Emma Stone & Viola Davis
GT meets actresses Emma Stone and Viola Davis from our film of the year, The Help.
How much of a dual sense of responsibility do you both feel given that it’s such a well loved novel, and you’re playing such well loved characters? And on top of that, it's coming from such a deeply personal place with the director and the author?
Emma: From the very beginning I felt like there was a bit of pressure because it’s my mom’s favourite book and she made that clear. You can at least trust that your mom will be like ‘I’m so proud of you!’ I think you feel the pressure and responsibility when it’s a beloved book, and you love it too...Then you have to put that aside and play the character in the best way you know how and do what you need to do to bring the character to life and not worry about the millions of people who are wading in saying ‘What actress should play Aibileen?’
There’s almost a burden of representation on you in a sense because there are really really big issues being discussed here. It’s a bit of a minefield navigating a story where the protagonist is a white girl in a situation like this. You know some people are going to have their knives out when they hear that that’s the case and indeed I’ve read some critical responses where people didn’t understand that. I was wondering what your response would be to that and what you felt about, the subject but not the protagonist in all that.
Viola: I kind of felt like the protagonist... but I don’t know. I kind of felt an incredible sense of responsibility to the African-American community. I felt there was going to be a huge backlash playing a maid in 1960s Mississippi during the civil rights movements. It’s usually a role that carries a lot of stigma to it, though, I was very reluctant to sign on it I have to admit – very, very, very reluctant. But I also I know I’m on the front lines as far as being a black actress in Hollywood is concerned. I read the scripts, I get them. I know what’s out there. Therefore I can look at Aibileen and say it’s a great role. Other people look at it from the outside and they have criticisms or whatever but they don’t know what I know. Which is: I am given an extraordinary number of urban crack mothers even by black writers and black directors. So at the end of the day, I had to weight it all in terms of my sensibility as an actress and as a human being. I had to know a good story when I see one, I know a great character when I see one. Aibileen is a great character and I saw beyond the fact she was a domestic and I saw the human being and the human being behind the uniform was very rich. I went on a journey with her and I’m sorry: it’s a lead role for a black actress in Hollywood. You’re not going to see that that often. You certainly didn’t see it a year before, the last time you saw it was with Precious. And before that, I don’t know when. It was too much of an opportunity to pass down.
E: For me, the political part about being an actor is very tough. To sit here and tell you why you should feel this way or that way about my character is not my responsibility. It feels like the responsibility of the writer. It’s like learning this kind process of telling you why you shouldn’t see Skeeter this way. Or you’re coming in with judgement of her being taken as this white character who’s this way or that way. I’m just focussed on playing a character to the best of my ability. I didn’t see Skeeter that way as a reader, I didn’t see Skeeter that way as an actor, but I can’t tell the audience how to feel. I can’t tell reviewers how to feel and that’s something Viola’s pointed out: as an actor you just have to think about the truth of your character. You have to think about how to play the character in the way that you know it needs to be played in your heart, as why you were hired. So it’s hard for me to sit here and say: See Skeeter this way, or see Skeeter that way and it’s hard for me to fight for it because I didn’t write the character.
It seems to me it speaks for itself but some people don’t see it.
V: Right, and some people don’t see it. Race in the 60s is a very sensitive topic in America. There are some things that are very sensitive to me. I remember one time an actress friend of mine, she auditioned for a role in a play and she didn’t get the role. And then it was on Broadway and a very good actress was playing the role. And she said ‘I’m not going to see the play because I’m not going to be objective.’ And I thought that was an incredibly mature response. My whole thing was if you’re not going to be objective, then don’t see it. Don’t see it, don’t look at it, don’t come anywhere near it. Sometimes things are just too sensitive and too close to you. In my opinion, it’s a collaborative process and the audience is a part of the collaboration and in my opinion if you come in with anger and with attitude then you’re not apart of the collaboration, then whatever I’m doing on screen it’s for naught.
How has racism changed and how has it manifested itself in Hollywood?
