When it came to playing forthright housemaid Minny Jackson in “The Help,” Octavia Spencer had the say-it-like-it-is parts down, since the Montgomery, Ala., native’s personality inspired author Kathryn Stockett to write the character in the first place.
“I can definitely be animated and opinionated,” says Spencer about the traits she shares with Minny. “Yet there is so much more to her than I could ever be. One of the things I love about Minny is that she never wants people to see her vulnerability. And me, I’m always vulnerable.”
An accomplished bit-part crusher for over a decade in Hollywood, Spencer chose to work with an acting coach to help her build a role over the course of an entire film.
“I had to find the places to let that vulnerability ease out, because otherwise she just would have been one note throughout the film,” Spencer says. “That would have been a very hard note to maintain, or watch constantly.”
In preparation for the ’60s-set drama, she researched the lives of many civil rights figures who lived in Mississippi, where the story is set.
“I watched the documentary ‘Eyes on the Prize,’ and they used a lot of newsreel footage, so you were transported through time,” she explains. “You were there.”
Helping matters greatly was the fact that director-screenwriter Tate Taylor is Spencer’s longtime friend. Taylor, in fact, introduced Spencer to Stockett.
“It’s a good thing to work with someone you know well, who knows what buttons to push, and how to get certain responses,” says Spencer. “I’m grateful, because there were areas I didn’t want to go emotionally and he knew how to get me there.”
Though she says the easiest day of shooting was when Minny was strictly in duties mode — pouring coffee for a benefit scene in which the dialogue all went to the white characters — it was also an essential day in terms of understanding her character, too.
“We just had to exist in the scene, and it sort of put me in the emotional mindset of being invisible and serving, being a facilitator of someone else’s life,” says Spencer. “It grounded me in the reality of what my character did on a daily basis.”