The Woman Who Inspired 'The Help's' Feisty, Pie-Baking Maid, Minny

If the role seems written for actress Octavia Spencer, that's because it was  

By Susan Toepfer
octavia spencer image
Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe

One of the most anticipated movies of 2011, The Help, finally arrives August 10, with a true story of friendship behind it: Author Kathryn Stockett not only relied on her childhood chum, Tate Taylor, to write and direct the film, but based one of her book’s most memorable characters, Minny Jackson, on their mutual friend, actress Octavia Spencer. When it came time to cast the part, what better choice to play her? Spencer spoke to More about this story of African-American maids enduring the indignities of the segregated ‘60s in Jackson, Mississippi.

More: First, Octavia, congratulations! The movie is so well done and your performance is so strong. You must be very happy.
Octavia Spencer: I’m very happy—with everybody else. But it’s hard to watch yourself. Other people watch the performance, but I’m watching facial expressions, thinking, Why did I do that?

More: Well, I read the book, and to me, you really captured Minny, who is such a pivotal character. And there’s an interesting story to how you got the part.
O.S.: Yes, it’s unusual. The director, Tate Taylor, is one of my closest friends,and also Brunson Green, one of the producers—I’ve known them both for 15 years and done four or five projects with them. Tate always told us about growing up with Kitty [Kathryn Stockett], so he decided to have us all meet in New Orleans maybe six years ago. Kitty told me back then that she wanted to write a book. Six years later, she said she’d finished it and had very loosely based one of the characters on me. So I had to read it!

When I got the novel, it was as thick as a phone book, and I’m an avid reader, but still…But I thought it was really wonderful and when it was published, she asked me to go on the road with her when she did her readings. I also did the book on tape. So that solidified in Tate’s mind that he wanted me to play the role. Of course, then we had to convince the studio.

More: How much of Minny is you? Which parts of the character?
O.S.: Really only two things—her size and her sharp tongue. Kitty needed Minny to be a stark contrast to Abileen, who is so poised.

More: Had you worked with Viola Davis, who plays Abileen, before?
O.S.: I did a TV show called City of Angels a long time ago, and she was also in it, but I never had any scenes with her, so I didn’t know her very well. It’s amazing—now she’s one of my best friends. We talk every other day. And Jessica Chastain [who plays the ostracized white wife, Celia Foote]—we talk via email or text all the time. So I came out of this really well, with some really good friends.

More: I just saw Jessica in Tree of Life, and she is so beautiful, and yet she looks completely different in The Help. Beautiful in both, but in different ways.
O.S.: Completely different. She can do anything. In Tree of Life, she’s so simple and sweet, and in The Help, this sexy look. And then, for me, getting to work with Viola, who’s up there with Meryl Streep! Sissy Spacek is another one of my idols.

More: Did you ever see a Sissy Spacek movie called The Long Walk Home, about the Montgomery bus strike? Whoopi Goldberg was in it, too.
O.S.: I worked on Long Walk as an intern!

More: How in the world did you get that? How old were you?
I pestered those people! No way a movie with Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek was going to be filmed in that town, the town I lived in, and I wouldn’t be a part of it. I was 16 and yes, I was aggressive, because I always wanted to work in the film industry. But my mom was very practical, so I held it in, my desire to be a performer.

More: You grew up in Montgomery, so you must have brought a Southern black woman’s experience to The Help.
O.S.: I guess I had a unique childhood, because that Alabama and Mississipp, the society you see in Long Walk and The Help, was so not the way I grew up in Alabama in the ‘70s—or maybe my mother kept us in a bubble. It was never my reality, so I had to do a lot of research to get to know that way of life.

More: Were there any maids in your family, older relatives who lived that way?
O.S.: I’m sure I had maids in the family, but I wanted to have a perspective based on the reality of the times. When we were growing up, my mom had us watch Eyes on the Prize, the documentary about the Civil Rights years. I spent a lot of time with [slain Civil Rights leader] Medgar Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams. It was a privilege to talk to her. I watched news footage, documentaries. It was a very interesting mindset to observe, and a difficult one to go into and out of, so I stayed in that mindset the whole time I was filming.

