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.

First Published July 7, 2011

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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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