V: Hollywood is not a politically correct place. It’s probably more politically correct in other places and other institutions but it’s about making money and making movies. That’s what it’s about, you know? It’s about putting a lot of 6-pack ab men. You know, women who are over 40, they can just...As soon as you hit over 40 you can see a true shift in your career as a woman. And so, racism? Absolutely. You know, if you don’t have to have international appeal – and a lot of the time black and black storylines don’t have international appeal. And frankly, I’m sure all of you are very lovely people, do not take this personally, that’s also on you. Because that’s why even Tyler Perry films, a lot of films that are predominantly black do not do well as a foreign market. And so, therefore, you send a very direct message to Hollywood that those movies are not going to be successful and therefore shouldn’t be made. And when people say ‘Why aren’t black actors in movies?’ Well, because you don’t see those movies as having broad appeal. I think Something New, which was a very good script, an actress named Sinhali and Blaire Underwood, which was a very good script, good movie. I think it did $1500 overseas. $1500! So, yeah, it still exists.
E: Everything seems to be become increasingly stereotypical now, and increasingly watered down as time goes on. And people get movies from the 70s...both of our favourite movies are a film called Network that would never be made now. It just wouldn’t be made. You don’t wanna call people up on their crap. You’re sitting in this little room looking at the TV and that’s what you believe. You don’t want to hear that anymore, you want to hear that it’s important. That it’s important to read your websites and it’s important to watch your TV shows and it’s important to stay in your own little world and escape. This is the stuff you don’t want to hear or you don’t want to be confronted with. And so, explosions are fun to watch, and I’m not saying that’s bad, that’s great. I love to watch explosions, I love my websites, I love my TV. But I think that we also need to face the fact that we’re afraid to face ourselves a lot of the time. And that’s why a lot of this isn’t happening.
Would you say Hollywood was getting more and more conservative?
E: There’s so much censorship, it’s insane. I mean I’ve experienced so much censorship, even in comedy. In the sense of not being able to curse or cover something. I mean I saw Fast Times at Ridgemont High for the first time and that movie would never be made now. A fifteen year old having sex with a thirty year old. You would never see that in a movie now and that was 25 years ago. It’s just increasingly, increasingly, you take an R rated movie and you make it PG-13. There’s not as much censorship on the BBC, I know that. Or if you go to Canada, things aren’t blurred. But in the states everything’s bleeped, blurred, cut early.
V: And it’s all about profitising. It’s all about making money so they take their cue from the audience. I’ve been a part of so many failed television shows it’s unbelievable. But they give it maybe 5 shows. After 4 or 5 shows if they don’t get the viewership, then you’re out. And it’s that, what? 18-34 year old demographic. My whole thing is that it’s the audience, like Emma said, at the end of the day.
One of the things to say in that regards, this film and Bridesmaids over the summer, which kind of changed the scope for predominantly female films. Do you think this’ll be a lasting effect or do you think they’re hot now and won’t be in six months?
E: Well, what did we have to call back to before this? You know what I mean? There’s no other reference points before this where we can go ‘How’s a female driven movie going to open’ and we can go ‘look at Sex and the City.’ Well SATC was an incredibly popular TV show so that doesn’t really...
V: And Mamma Mia...
E: Yeah! That was incredibly successful...
E: But that was a show, that was on Broadway, but that came from a book adaptation..
V: It already had an audience
E: And came from a genius mind...
V: But, transformers already had an audience. You know, as well as a lot of the chain movies. I don’t know..
E: But I think in a comedic sense and in a dramatic sense those two movies, especially Bridesmaids, are going to become reference points. Which is fantastic because there aren’t many reference points, before this point.
The Help has also gotten a big gay audience in the states. Have you noticed that at all? Is there anyone you would serve one of Minnie’s pies to?
E: I think a lot of gay people in the US are facing a ton of inequality right now so that was a major reference point for me in gaining knowledge in this time period to see a present example of people that are American citizens that are not being treated equally.
V: Mmm hmm
E: So, I think that is also a resonant point.
V: I think so too. I mean they’re fighting. They’re fighting but as far as serving a pie to anybody, they’d have to look at your poop. I don’t want do that to myself.
E: No, no pies.
Viola, you said that this movie has some great female characters and Emma you have the talent to become one of the funniest female American actresses, but why are there so few funny parts for women? And so few good character roles?
E: I think, earlier we talked about the audience, I think there’s a lot of fear with women with not looking their best all the time. I know a lot of women who prize their vanity over looking like a moron. It taking away your sex appeal. Like I think one of the reasons why we had so much fun in the movie was that we were surrounded by women and we didn’t feel the need to...