More: Minny is such a multileveled character. On one hand, she’s a rebel, the wild child of the group. But she’s also an abused wife struggling to hold her family together. And she’s a social commentator, the character who seems to sum up the social situation most clearly. How did you come to grips with her?
O.S.: I worked with an acting coach. I wanted to make sure that everything that was in the book, which they can’t write on screen, would translate. In the book, we have the luxury of knowing Minny’s thoughts. You don’t have that luxury when you’re on screen, so I needed to do a lot of face acting to convey what I was thinking. I also really worked with the actors in the scenes, so we worked off each other.

More: It’s great ensemble work.
O.S.: It was a powerful, powerful group of women and a powerful story. There were no egos. None. The movie was every actor’s dream.

More: I thought they handled the spousal abuse very well. You know Minny is abused, but they don’t dwell on it.
O.S.: I’m glad they don’t dwell on it—I’m afraid of being hit! No, there’s so much in the book, it’s a dense book to bring to the screen, so I think to touch on it a little bit was enough to show that Minny has so much going on in her life. Going to work at Celia’s was a great escape to her. Also, the abuse brings her relationships more into focus, Celia with Minny, Minny with Abileen, Minny with her kids…all her relationships work, except the one with her husband.

I did a lot of research on battered women. One thing I noticed about Minny is that she would never allow herself to be seen as a victim. That’s why so many women keep silent. They don’t want your pity. Celia crosses those lines, calls Minny on it, and that’s one of those times you see the bare bones of who Minny is. Abileen knows who she is, but she never calls her on it, because she knows she shouldn’t.

More: What’s the key to Minny and Abileen’s relationship?
O.S.: They are both in need of something. Minny is a little bit younger. Abileen doesn’t have living children, doesn’t have a family around her. They represent a kinship, a sistership. Both are going through a lot of injustice. They have so many things in common, and they are both very spiritual women. The ironic thing is that Minny and Celia have little in common on the surface, but then you realize Celia was probably an abused child, and that she’s a fighter.

More: There’s a new play by Lynn Nottage that just had a short Off-Broadway run, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, about African-American actresses in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when they were relegated to playing maids and slaves. So there’s a certain irony here, that The Helpis about maids, but they are the central, complicated roles.
O.S.: I heard about Vera Stark, and I wanted to see it, but I only had two days in New York. But I’m glad you make that point. I think that at first blush, people think, oh, it’s about maids, they’re subordinate, subservient, what is new about this story? This project is from the maids’ perspective and they get to speak out in a way we’ve never seen. So it’s a fresh take on an old subject.

More: What is your dream role?
O.S. I just played it. I don’t know that I’ll ever pass this way again. Getting to work with my dear friends, and these actresses, and then to play a character who has so many levels, with that supporting cast. It was a very family-oriented set. But everyone had her own journey, so we bonded with the actresses we had scenes with.

More: Did you bond with Sissy Spacek, too?
O.S.: She is a dream. I talk to her once every couple weeks. She’s so amazing. She was wearing these sandals from J. Crew, and I said, Oh my God, I love those. She said, I’ll see if I can find them for you. I gave her my size, and the next week she sent them to me in every color!

More: In The Help, Minny’s the best cook in town. Do you cook?
O.S.: Kathryn certainly didn’t base the cooking part on me! I can’t cook to save my life. I have a friend who’s teaching me. But Kathryn and Tate both trained as chefs. Tate didn’t understand why I was so panicked, why I needed to know just what I was cooking. And he and I lived together for three years, we were roommates, so he had to know I don’t cook.

More: Do you think anyone will ever eat a mud pie again after watching the movie?
O.S.: I hope so. I enjoy eating them. It’s just one of the strangest revenge schemes ever. I’m just worried people will go to me, “Are you bringing mud pie?”

More: What’s next for you?
O.S.: Right now, I’m working with Viola developing some stuff, and I did a play that was brought to the screen, The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife. It will be released next March.

More: And personally? Are you married? Any kids?
O.S.: I’m not married. I don’t have any kids. I’m maybe looking to get married, but kids, maybe not. I love being an aunt. I’m a great aunt.

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First Published Thu, 2011-07-07 17:05

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