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

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.

First Published July 7, 2011

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Comments

Kaye Dickerson07.13.2011

"The Help" looking forward to this movie. Thanks for giving us a up close story on Octavia Spencer.

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