Women's Impact Report 2011: The women of 'The Help'

For actress Emma Stone, one of the most exciting things about being in “The Help” has been getting the morning email update from the film’s production company, and then waiting for co-star Octavia Spencer’s reply-to-all.

It’s usually something about her running naked and dancing in the streets,” says Stone. “She’s been getting more and more naked.”

The naked truth is that “The Help” has become one of the year’s biggest hits by defying expectations, prohibitions and rules, acting as a major showcase for actresses of color, and resolutely being that scary thing, a “woman’s movie.” Although it had the benefit of being based on a massive bestseller — Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel, inspired by her own upbringing in Jackson, Miss. — its subject matter was enough to induce qualms among all those involved in its making, from producers to talent.

“For one thing, the movie is called ‘The Help,’ ” says Viola Davis, who plays the pivotal character Aibileen Clark. “And it has black maids at the center of it, in 1961 Mississippi, during the civil rights movement. It gives a lot of people reservations, especially when it’s in the hands of Hollywood.”

It needed to be handled in a sensitive way,” agrees Holly Bario, co-president of production at DreamWorks. “We didn’t know what audience would be.” But she says after reading the screenplay by Stockett’s childhood friend, director Tate Taylor, and then meeting Stockett herself, she, Stacey Snider and other DW execs were convinced they had to do it.

There was an almost evangelical fervor behind getting the book onscreen. “The decision to make it came when we already had a full slate,” Bario recalls. “We’d met all our commitments. I mean, it came in under the wire, and there was very little expected — new director, low cost, but we said, ‘If no one sees it, we’ll still love it.’ It’s crazy!”

Is it? “I think that happens a lot, where the rules are broken and it works,” says Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays the arch villainess of “The Help,” Hilly Holbrook, whose obsession with separating the races extends to the bathroom.

“What this movie represents is when you go with your gut and make artistic choices that say, ‘This is going to contribute to it being a good movie.’ It pays off.”

So far, the film had earned back about six times its $25 million budget and held the No. 1 spot for more consecutive days than any movie since “The Sixth Sense.”

Among its other virtues, “The Help” evokes the utter conviction on the part of the viewer that the movie’s characters could never have been played by anyone else.

“That’s absolutely the biggest compliment,” says DreamWorks head of casting, Leslee Feldman, who says she and “Help” casting directors Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee (who were attached to the project before it even came to DreamWorks) “didn’t really want big movie stars; we wanted believable actresses. And almost everyone came in to read.”

Thesp Spencer has known helmer Taylor since his first feature, “Pretty Ugly People.”

It wasn’t a guarantee (of getting cast) in my mind,” laughs Spencer. “Tate had always wanted me but he wasn’t signing the checks.”

The actress’ irascible maid (and pie-baker) Minnie Jackson is a font of both comedy and anger in “The Help,”

“Minnie was, very loosely, based on me,” says Spencer, whose relationship with Stockett dates back to the novel’s origins. “The day I met Kathryn was very extreme. We were in New Orleans, I was on a diet, and it was 150 degrees. It was hot. I’d never been to New Orleans. I don’t like to be hot. Or certainly hungry. And Tate thought it would be good idea to do a walking tour of New Orleans. I was so irritable. That’s why Minnie has an edge.”

Spencer also inspired Stockett. “Before the project even got off the ground, Octavia gave me a gift, the confidence to get it done,” Stockett says. “I’d never done this before; we were used to having doors slammed in our faces,” she says of herself and her old friend Taylor. “She’s got enormous backbone.”

Spencer points to the success of “Bridesmaids” as an inspiration for Hollywood to tell more of these “types of stories, which aren’t ‘female centric’ necessarily, but appeal to a wide audience. I mean, we wouldn’t be this successful without men buying tickets, too.”

There’s an appetite for (these movies),” adds DreamWorks’ Bario, also referencing “Bridesmaids.” “They have to be well-executed, but those are brilliant jobs on both films, and they’re both directed by men.”

