April 18, 2014

Octavia Spencer, SAG winner, on Mississippi heat and the book-club roots of “The Help” – AWARDS ALLEY


By Sean O’Connell
hollywoodnews.com: Octavia Spencer has been a gracious winner all awards season long … which is important, because virtually every time she claims a trophy, she’s triumphing over her “Help” co-star Jessica Chastain.

Yet at every awards gala, the women of “The Help” come across as the picture of solidarity, and every win – and there were three key victories at the SAG awards Sunday night – is a vote of approval for “Team Help.”

Spencer took home the prize for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role for her work as Minny Jackson in Tate Taylor’s film. It gives us an opportunity to revisit a chat I had with Spencer and her close friend, author Kathryn Stockett, prior to the release of “The Help.” We didn’t talk Oscars at the time. That conversation was far from their minds. It’s front and center now, mind you, but back then, we discussed book clubs, best friends, and the power of this story.

Here’s SAG winner Octavia Spencer and “The Help” novelist Kathryn Stockett:

HollywoodNews.com: Did you always have it in the back of your mind that this book would make for an excellent film?

Kathryn Stockett: Look, I didn’t think that it was going to get published. [Laughs] So I couldn’t even put it in print, much less on the screen.

HollywoodNews.com: We need to figure out how we can serve Minny’s friend chicken in the theaters. Can you cut a deal with the chains that, instead of popcorn, they serve friend chicken, because the various cooking scenes in the film have me salivating for some home-cooked friend chicken.

Stockett: I have had more people tell me that after they saw the film, they went right out and got a bucket of friend chicken. [Laughs]

Octavia Spencer: Then chicken places need to give you some stock.

Stockett: And the funny thing is this food isn’t just in the movie. It was all over the set. I gained 15 pounds. Tate Taylor gained 35! We could have created a small human being with our weight gain.

Spencer: Yet, I lost 16 pounds from the heat. It was hot, I was sweating. But also, somebody was cooking for me every day, which was wonderful because it meant I was eating lunch on the set. I’m not a cook. I used to be a drive-thru junkie. But when you are on set, you have great caterers, so I was able to have a choice of everything. It was wonderful!

HollywoodNews.com: Kathryn, we all assume that the character of Skeeter, played by Emma Stone, is you. Are we far off?

Stockett: You know, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that there’s a little bit of me in every character, from Mae Mobley to Skeeter to even Hilly. We’ve all been on both sides at some point in our lives, the bully side and the being-bullied side. I’m not Skeeter. I was never that brave. I wrote about something 60 years later, and she wrote about it while it was still very much going on.

HollywoodNews.com: Yes, but if there’s a piece of you in each of these characters, I guess that explains why each of them feels so full formed on screen.

Stockett: I hope so. I tried my best to flesh them out.

HollywoodNews.com: How much say did you have in final casting?

Stockett: I had two requests for Tate. Film it in Mississippi and cast Octavia Spencer as Minny.

HollywoodNews.com: Octavia, you and Tate have been friends, and even roommates, for years. Did you have to switch off from being friends to seeing him as a boss?

Spencer: Well, he was never the boss. [Laughs] He tries to boss me around. But you know, my relationship with Tate Taylor is more family than work. I don’t think it’s easy to get rid of the familial aspects. That carries over, which can be good sometimes.

HollywoodNews.com: I’d like to talk about costuming. Obviously it’s so important to character, but I’d assume the gray garments of the help that you and Viola had to wear carried a negative connotation. Or did it?

Spencer: It depends. I think that wearing the apron, looking back on the experience now, I was proud to put it on because I was portraying a character and I wore it as a badge of honor. Were it not for the contributions of countless men and women who were domestics, I don’t think I would be able to sit here and play a maid. And the beauty of Sharon Davis, an Academy Award nominee, is that she made all of those maid costumes very different. And she actually gave me a waistline, so I was very thrilled about that.

HollywoodNews.com: Are you curious to see how the film will play outside of the South, in areas where this history isn’t as ingrained in the culture?

Stockett: What actually blows my mind is the belief that this only existed in the South.

Spencer: Exactly.

Stockett: I’ve never been in a New York City apartment that didn’t have a little bathroom off of the kitchen. Of course, they all have been converted into closets. But it wasn’t so different at a certain point in time. The South was just much slower to change.

Spencer: And more vocal.

Stockett: And yet people from North Dakota write me letters and say, “I truly had no idea this was going on.” I’m proud that I could be a part of that understanding. And then I’ll have Southerners write me and go, “Holy cow, you wrote my story!” I’m just thrilled people are talking about this topic that was off the table for the past 20 years.

Awards Alley brings you the best Oscar coverage. Click below to read our exclusive interviews with:
- Harvey Weinstein
- The cast of “The Artist.”
- Kenneth Branagh for “My Week With Marilyn.”
- Bennett Miller talks “Moneyball.”
- Producer Jim Burke for “The Descendants.”
- Sir Ben Kingsley and Chloe Grace Moretz for “Hugo.”
- Tilda Swinton for “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”
- David Fincher, Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
- Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for “The Help.”
- Tate Taylor for “The Help.”
- Woody Harrelson for “Rampart.”
- Gavin O’Connor for “Warrior.”
- Gary Oldman and Colin Firth for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”
- Charlize Theron, Patton Oswalt, Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody for “Young Adult.”
- Steve McQueen for “Shame.”
- Glenn Close for “Albert Nobbs.”
- Seth Rogen and Will Reiser for “50/50.”
- Producer Grant Heslov for “The Ides of March.”

For complete Oscar and Film Festival coverage, visit our Awards Alley for the latest news items, reviews and interviews all season long.

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About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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