern women's period film with a historical-social conscience. Movieline spoke with Davis about her trepidations with the film, the ghosts of the past that still linger in the South, and how Tyler Perry represents a very different, but valuable, alternative vision when it comes to portraying the black experience on film.
There's so much affecting material in The Help, but you've said that you had hesitations about taking the role at first. What was it that finally drew you in?
I just thought that the characters were so fleshed out. I did not see stereotypes. I saw maids, but I didn't see stereotypes. Stereotypes to me are people where the humanity is not explored, that they become just cardboard cutouts. I didn't see that. It was a chance for me to really go on a journey with a character... I've done August Wilson plays on Broadway -- he really put me on the map, August Wilson -- and August Wilson is a playwright who decided to chronicle ten decades of African-American life, but he chose to do it by writing about ordinary people. He didn't write about Ida B. Wells and Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X -- he wrote about old, married people, illiterate, garbagemen, ex-slaves. And this is what was fascinating to me about The Help; they were ordinary people who did extraordinary things. That Aibileen starts the movie as someone who basically is dead, has kind of died to herself, and is living, just getting by, and then finds purpose and becomes something quite extraordinary in a very ordinary way in the end. That intrigues me. That always intrigues me.
It does gives the film a more universal everywoman way in, because we still see the specific moments in history and the Civil Rights movement happening in the background, but it's framed in a more relatable way.
What did you think initially about The Help? Did you first hear about the book?
I heard about the book and I said, 'Oh my god, I've got to read this book,' and I didn't know that a white woman wrote it. Nobody said that to me, they just said, 'The Help -- Oh my god, you've got to read it.' Everyone failed to mention it was a white woman, I think, because nobody really wants to talk about race. Every once in a while people do. So I picked up the book and saw that this white woman wrote it and I went, 'Ugh...' My heart sank.
It's a common reaction that folks have when they discover that.
It's a feeling, the expectation of whatever. But I have to say, from the very first page, the dialect didn't turn me off. And what intrigued me was that she captured the humanity of these women so well that I recognized them, and I wondered how she did that. I don't know how she did it, you know? Maybe that's the mark of a great artist and a great observer of life. And maybe it's me who just thinks a white woman can't write about black women. You know, maybe that's my thing. But I just thought it was extraordinary.
Did you have this experience and revelation about the book before or after the film adaptation was presented to you?
So given that you were pleasantly surprised by the book, what was your trepidation about starring in the film?
When the filmmakers came to me I said, 'The screenplay has to be good.' Because here's the thing with Aibileen: most of her life happens in stream of consciousness because she's quiet. That's very difficult to do. It's very difficult to play, and it's very difficult to transcribe. So I didn't know how that was going to work out. Also, you just feel, as a woman of color, a built-in responsibility to your community. I'm aware that I'm a 21st century woman of color playing a maid, and eyes are on me. I knew the controversy that was going to come with it. So those two things -- how it was written and the controversy -- made me go, 'I don't know.'
What finally turned the tide for you?
What turned the tide for me was Aibileen. Aibileen is so... there's just something about her heart. I think she's a woman with extraordinary emotional capacity. Sometimes you see how humanity can rise above any kind of cultural ills and hate that a person's capacity to love and communicate and forgive can be bigger than anything else. That's what I found with her. I found Aibileen to be a liberated woman. That's what's so interesting to me with Skeeter and Aibileen, because Skeeter's a very modern woman -- but so is Aibileen! You don't recognize it at first but so is she, because she's a writer and she understands her gift and she understands self-affirmation, that if I tell this young girl from the time that she's a baby that she's wonderful -- 'You're kind, you're smart, you're important' -- that when she grows up that's always going to be instilled in her. That's liberated! To have those ideas, and to finally stand up to the Darth Vader character and say, 'You know what, this is who you are, I don't like it, I'm not going to be a part of it, you're a godless woman! I'm going to walk out of the known, my comfort zone in life, and I'm going to walk into the unknown. I don't know where this path is going to take me, but I know I've got to go there.' That's liberated.
And that's how Aibileen really subverts the stereotype of the submissive maid that people might see at first glance.
Absolutely. It's not, 'Kiss my behind,' I'm gonna have my hand on my hips -- it's that, but in a way that is more empowering. If I had a fantasy about Aibileen, because I really don't know what she's walking into -- she doesn't know -- but if I have a fantasy, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that whatever her purpose is in life, it's going to be something bigger than herself. I can see her being a civil rights activist. As a matter of fact, Fannie Lou Hamer was my kind of mold for her.
