Viola Davis goes back in time in The Help, recreating a world violently divided by racial lines. In portraying Abileen, one of the African-American maids in the story, the pressure was on. When SheKnows met up with Davis, it was clear that at times the story felt — and was — all too real for this modern, Tony-winning powerhouse of a woman.
“The problem I always had with Hollywood is that stories about race are always sanitized,” Davis told SheKnows. “That’s what differentiates this story from all of the rest, where two hours have gone by and you still have not heard the voice of the people that the movie is supposedly about.”
“Abileen was born in a time of reconstruction after slavery, so what she’s seen and what she’s experienced is something very deep,” she continued. “I feel a tremendous responsibility to the black community, to my mother, to all the women who were surrogate mothers and worked for people who didn’t know who they were — and didn’t care to know who they were, let’s be honest.”
The Help, as readers of the bestselling book already know, takes on two parallel-yet-intersecting worlds in the 1960s and doesn’t sanitize or sugar-coat the ugly time in history. “There’s the experience of a lot of Caucasians growing up with their African-American nannies and maids, and them being the surrogate mothers,” Davis set up. Co-stars Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard are smack in the center of that world.
“But then there’s the story of these maids — my mother’s story — and that story’s very different,” Davis added. “[It’s about] who these women were when they went home, when the public persona and the mask were ripped apart. That picture and that portrayal [are] the part that sometimes makes it not palatable. That’s the story that I need to honor, as an actor.”
The Help: Stepping into an ugly past
While honoring the past may be inspiring and important, reliving the story wasn’t always easy.
“You feel the rage, you feel the frustration, you feel the repression,” Davis admitted. “You feel absolutely the intense level of sadness of going to your grave without ever actually fulfilling any of your dreams and hopes. Let’s face it: Now we have a chance to actually speak our minds more. We have a culture where people talk all the time about how they feel, even when it’s politically incorrect, so to be silent so much — it’s hard not to carry that rage when you leave the set.”
Davis is familiar with the time through her family, but also past roles and a bit of old school research. Like just about everyone on The Help set, she watched the Eyes on the Prize documentary. “I saw a documentary on maids, although I know maids,” Davis added. “I’m familiar with all this through doing August Wilson’s plays, and I read Freedom Summer, which [was] on the New York Times bestseller list. I had a teacher in college who was a part of Freedom Summer, so he [helped me]. Freedom Summer is a part of history nobody talks about. It’s our dirty little secret.”
Being on location in Cottonwood, Mississippi, and near Baptist Town — which is literally and figuratively the “other side of the tracks” — also lent a hand to getting into character.
“It’s a different world down here; it’s a different energy,” Davis said. “It’s a character in and of itself and it informs everything that you do. I’ve been here off and on, going into Baptist Town, and you feel the spirits of the past, so that helps. Then the way they decorated the set and the costumes — it really isn’t that difficult [to get into character]. You just kind of walk right into it.”
And when Davis needed a break from the dark world of The Help? “There’s a Wal-Mart here,” she shared. “I love Wal-Mart. You can put that down. My husband and I hang out there.”
The Help: From page to big screen
As readers of The Help can imagine, the book had to go through some changes to reach the big screen, the biggest shift being that a movie can’t have three characters offering their points of view through narration.
“There’s some voice-overs,” Davis previewed. “I’m doing most of the voice-overs, setting up the characters and all that, but in the book you get stream of consciousness. On film, you don’t. You kind of get the feeling. It’s always the unspoken word and what’s happening behind someone’s eyes that makes it so rich.”
Davis also softened Abileen’s accent. “I didn’t want her dialect to be as strong as it was in the book,” she explained. “I’ve been online doing all kinds of research and it seems to be the constant criticism that Abileen’s accent was just too thick. You want to be as authentic as possible, but I don’t want anything to distract from the character. Sometimes you have to adjust when you go into the world of film, TV, theatre, in order to make it accessible to people.”
The Help hits theaters on Aug. 11, 2011.
Images courtesy of Touchstone Pictures