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Octavia Spencer: You Can't 'Help' But Feel This Film

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Octavia Spencer: You Can't 'Help' But Feel This Film

Movie Interviews

Octavia Spencer: You Can't 'Help' But Feel This Film

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. The movie adaptation of the best-selling book "The Help" roared into theaters this week, racking up more than $5 million in box office receipts its opening day.

It closely follows Kathryn Stockett's novel about life among the white, well-to-do women of 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. The book told that story in large part from the point of view of the black women who serve them, something that earned Stockett both praise and condemnation.

"The Help" is set against the Civil Rights era and the drama begins when the Junior League queen bee, Hilly Holbrooke, takes a stand against the maids using their employers' bathrooms. One of her friends defies Hilly and tries to get two of the maids, played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, to tell the world what their lives are really like.


OCTAVIA SPENCER (as "Minny"): All right. I'm going to do it, but I need to make sure she understand this ain't no game we playing here. Slide your chair out from under that table. Face me. I need to see you square on at all times.

I got to come up with the questions, too?

NORRIS: That's Octavia Spencer playing the feisty maid named Minny and she practically steals the show with crisp dialogue and an arsenal of explosive facial expressions, and she joins me now to talk about the filming of "The Help." Octavia Spencer, welcome to the program.

SPENCER: Well, hello. And thank you for having me.

NORRIS: If you read this book, you know Minny well, but for those who haven't, could you describe this character?

SPENCER: Sure. Minny is a short, robust woman. She's the best cook in Jackson and, therefore, sought after for her cooking prowess, but she is also obstinate and very opinionated and doesn't have a problem, you know, expressing those opinions, especially to white people, which was a no-no during that time period. And that's her outward life.

Her inward life and her home life - she is an abused wife and mother of five.

NORRIS: There's a lot that you do through your body language in this film and you were able to reflect certainly good humor in many cases and a certain relaxation around some of the characters. The woman Celia that you wind up working for, who lives on the outskirts of town because people have been spreading things about you in town.

But you also carry yourself in a very erect way that reflects both pride, but also a good deal of pain when you're dealing with some of the more difficult characters.

SPENCER: Absolutely. She is always standing tall when she's dealing with Hilly because she emotionally wants Hilly to know that, you know what, you're not superior to me. But when she's with Celia, I think it's just that she's relaxed and when she's with her children, when she sends her daughter off to work for that first time, that, if anything, crushes her and you definitely see the shift in her posture because now what she has dreaded more than anything - her daughter following in her footsteps - is happening.

NORRIS: And she's telling her daughter the do's and don'ts and her daughter, too, is wearing the uniform.


NORRIS: For Minny, the life that she's consigned to is like a girdle that's a few sizes too small. She can't wait to break out of it, but until then, it's just sort of cutting her up. What did you have to do to get in that frame of mind? And was it a bit disorienting to go in and out of that as you're filming during the day and then you're back in 2011, 2010 at the end of the day?

SPENCER: I did a lot of research about the time period and spent some wonderful hours talking to Miss Myrlie Evers-Williams and I watched the documentary "Eyes on the Prize." I really, basically, never really came out of the '60s. It's hard to go in and out.

NORRIS: And you mentioned Myrlie Evers. She was married to Medgar Evers, who lived in Jackson, Mississippi and was killed. He was gunned down in front of his home, actually during the period when this story takes place.

Octavia, I have to be honest. Viewing some of this was very difficult because it does snatch you back to a very difficult time and, somehow, often a book can be more evocative in one's mind than a movie. But in this case, actually seeing the actresses, being inside some of those places makes the viewing very, very tough. And it's, you know, one person's mammy is another person's mama.

Were you aware of that when you were filming this? And I'm wondering if you wanted, in some way, to make the film unsettling, to make sure that the audience - yes, laughed at times, but also shifted in their seats because they weren't exactly comfortable with everything they saw.

SPENCER: Well, I think it's important to point out that the book and the film, while they're set during the Civil Rights movement, it's not necessarily a Civil Rights movie. To me, it's more of a movie about relationships and how these white women relate with each other and then how they relate to the women in their homes, who work in their homes.

So what I take from that, the discomfort, and I think it's important that we feel the discomfort because people lived this discomfort and we can step out of it for, you know, for the two hours that you sit and watch what's happening on the screen. I think it's pretty much one of the things that we owe to these women, you know, because they did live it.

And the other thing is I think it's a feel-something movie. You feel as much of the discomfort and the pain that you see Aibileen and Minny endure, but also you feel proud of them and triumphant and laughter and joy and maybe a little guilt. So there is the gamut of emotions that you feel, not just the discomfort.

NORRIS: I want to give you an opportunity to address something directly. If you follow people on social media right now, on Twitter, on Facebook and other things, there's a big robust discussion about this film and, once again, about the book. And there are some people who are suggesting that people not see this film. They say that they're not interested in it. They don't like the point of view that it's told. They don't want to look back at history through this particular lens.

I want to give you an opportunity to address them. What would you say to them?

SPENCER: Well, quite honestly, that puts me in an awkward position because I'm an actor saying, you know, go see the film. But what I will say to that is, if it's that they don't like the fact that a white woman wrote it and used African-American dialect, I take issue with that because what message are we sending to artists? If it's that black women are playing maids in 2011, I would say these are not the same maids that you saw in every other film about this era. For the first time, these women have a voice and these women are proactive in bringing about change in their community.

So, there are going to be people who are going to want to see this movie. There are going to be people who are sitting on the fence about seeing this movie. I would say, make your own judgment. If you haven't read the book and all you are going on is what someone else says, then are you really going to let someone else make up your mind? To not see the film at all because you think it represents something derogatory, I say then it's your loss because it's a wonderful film.

NORRIS: Octavia Spencer stars in the film "The Help." Octavia, it's been great talking to you. Thank you so much.

SPENCER: Thank you so much.


NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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