Based on Kathryn Stockett's dramatic novel, The Help, Disney's new film depicts the civil rights movement in the '60s, with a young white girl interviewing the maid to get her take on how she's treated. Buzzine sat down with Emma Stone and Viola Davis to talk about how they got into their characters and nailed the accents, working on comedies versus dramas, and the current problems that still exist in our culture today.
Izumi Hasegawa: You have wanted to option the book before...
Viola Davis: Yeah. I can't believe I even had that idea, that I wanted to option that book.
IH: Why did you want to option it? What appealed to you?
VD: Because the number of roles it would mean for black actresses. I wanted to be the heroine, the savior of my people! [Laughs] So that was it. I said, "Oh, it's a lot of roles for black actresses. I could produce it, I could do this..." I don't know what I was thinking. Tate [Taylor] already had it for over a year.
IH: Did Aibileen appeal to you right away? Did you feel like you wanted to play her, or did Minny appeal to you at all?
VD: Yes, Aibileen did appeal to me, but only if it were written right. All the characters are right at the cusp. If they're not handled properly, it could be total stereotypes. Everyone from Celia to Minny to Aibileen, so only if it were written right. I thought, if it's written right, I could play this role, but that's it. So it was with that huge stipulation on it.
IH: What was the key to finding the truth for your character? What was the research process, and what was the most surprising thing you learned?
Emma Stone: I was lucky, in a way, because Skeeter is a relatively modern woman with the kind of goals that I had in my life -- having her own career and not necessarily wanting to get married and have kids at 22. I'm 22 now, so I could relate to her in that way. In terms of relating to that time period, she felt a bit different than her peers, but learning. It was the other things -- it was learning about that period and how limited my knowledge was, and getting to realize that Skeeter's knowledge was actually also relatively limited, and she learned so much as that process goes on. Tate gave us Eyes on the Prize, which I had never seen, which was an incredible documentary series. And reading about Jim Crow laws, and reading about Mississippi in the early 1960s...and the dialect. That alone was a huge part of the process. When I'm with actors now who are from different countries or have different accents, I'm like, "How do you...? Is it constantly...?" It's like you have this filter in your head. You gotta go through that, and it's such an interesting addition to the process. It's wild.
IH: Did you stay in the dialect the whole time?
ES: No, I didn't stay in the dialect the whole time, but I can understand why people do...
VD: It's like patting your head and rubbing your stomach.
ES: You're trying to get to a point, and then you're like, "Ah, I got it," and it's got to have this on top of it!
IH: You have dealt with entertainment reporters a lot in your own careers, but did the character of Skeeter show you a different side of the job and how it could actually be a great thing if done the right way?
ES: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to go to school for journalism. I've always seen why journalism can be a great thing. I think that was another reason why it was exciting to play Skeeter: "Ah, I get to be a journalist, that's fantastic!" I grew up loving Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe -- that's the stuff I read. I just thought it was incredible. Sorry if I'm a big journalist fan, because I think we do something very similar, which is looking at people: we read scripts, you interview people, and we break them down and try to get these points across or get these parts across, and we both have a lot of interest in humanity and what makes people tick and the psychology of human beings. We're not so different, you and I.
IH: Many actors freak out about talking with journalists because of the tabloid culture. They think we're going to write something bad...
ES: And some do, just like some actors do parts because they get to wear a bikini and look sexy. There are also actors that have a different mentality.
VD: Yeah, some actors who bastardize a profession.
ES: And some writers who do, but I think there are so many writers that want to know why do you do what you do. Because you're interested, because you want to know more, because you love movies just like we love movies! I think a lot of the time, we're here for the same reason.
VD: It's a noble profession, you journalists.
IH: How was your experience, and what did you learn through doing this project?
ES: I learned a huge amount. In terms of life experience, I highly doubt I ever would have lived for three months in Greenwood, Mississippi and gotten to know people in a town like that, and seeing what that part of America is like. There are a lot of interesting facets to our job in that you get to be paid to enter a different life and to enter a different mindset of your character, and to learn about the history of that time or of what you're playing, or learn new skills. I've learned to shoot guns for other movies, and in this, I got to learn about a part of history that was incredibly important and hugely informative to where we are now, and it's still being struggled with now. The way it helped me to grow as a person is irreplaceable, and I'm so grateful for the experience, just on that alone, and friendships that we made and the fun we had. It was just an incredible summer; it was a wonderful memory.
IH: Viola, you're great in everything I've seen you in. You have a commanding presence and you bring a lot of emotion through your facial expressions. What is it that you go through when it comes to developing your character and when you're on screen? Do you have some special process?
