The Help is a moving story about women’s friendships in the South, and its author, Kathryn Stockett, says the pivotal character of Minny—the straight-talking maid whose revenge mud pie is a dish best not eaten at all—was based on actress Octavia Spencer, who wound up creating the film role.
“Octavia doesn’t understand what a huge part she’s played in my life,” says Stockett, 42, whose friends call her Kitty. “Her very being—her mannerisms, the ways she handles things—all went into creating Minny. What an incredible gift to bring to a writer.”
The two met in 2003 in L.A. through a mutual friend who at the time was Spencer’s roommate: writer-director Tate Taylor, who grew up with Stockett in Jackson, Mississippi, the setting for The Help. “At Tate’s parties, you feel like family. Before you know it, you have 10 new best friends,” recalls Stockett.
The two women got along instantly. “She’s compassionate, strong willed. I think of her as a Steel Magnolia,” says Spencer, 39, who grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. “She can weather a storm, and she has a wicked sense of humor.”
Stockett gave birth to her daughter, Lila (who has a cameo in the film as young Skeeter), just as she was finishing the book. Before it was even published, Stockett promised film rights to Taylor. Her only request was that it be shot in Mississippi—and that the relatively unknown Spencer should play Minny.
To make that casting happen once Disney’s DreamWorks signed on, Taylor proceeded strategically. He first set out to snare rising star Emma Stone as well as such well-regarded actresses as Viola Davis, Cicely Tyson and Sissy Spacek. By the time he brought Spencer forward, the studio was happy to say yes. “I was a nervous wreck for a while,” admits Stockett. “I don’t know how this business works, but Tate does.”
When The Help was first published, Stockett invited Spencer to accompany her on a series of readings at bookstores. “Octavia took three weeks out of her life to come with me and read the parts of the African-American maids,” she recalls. “We traveled in coach, at best, and by rental car. We drove all night from Jackson to Memphis. We laughed across America.”
At one reading, Stockett was criticized for writing in the dialect and voices of Southern black women. “Octavia stood up for me, in front of her own people, and defended it,” she says. “That’s the core of our friendship. We’re watching each other’s back.”
For now, Spencer is considering new film offers, and Stockett, newly divorced from her husband, is writing her next book.
When asked to define friendship, Spencer says, “People you let in stay in. People on the periphery will stay there. A good friend is someone who will love you unconditionally. That doesn’t happen overnight. You have to experience pain and happiness with someone.”
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