You mentioned that you think nobody wants to talk about race now, it's a difficult subject -- did these issues, these topics of conversation, come up on set with your cast mates? Especially considering you have these difficult scenes with Bryce Dallas Howard and Emma Stone, who are not only white but much younger, and probably don't have as much of a personal connection to that experience?
They don't. Some of the conversations came up, especially between me and Octavia [Spencer], but people were more focused on the characters. Because you know, the civil rights aspect of it is almost just a backdrop and it informs the relationships. So I think that's what most people focused on, because Bryce and Emma, they're so young. They don't have a perspective on that. It's not even a part of their lives, at all, which is the most beautiful thing. Can I just tell you, I think it's the most beautiful thing about young people today, it gives me so much hope for the future, that they don't really recognize race the way my generation does. I mean, Emma is 22. I'm more than twice her age, and as much as people talk about hip-hop and rap and they blast it and they break it down... I remember when I was young, the black and Hispanic kids liked disco and the white kids liked rock and roll, and that's how we separated. Now, hip-hop is just all over. I love that!
You filmed on location in Mississippi, and I've spent some time visiting nearby in a lovely town called Oxford. As much as the area has progressed through generations, there's still the sense that racism and the history of the South still lingers, unspoken.
Absolutely. History is too powerful for any of us, even individually. Our past, so much, is what informs us. But yeah, it still lingers there. Absolutely it lingers there. In the murkiness of the Tallahatchie River, where Emmett Till's body was found in Money, Mississippi -- six miles from Greenwood and Baptist Town, which is an all-black community that has an 85 percent unemployment rate, that has maybe one or two high school graduates in the last five years. [Proceeds from a July 30 screening of The Help went to revitalizing the historic neighborhood, which was used for exteriors in the film.] They still live in sharecropper homes, a lot of them. It's just extreme poverty. And for me, it is just a symptom of the past. It's something that they kind of sweep under the rug, and there's just no escaping it, the ghosts of the past.
Someone actually just told me that when they dug up the bodies of [Michael] Schwerner, [Andrew] Goodman, and [James] Chaney back in '64 -- they were freedom fighters, the basis of Mississippi Burning -- when they dug their bodies up, there were 800 bodies that they found in that dumping site. Eight hundred bodies. [Pause] You know, you want to move past things, but as someone said, if you want to have the last word, apologize. And I think an apology first has to come with a sense of acknowledgment of a huge wrongdoing, an acknowledgment of wrong, and that really hasn't come. Because of that, it's kind of a dirge; it's a feeling that you have when you're there that so affects you and yet you can't put a finger on it, and yet nobody talks about it. This is The Help, 1961 -- this is everyday life. And yet I didn't find one person in Mississippi that would own up to it. Not one person said, 'Oh, that was my mother.' Everyone said, 'We didn't know anything about the bathrooms, if we had a maid we always treated her nicely and she could say what she wanted, nobody ever said the word 'nigger'...'
That's how they'd like to remember it.
At the same time, Southern hospitality was in abundance, and the food, all of that, was beautiful. This is the other side of it.
The last time we spoke you were about to have your Tyler Perry film come out. Along the topic of race in film, Perry gets a lot of flack for his perspective on the black experience. How do you weigh and balance doing both of these types of work?
Well, I did Madea Goes to Jail -- first of all, I loved doing Madea Goes to Jail. I loved working with Tyler Perry. I hadn't worked in eight months, and the role came along. I have nothing but praise for him, because one thing that I understand now is that at least he's creating something. Now, people may not agree with what he's created, but I give him big props in wanting to be in the driver's seat, of wanting to take control over the images that are out there. The reason that people, especially black people, flock to his films, is because we want to see ourselves! We just want to see ourselves. I mean, listen, we all want to see ourselves.
As an Asian-American woman, I completely agree.
Yeah! Exactly. And Meryl Streep, Sally Field, Helen Mirren, they're all my idols and I love them to death. But at some point, you know, it's still Cicely Tyson that made me want to be an actress because she looked like me. She looked like my mother. You want to see yourself. And as a matter of fact, that is statistically accurate because a lot of women, supposedly at Cal Northridge, don't seek positions of professor because they don't see a lot of women in those roles. Because they don't see it, they don't seek it. You've got to see it, to be able to dream it and believe it for yourself.
It's pretty tremendous, then, that Cicely Tyson was also in The Help. You didn't share scenes with her, but was it still thrilling to be on the same set?
I was like, 'Wow...'
Was that the first time you'd met her?
No, I met her at a party where I was gushing over her. [Laughs] And I grabbed her hand and started rubbing it against my face and kissing it. I mean, I was such a dork! 'I love you, you're my idol!'
The Help is in theaters Wednesday, August 10. Read Movieline's full review here.