When Viola Davis first read Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel “The Help,” about African-American maids in early-1960s Mississippi, she recognized Aibileen Clark, the character she would eventually play on screen. It was a moment generations in the making.
“The women in this story were like my mother, my grandmother,” says the actress. “Women born and raised in the Deep South, working in tobacco and cotton fields, taking care of their kids and other people’s kids, cleaning homes.”
Davis, one of six siblings, was born in her grandmother’s South Carolina farmhouse, but her path was far different from that proscribed for her ancestors. She grew up in Rhode Island, studied at Juilliard, and has starred on Broadway in everything from Shakespeare to Eugene O’Neill. She earned an Oscar nomination for her 2008 role in “Doubt.”
Of all the roles she’s played in 23 years of acting, Davis says Aibileen is one of the most noble.
“It’s rare to find characters that, especially if you’re an African-American actress, you can identify as a human being and not a facilitator or archetype. She went on a full journey and was intricate and subtle. She had a lot of different colors.”
Before shooting, Davis collaborated with screenwriter and director Tate Taylor to ensure the story showed Aibileen’s many layers. The two rewrote some of the voiceovers and trimmed the scene where Skeeter (Emma Stone) first asks Aibileen if she can interview her for the book she’s writing.
“We did a lot of cutting,” Davis says. “I didn’t think she would be that open to Skeeter. The racial divides were so frightening. Any black person thought to be smart, ambitious, probably would be destroyed.”
Aibileen is so guarded that Davis had to convey much of what her character was feeling without uttering a word. Wearing the costume — a plain gray uniform — gave her a visceral understanding of how completely “the help” hid their true selves every day.
The 3 1/2-month shoot in Mississippi ultimately transformed how she felt about playing a maid.
“With the African-American community, there is a stigma involved in the image of the maid in the South — uneducated, speaks in dialect. I bristle at that image, but being in Aibileen’s shoes made me feel what my relatives felt. I can’t believe that I tried to erase those images from my life for so many years. They carry a lot of pride. There was an honor that came with playing Aibileen.”