The idea that women’s films are a crap shoot, Bario says, “is one of those icky generalizations — you can’t make this or that, or kids movies, or movies for women. We always sort of bat these around, but the truth is that when they are well-executed, people will go.

I had no idea there were so many people here in L.A., who were really moved by the film, because they are from the South, and were raised by black maids.”

Some people inhabit the other end of that experience. “My grandmother was a domestic in Louisiana,” says costume designer Sharen Davis, whose previous work has included “Dreamgirls,” and “Ray.” “So I talked to her about it, got some professional help there. She’s 98 and loved the film. She liked the maid’s uniforms the most.”

Davis, who had to re-create the look and feel of early ’60s fashions a la Mississippi, says the book “was just like my grandmother’s life. It struck a chord with me. When I was young, I’d go to work with her sometimes and I thought I how cool it was that she wore this uniform. And the people she worked for were really nice. I didn’t realize the stigma of it ’til later.”

The delicacy of the subject matter, which was lost on no one, presented a unique challenge for the people selling it, and signaled something of a watershed in creative marketing.

“This was an old-fashioned campaign with new bells and whistles,” says Christine Birch, head of marketing at DreamWorks. “It’s been a word-of-mouth campaign for sure, but accelerated. In the old days, you would screen and screen and screen and then people would call each other and say, ‘I’ve just seen the most amazing movie.’ But now they get on Facebook and Twitter, and the impact is exponential.”

The movie did not have what Birch called the “traditional elements” that Hollywood is used to selling. “No big stars, it doesn’t take place in a contemporary period and we didn’t have a superhero,” she says. “And when I say that, you could also make the argument that the movie has a couple of superheroes. We had a branded title, of sorts, but not a branded title that would translate into the kind of box office we were hoping for.”

So they did screen and screen and screen, for groups that comprised the predictable demographics — black church groups, women’s organizations, etc. And at the same time got creative.

“We did an extraordinary promotion with Home Shopping Network,” Birch says. “They were incredibly aggressive partners with us and they supported us on the network, not just with products that were associated with the film but they allowed us to come see them and show them the film and they dedicated their company to supporting the film, even their phone operators.”

HSN, she says, felt that the movie’s appeal was to as wide an audience of women as watched their shopping channel, and diversity and unity were twin themes of the entire campaign.

“That’s how we navigated the more obvious sensitivities,” Birch says. “We always put people in the story in an empowered position — which is a strange thing to say, but there were subtle choices that we made. In the advertising, we tried to make sure the maids looked like knowing people, that they were aware that their situation was an undesirable one, rather than blithely accepting it. I would say that we always made a very concerted effort to have the women together, so it didn’t seem like one person’s story, or another person’s story.”

Says Stone, who’s now one of Hollywood’s more in-demand actresses: “It’s rare that there are so many women who are so prominent in a successful movie, and six or eight is unheard
of.

“I never really let myself have too many expectations,” she adds. “I live with a constant fear of disappointment. So I’ve recently been living in Pleasantly Surprised Land every week.”

Success has been one premium of “The Help,” sisterhood another. “This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to work with a cast of women,” says another relative newcomer, Jessica Chastain (“Tree of Life,” “The Debt”). “I tend to be the female on the set and this was such a wonderful experience, working with really talented role models of mine, such a loving place, probably the nicest set I’ve ever been on, because we all really loved and cared for each other while we were working.”

Like Davis, Chastain brought her grandmother to the movie. “I’m a huge fan of the book, of course, but my grandmother is the biggest fan of the book. I brought her to the premiere in L.A. and that meant a lot of anxiety for me, whether or not she would like it. And thank goodness she loved it.”

For the veteran Davis, who indeed had her reservations, “The Help” has been a very welcome shock.