V: First of all, we all had to gain weight or Kate wasn’t into lots of make up so we didn’t have to worry about our appeal. I remember Meryl Streep saying that that was the secret to her longevity, that she never worried about her appeal to men. And sometimes I think women just think of themselves in a context to men. Hollywood is a male driven culture. From the minute you walk into the room you’re thinking about how cute you look. And I think women are dismissed if they’re not attractive by other women as well as men.
E: And that’s not just in Hollywood –
E: I think that’s general. That’s was Skeeter’s facing in this movie. She’s not considered cute so she better find something she’s good at, you know. Or how else do you think she should get married and have kids. Her mum’s constantly trying to fix her up and make her look better and that’s the goal. The idea you can’t be funny and attractive at the same time makes me...I hate that question.
Did you ever feel that Skeeter being something of an outsider is someone who fights against the common behaviour and what other people want the character to do? Have you ever felt like Skeeter fighting against something that you didn’t want to do?
E: Well, yeah. I don’t believe that anyone else necessarily cares what I do all the time. You know what I mean? I think you have to follow your own path and your own heart and not worry about what everybody else wants you to do. They should be worried about what they’re gonna do. I always kind of thought about what I wanted to do. I’m not worried about, you know, what everybody here chose to do next. I trust that you’ll figure it out on your own. I hope that people will trust that I will too.
Both of you really were part of an amazing line-up of actresses with huge variety and experiences. Is there anything you can remember you took away from your peers in this film or your collective, shared acting experience?
V: People ask us that question all the time and it always takes us a minute because we weren’t thinking about learning anything for each other. ... I was in survival mode. I certainly learned a lot from Cicely Tyson. I mean, just the dedication to her embodying every character she has ever played. Her professionalism, there’s no small roles as far as she’s concerned. Even if she no lines in a scene, she chews into it like it’s Shakespeare. I always learn something from her even though we weren’t in any scenes together. She was, you know, my inspiration growing up because I just saw black people in sitcoms. That’s one area, actually, that we accept women who are funny, is black women. I could name all 50 million black comedies: What’s Happening, 227, The Jeffersons, That’s My Mama, Baby, I’m Back. I can just pick them off. And I cannot name one – there’s probably been two black dramas on television ever. Get Christie Love and Julia. I mean, very very few. [Cicely] was the first woman I saw who just played a character. I always learn a lot from her, always.
E: I learn from every single person, all the time. I take things from every single person...soak and soak and soak and soak..
V: You steal it!
E: I feel like at this point of my life I’m able to be a sponge. React react react. . . I’m only as strong as the other person...ever. And I’m still not going to be as strong as the other person. I’m just taking in as much as I possibly can.
You said you have a lot of fun on set. Do you have any memorable outtakes that happened?
E: There’s going to be something on the DVD that’s going to be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life!
V: We already have a DVD of outtakes. Oh. My. God...
E: It was a day where Ocatvia and Viola are shooting a scene and Octavia comes running in and is like ‘Aibileen! Aibileen! Look! I’ve got this money from the book.’ And she’s running and she’s got and envelope full of money, and Viola’s just like “Yes, yes!” [director] Tate, took a stick with a big snake on it and he goes “Ssssss” across the yard, and they screamed SO loud and did you run out of your shoes?
V: Octavia ran out of her shoes.
E: Octavia ran out of her shoes!
V: I’ve only seen that in cartoons.
E: And he was rolling the entire time.
V: She didn’t even let go of the money, she just ran out of her shoes. I said ‘how did you keep the money and run out of your shoes?’
E: Oh my god, it was so funny and they run screaming so fast and it’s on film so I’m sure that’ll be on the outtakes.
Did you connect any part of the movie with your personal life?
V: Mmm hmm. Yeah, you always use yourself as an actor and my grandmother was a maid, my mother was a maid, my aunts were maids, so I understand who these women are. I mean, beyond the book, who they are, were, everyday. What they looked like. What they acted like. My grandmother was paid $25 a week for taking care of children, cleaning homes. Like I was telling another reporter, she had 18 kids of her own at home. Only 11 survived. So this is a woman who had a life that she had to leave in order to raise all these children who always remembered her for the rest of their lives. They remembered her. They wrote her letters and my grandmother lived in a house that had no running water or electricity, just an outhouse. So, I drew on that, absolutely.
The Help is released in cinemas across the UK today, 26 October.
Words: Darren Scott