'The Help' got by with a little help from their friends
When they met 16 years ago as production assistants on Joel Schumacher's "A Time to Kill," Tate Taylor and Octavia Spencer had no idea they were sowing the seeds for a symbiotic friendship that would one day put both in the thick of the Oscar race.
Still, it took a fortuitous contribution from a third member of their circle, best-selling author and Taylor's childhood friend Kathryn Stockett, to provide the means. It was titled "The Help," a novel about three Mississippi women - one white, two black - risking their lives to expose the cavalier racism prevalent in the city of Jackson during the summer of 1963.
Stockett even based one of her characters, the sassy maid Minny, on Spencer, a woman as sweet as apple dumplings, but as ornery and feisty as a polecat. Even before Stockett had finished her manuscript, Taylor, now a budding actor/filmmaker, sought to secure the rights to the novel in hopes of turning "The Help" into a star-studded blockbuster.
He did, and the results are everything he must have hoped for, as he has written and directed a page-turner of a movie that does nothing to compromise the integrity of his friend's novel. Audiences seem to agree, giving "The Help" a lofty 89 percent approval rating on the movie website RottenTomatoes.com.
Thus, the nervousness Taylor projected last month while in Boston to promote the Steven Spielberg-produced film has proven for naught. Same with his roommate of 10 years, Spencer, who let her modesty get the best of her when I suggested she and co-star Viola Davis were practically shoo-ins for Oscar nods in the acting categories this winter.
Fortunately, neither Taylor nor Spencer was as shy when it came to discussing the movie and their extremely tight friendship. Here's a sampling of what they had to say:
Are you two enjoying your overnight success?
TAYLOR: We're 15-year overnight successes. There have been struggles, but we've pretty much enjoyed it. I think that's what's kept us both going. There have been enough bright spots to overshadow the lean spots.
TAYLOR: Plenty of rice and beans for nourishment.
Tate, did you need to get down on your knees and beg to attract a cast that includes stars the caliber of Emma Stone, Sissy Spacek, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis and Cicely Tyson? Or did they all come running to you?
TAYLOR: Kathryn's book resonated with most of the actresses in the film. That love of the book predated the movie. So when they heard there was a movie, it was pretty serendipitous. The people I wanted and the people that wanted to do it, we were kind of around each other (in mindset). And phenomenally, everyone I wanted to get wanted to do it.
Octavia, one of the joys of the film is the relation your character, Minny, forms with an outcast white woman played by Jessica Chastain. Did you know right away that you two had chemistry to burn?
SPENCER: We bonded during her audition. Jessica and I just had that chemistry in the room and knew that we would be instant friends, no matter what.
Octavia, your character is quite the prankster. Do you think Minny is able to get away with what she gets away with because you look so sweet and innocent?
TAYLOR: I don't know what makes you think Octavia is sweet and innocent.
SPENCER: Tate, just for the record, is squinting his eyes and making a face.
TAYLOR: Sweet and innocent face?
SPENCER: He's right; I do have a sweet and innocent face.
TAYLOR: I'd say sinister, but then again, we've been roommates for 10 years.
So, are you two always this combative?
SPENCER: We're family. I think our relationship has transcended the regular friendship. We have now gone into the point of no return, where we are family. And with family, you take the good days, you take the bad days and you just understand you're going to have those. And that's how friendships evolve. So I'm very glad that we're at that stage.
Octavia, why do you think so many people walk away from "The Help" madly in love with Minny?
SPENCER: I hope the reason people like Minny, and the reason I like her, is because she is basically the Greek chorus. She says what everyone else is thinking. And there is always a cause for humor when you have a person who can comment so effortlessly.
Octavia, you're from the south (Alabama), but you're obviously much too young to have lived through the turbulent 1960s. Were you shocked by the way blacks were treated back then?
SPENCER: I think I'm always shocked by the atrocities that humans act out against each other. However, because I am a product of the South, I think the strides we've made as a people - as Southern people - are definitely evident because we have our first African-American president in the White House. So some white people somewhere had to vote for him.
Tate, you filmed on location in your native Mississippi. Did you receive any backlash from the old-guard residents?
TAYLOR: What I found really interesting is that the book was really loved by the people down there. Of course, there were some of the old guard who wanted to say that it didn't happen, which is understandable. But what I'm most proud of as a Mississippian is that when we did come there to film it, the people really lived up to the reputation of Mississippi being the hospitality state.
And I had to have some serious conversations with some power players - the University of Mississippi, I had to get permission to use their name in the film, and even the Junior League of Jackson - and ultimately they all said, "You know what, we're different now than we were then, and to celebrate where you're going, it's nice to see where you started. It all happened. So let's just tell it the way it is.'
A lot of black people have been critical of both the movie and the novel because it doesn't take a realistic enough view of the Jim Crow era in the South. What do you say to them?
SPENCER: I don't think you'll ever temper that. People are well within their rights to criticize. I don't think you'll ever be able to appease everyone, black, white - there are some white people who don't like the book and probably won't like the movie. But what we hope will happen is that there will be a middle ground that people will at least have a dialogue like we're having now.
TAYLOR: A lot of the criticism we have found comes from people who more often than not, never read the book. They have an idea of what they think it is, coupled with the fact that they don't know that it was written in a certain dialect. And those who have read the book and aren't happy with the movie, I don't take it too personally. I realized that anytime there's anything worth making and saying, there's someone that's not going to like it. Otherwise, it's not worth making or saying.
You and Kathryn are childhood friends from the South who've both achieved success. Do you think of yourselves as the 21st century version of Truman Capote and Harper Lee?
TAYLOR: Hopefully, Kathryn writes her next book and doesn't disappear on me. And I just don't know if I'll ever have as good a time as Truman Capote did. I go to bed at 9 o'clock, so I don't think so. Kathryn and I really support each other and we still just look at each other - and Octavia, too - and go, ‘What is going on?' We still keep pinching ourselves when we start adding up all of who was involved with this project, all the way up to Steven Spielberg. It's like "WHAT?'
SPENCER: Yes, it's surreal.
What do you guys think about Oscar?
TAYLOR: I just want Oscar and Fred and Jennifer and Janelle to all come to the movie. Seriously, we just want the movie to do well. We're still waiting for the approval of the American public, and all we can hope for is that we get it.
The food in the movie made my mouth water. Did you all partake in the daily feasts?
TAYLOR: I gained 35 pounds.
SPENCER: I lost 16 pounds.
TAYLOR: At the end of the day, everyone had these great ideas of going and exercising after we wrapped, but some sweet person from the town of Greenwood (Miss.) would show up with bourbon and chicken and no one could say ‘no.'
And what about Minny's chicken? Was it really the best there is?
SPENCER: I just want to underscore that it was Minny's chicken. That was a lot of acting and a lot of technical work. I do not cook at home or anywhere else.
Tate, were you ever concerned that your film might slip into something superfluous like "Steel Magnolias" territory?
TAYLOR: I was not worried about it because I was in charge and wasn't going to let that happen. I love that film "Steel Magnolias," but when you're dealing with such heavy material, it needed to be its own movie with its own levels of humor and drama. And we had to be careful not to diminish any of the content.
At the screening I attended, I heard a few critics sniffling, and we all know critics don't cry.
TAYLOR: Funny you mention that. We screened it in New York a couple weeks ago, and I actually got Howard Stern to admit he cried. He had to go on his radio show and admit it. That made me so proud.