“I never anticipated it blowing up the way it has, but I’m happy to be wrong on that end,” she says. “I feel like people want to get back to feeling something and not escaping. And that’s what good old-fashioned storytelling does. ‘The Help’ has universal themes instead of a script that targets one demographic. Like other great films, like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ classic stories work on so many fundamental levels. That’s the appeal. There’s no 3D, no CGI, no special effects. It’s just people.”

ACTRESS SNAPSHOTS

JESSICA CHASTAIN
Title: Actress
Role model: “My grandma.”
Career mantra: “Support everyone. That’s how they do their best work.”
Leisure activity: “Playing the ukulele.”
Philanthropic passion: “Preventing cruelty toward animals.”

OCTAVIA SPENCER
Title: Actress
Role model: “Powerful, intelligent, strong women.”
Career mantra: “Being true to myself means that I can persevere.”
Leisure pursuits: “Reading, writing and arithmetic!”
Philanthropic passion: “I donate time and money to several organizations whose missions are the advancement of the underprivileged.”

VIOLA DAVIS
Title: Actress
Role model: “Cicely Tyson. She made me want to be an actress. She could craft a human from whatever was on the page, beyond color, beyond being a woman. She’s always gone the extra mile.”
Career mantra: “It’s not always about you, which resonates beyond sets, beyond cameras. Life is about living a life bigger than yourself.”
Leisure pursuits: “Eating. Seriously, I’m an avid reader, hiking, cooking — the simple things in life.”
Philanthropic passion: “The Upward Bound program, which saved my life as a teenager.”

EMMA STONE
Title: Actress
Role model: “My mom.”
Career mantra: “Stay sane. Sanity first.”
Leisure pursuit: “Have been trying my hand at cooking. And reading. Books.”
Philanthropic passion: Gilda’s Club and the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation.

BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD
Title: Actress
Role model: “My parents.”
Career mantra: “Do your best.”
Leisure pursuits: “Watching movies and reading any books about child rearing or business.”
Philanthropic passion: “I try to focus moment to moment on being an aware, responsible, contributive member of society. You see trash on the ground, pick it up!”

BEHIND-THE-SCENES SNAPSHOTS

HOLLY BARIO
Title: Co-president of production, DreamWorks
Role models: “There are many women whom I admire, but my role model is Stacey Snider.”
Career mantra: “Love the things you work on totally and remember how lucky we are.”
Leisure pursuits: “Mom to my kids, catching up on TV shows I keep hearing are amazing, Fryman Canyon.”
Leisure pursuits: Milk and Bookies

CHRISTINE BIRCH
Title: Head of marketing, DreamWorks
Role model: “My parents, who made the kinds of tough choices I couldn’t even imagine.”
Career mantra: “Everything counts.”
Leisure pursuits: “Cooking, watching football, ‘Law & Order’ marathons.”
Philanthropic/political passion: None

SHAREN DAVIS
Title: Costume designer
Role model: Inspired by many costume designers and artists.
Career mantra: “The design will find you.”
Leisure pursuits: “Singing, weekend trips up the Central Coast to small towns.”
Philanthropic interests: “My charity begins at home, with family and friends, and believe me it is a full-time job.”

LESLEE FELDMAN
Title: Head of casting, DreamWorks
Role models: “All the women who paved the way for us.”
Career mantra: “Follow your gut, figure it out and get it done.”
Leisure pursuits: “Family time, yoga, movies, TV, tennis — and shopping.”
Philanthropic passions: We Advance (women in Haiti); Jenesse Center in south-central L.A.; Young Angels of America

KATHRYN STOCKETT
Title: Novelist
Role model: “A cross between Michelle Obama, my publisher, Amy Einhorn, and playwright Beth Henley. I guess that would make her black, Southern and Jewish — a powerful cocktail in my opinion.”
Career mantra: “Don’t give up.”
Leisure pursuits: “Writing. Hell, I don’t even get out of my PJs to go to work.”
Philanthropic passion: “Our public schools. I love them. I wish more people supported them.”

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