Octavia Spencer and Tate Taylor

Round 2 of our exclusive interviews with cast members from The Help, this time we talk to Octavia Spencer and Tate Taylor.

Octavia, how does it feel to have a character written for you, or inspired by you?

Octavia: Very flattering, you know? It’s one of those things...then you have to live up to it. Yeah, Minny’s a great, very complex character. I’m happy that I had the opportunity to play her and, of course, under these circumstances, with a good friend and now a person who’s become a good friend, her material. So that was pretty wonderful.

When she first appeared in print did you ever imagine you would play her? It took Tate to battle you into it, didn’t it?

O: One hoped, but it wasn’t one of those things that I...well yeah I did, I’m gonna lie if I say I wasn’t invested emotionally. I hoped but I’m really glad that I did. I’m really glad that I did.

T: People also don’t realise that I fought for her too, because it benefited me in many ways. The more of these women that I knew and trusted and loved that were in my corner, that was one less thing I had to worry about. I knew how talented she was. But, can you imagine if anyone else had been Minny? And we didn’t have a relationship? It could have been really taxing...

Why did it take so long for the studios to produce this movie?
It also took a long time for the book to be published, why do you think that was?

T: The studios, other than Dreamworks, didn’t want to produce it because I insisted on directing it. That’s the answer pure and simple and I can’t say that I blame them. You know, on paper, you just don’t let someone with limited experience, such as myself, go down there with a pile of money and start making a complicated ensemble piece. In the Hollywood economics and the business model I’m not a sure-fire hit. So, I was the reason and it only took me being stubborn and Dreamworks studios, being really cool, said ‘You know what? Let’s give it a shot’. But that’s what took so long. As far as the book goes, I think the reason why it took a while for the book to get published kind of mirrors any of the negative press or criticisms that the movie and her books gotten. It’s often from people who have not read it or seen it, and they make an assumption what it’s going to be based on some little log line. And I’m sure when Kathryn finally got publishing representation then the tastemakers, power-players said ‘What is this? Civil rights...maids...nope!’ That’s probably what it is, and it took the 60th person to read, to finally open her book and say: ‘oh! That’s the backdrop, and these women just happened to be maids’ These are really dynamic characters, who you can learn from and enjoy being with. I think that’s what happened. We’re all guilty of it: Whenever I hear a movie or say ‘What’s it about?’ If I someone doesn’t tell me in the way I want to hear it, and I hear a negative, I’m not going to go.

Octavia, you’re up there with the gays for being in Ugly Betty, have you both noticed a big gay following. In America, as far as I can tell, it’s got a big gay following now. Have you been aware of that?

O: I think that there is a huge following because gays understand what it’s like to be discriminated against. Especially in our country right now, they’re fighting for their civil right to get married. So there’s a huge following I think because there are so many people who knows what it feels like to be the underdog. And perhaps that’s why. But I do a rousing showtune at the end of the movie and maybe that’s it.

T: you really don’t think it has anything to do with the height of the hair, the dresses.

O: It’s fashion! But I do think it’s they understand what it’s like to be discriminated against.

Do you think we’re going to get a lot of Help drag queens?

O: Now that would be a Halloween! That’s gonna be interesting. There’s gonna be a lot of Hilly’s because you can be pretty and bitchy. That would be interesting, I can’t wait to see.

T: Are you playing in the world of drag queen?

D: | have.

T: How does it look, does it work?

D: It’s alright...

T: I don’t see it really!

O: I think it’s about the glamour of that era with those women, especially if you’re thin, because those dresses look amazing on thin bodies. It’ll be interesting to see though... now you’ve got me curious.

Also, is there anybody you would serve one of Minny’s pies to?

O: We finally came up with Hitler yesterday, or the day before.

T: That’s the easy answer because they wanted current people that we know, but I’m not naming them!

O: I don’t know anybody!

T: Hell yeah! I know some people...

O: Well yeah, there are some people...I don’t know because I would want them to know that they’re eating a Minny pie, but that means they wouldn’t eat it.

Looking at the movie, it’s about different forms of direct action, right? The one bit of direct action that sits a little uncomfortably with me is the pie. Is it right to do that? What’s the morality of this decision?