VD: I do. Theater geek, acting training, school, the bios, finding out the need of the character and all of that stuff. But I will give myself one compliment, which I never do, which is that I've lived my life. I grew up in Central Falls, Rhode Island -- a very, very small town, one square mile, 18,000 people, smaller than Greenwood but just as many people -- and I grew up in abject poverty, and I feel that one of the things that I benefited from growing up with poverty is that people, when you grow up poor, don't have filters. Nobody is really trying to keep up with the Joneses, because how can you keep up with the Joneses when you're living on a second-floor apartment? I know what you do behind closed doors because everybody can hear you through the thin walls, so everybody is absolutely who they are. It's a ripe ground for observation, it's a ripe ground for an artist, so I've seen a lot, I've experienced a lot, and therefore I bring it to every experience. That's not the case with a lot of actors. What they do is, especially if you're good, you're always working, so you live in a kind of incubator. So what you do is you intellectualize experiences. That's what you do, and I'm telling you, it still works, because they look at it on screen, they'll swear it's the truth. Especially if they're entertained by it. For me, I know the truth. For me, that's what I bring to a character -- everything. Some things I lost, some battles I lost, but for me, one of the things I couldn't even understand, even in the book. But even though I loved the book, everybody had a phone. That's one thing I didn't understand; probably 95% of the homes in Jackson, Mississippi in the poor neighborhoods were substandard, people live in poverty, they don't have phones. Phone is the first thing that goes. Now some people may have a phone, but in this book, everybody had a phone. Even Minny had a phone. See, the way I work is, in everything -- in behavior and whatever -- is, okay, you may want me to do that because it may look good, but I know that's not the truth. I know that is not. So I think that's what I do. That's the approach I have with every character, every situation.
IH: I couldn't get over it when you called Hilly a "godless woman." It's so strong. How did you feel in that moment, and what did you do to prepare for that?
VD: That last scene was why me and Tate got into mini-battles. For me...just to be completely vulnerable with you for a moment, which I never do with journalists -- I always feel like the quiet character always gets the crappiest end of the stick. I always feel like the flashiest character, whatever, always gets the attention, so that's why when you asked me which character I wanted to play, I really wanted to play Aibileen because I love the quiet characters, but I always think they're the underdog. Always. Because they're not in your face, they take more work for the audience to get in, so for me, the only way a quiet character can pay off is if they explode. If throughout the movie you don't know what they're thinking, what's going on, and it's boiling, then there's got to be a release, for me personally. So at that moment, I said it needs something else. I've got to call Hilly out. It's got to be something about her character that I strip away, not just "Screw you, you can kiss my behind." It's something else, and I asked Bryce Dallas Howard, who is the sweetest girl, by the way... So I said, "What could I say to you that would just tear you apart, that would just take that mask off? What if I called you godless?" She said, "Oh, that does it." I said, "Okay." So that's how I discovered it.
IH: I remember when "The Rocker" came out, you were talking about your appreciation of Gilda Radner and doing sketch comedy when you were a little kid. I was so excited for you when you got to host Saturday Night Live. Was it everything you hoped for?
ES: Yeah. It was the best thing in my life.
IH: Are we going to see you back in comedy, or is it all dramas?
ES: Oh no, oh God, no, no, no, sketch comedy is my theater. I just love it. More than anything in the whole world, it makes me so happy. Saturday Night Live is...literally, I'm coasting from that experience. I have no other goal -- that was it. It's just all gravy from here, like nothing could ever be bad again. Absolutely, I should be so lucky to continue to get to do anything along the lines of comedy. It's just so amazing to have an opportunity to do anything that you love and that you're passionate about, whether it falls under the comedy or the drama umbrella, whether it's a movie or a play or hosting a variety show. I'm just incredibly grateful to be in any of those circumstances where I feel lucky to be a part of something.
IH: This and Easy A both had a theme of the hypocritical side of Christianity. Was there something about those themes that appealed to you in some way? Do you have any statements on faith?
ES: I won't comment on faith in general; it is a personal question. I think that hypocrisy always interests me -- saying something so strongly and believing differently, or backing up on your words -- that always appeals to me, maybe from my upbringing, maybe from things I saw or things I experienced in terms of being hypocritical at times that I've been hypocritical. I think it's a huge part of human nature, and I think that's definitely something that's interesting to me.
IH: How do you stay grounded in the middle of all your success? How do you keep out of the tabloids?
ES: No one is really following me all that much, so I keep out of tabloids just basically because they don't care about me.
IH: In the beginning of the movie, the editor asks you to write about something that disturbs you that no one else is disturbed by, and change factors into that. If you were told you need to write that book today, what would you write it about?
ES: Addiction to notoriety? A culture addicted to escapism and avoiding some truths. I think we're in the middle of another huge civil rights movement right now. There's a lot, but I think a lot of people are disturbed by this stuff.
VD: All the –isms. Some classism, racism, sexism -- there's never any honest discourse about it because, even talking to you, it's like, before you get to the table, you feel like there are so many things that you just don't go there. When you have any honest discourse, especially if it's going to change your world, you can't have any filters. People have got to be able to adjust, let loose -- that's all the –isms, and we really have it in our business.
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures' 'The Help' is released on August 10, 2011.