O: No, she’s not right to do it. Definitely not right to do it. But did it feel good in that moment? I’m sure it did. It’s one of those things that you could tell she felt remorse about. And re-telling it to Skeeter and Aibileen she said 'I swore I’d never speak of it again and ask God to forgive me' But there’s remorse because of the consequences that it could have meant for her family but obviously the consequences it meant for Mrs. Walters because she was put into a home. So no, Minny wasn’t right for doing that. Unadulterated food is the way to go, anything dealing with crossing that line, especially when that’s your profession, is not good. But, off the record, I’m really glad she did.

This is a film about courageous women, amongst other things. What was it like to be a courageous woman in that group of such talented actresses? And what is it like to make a movie about?

T: Well, I’m not a courageous woman... Not to take anything away from what you’ve just said, I just don’t, as a storyteller and a writer: a) I don’t really think about the sex of the character and b) I always tend to write female characters. As much as I try to have a male character and did in certain points of the script, it’s just flat. Something’s missing and if you make it into a female they have so many more challenges, they wear so many more different hats. Everything’s, in many ways, tougher. And it just always makes it more interesting. I’m writing another script right now and it’s all female leads. Having such a love of the female character, and I love women.

O: And I guess, all I know are really strong women. And for me it’s just part of my DNA. That’s all I know, are strong women. All I know, really, are strong people. I think we’re all wounded in whatever way.

T: We’ve all got to be strong.

O: Absolutely. You’ve got to be very strong. I think maybe the challenge will be to play someone who’s not strong. Actually, Minny is, in a lot of ways, this dichotomy. Because to the outside world she’s very strong, in her own home she’s not. I think the strength lies in Aibileen, you know. I think she is a very strong character. She’s strong throughout. I don’t know, really.

Have you noticed your profiles are rising now that The Help has been so commercially successful? Would it be easier to get the next film made with the cast of your choosing?

T: Yeah, what I’m noticing now is that I’m... It’s funny, you get asked to kind of be in this club. And I’d have expected that there’d be all of this rich material for the picking and there’s not... there just isn’t. That’s what’s really shocking. It’s true, there’s just not a lot of great material out there. So, that’s why I’m glad I like to write. I’m glad I like to create my own. I thought it would be easier just because I’m having more opportunities to meet some people but the bottom line is people need material. And it doesn’t matter if you have a successful film, it doesn’t make great material materialise. It’s been great and it’s been so fun seeing her. She’s my friend, we’ve been struggling forever .

O: We’ve had chicken so many ways!

T: We were laughing to each other about how we’ve loaned each other the same $600. It’s been great to see it, it’s been fun and rewarding.

I wanted to ask about a couple of particularly interesting shots in the movie. One that’s ended up being echoed in the poster and the book cover where we see the women organised as they’re coming out in a row and how you plot that with them and who was where is interesting to me. Another one is when we first see all of the women together in the house, and the framing is very interesting because they go beyond the edges of the face. So, if you could talk a little from the director’s point of view...

T: First, let me say Steven Goldblatt, my DP, was the most integral part to this film. We had such a great relationship and usually it can be kind of sketchy with a younger filmmaker and an established, award winning DP. But we’re best friends now, we talked on the phone this morning. His mother was at the premier last night and called her out and she’s stood up. What was really really healthy about that is I really really wanted to focus, when I told Steven when we began working together, I had written this and with an ensemble like this things had to change and I had to write every night. I mean, because of these amazing women I would shoot a scene and then I would look at what we were doing the next day and based on their performance I would have to re-write the scene because there were things I didn’t need anymore. That being said, I’m giving you a long answer to this. I focussed really solely on my writing and I told Steve: ‘this is what I want to work with you on: I want Mississippi to be as much in every frame as possible'.
So with that, I wanted as much movement as possible without it feeling like television. So when I had the idea that I wanted them to exit the house, that was for movement but also I wanted Mississippi. I wanted Mississippi to be outside that home, seeing where Hilly Holbrook lives and I want to see Mississippi outside. I wanted to see Minny go from the inside Mississippi to the outside Mississippi, see the cars, see the houses all around us. And as far as staging goes, in Aibileens house I wanted it to feel like there were maids, perhaps, still in her bedroom. I wanted the house to feel like it was more Pat than it was, because I wanted it to feel like that. I wanted you to think ‘Oh my God, there’s women in the kitchen and there’s women still walking around’ and that’s why we did it that way.

The Help is in cinemas across the UK now.

Words: Darren Scott