Oscar Spotlight: Viola Davis Interview For ‘The Help’
Based on Kathryn Stockett’s #1 New York Times best-selling novel, ‘The Help’ stars Emma Stone (Easy A) as Skeeter, Academy Award nominees Viola Davis (Doubt) as Aibileen and Octavia Spencer as Minny – three very different, extraordinary women in Mississippi during the 1960s, who build an unlikely friendship around a secret writing project that breaks societal rules and puts them all at risk. From their improbable alliance a remarkable sisterhood emerges, instilling all of them with the courage to transcend the lines that define them, and the realization that sometimes those lines are made to be crossed – even if it means bringing everyone in town face-to-face with the changing times. ‘The Help’ stars Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain. ‘The Help’ is nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for Viola Davis, Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for Jessica Chastain, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role for Octavia Spencer.
This movie says a lot about change. What do you think it is about ‘The Help’ that taps into that theme, set against the background of racism and sexism in the 60s?
Viola Davis: The thing about the story that I think inspires change is, first of all, everyone feels like it’s their story. Everyone had a woman like Aibileen, or Minny, or Yul May, or Constantine in their life. Someone who made a difference, a surrogate mother, someone who intervened and stood in the gap. So automatically….or either that or they were a Skeeter, Emma Stone’s character, they were that woman growing up who no one had any expectations from them because they were women. So, automatically I think people are drawn into the story. Automatically they become a part of it, they find that these characters are familiar. And then, once they see these characters come together, and they see how these friendships begin to influence each other, how they begin to literally give each other permission to dream and find their voice, and tap into the extraordinary parts of themselves. I think there’s something about that that makes people who are sitting in the audience feel like that’s possible.
Movies can have that rare quality, connecting people to a story through familiarity, in their own personal unique way…..
Viola Davis: Yeah. That doesn’t always happen, that you sit and you watch a story that speaks to you. A lot of times you go to escape, or a lot of times you’re altered in a way doesn’t exactly feels personal, a way that feels disconnected – if that makes any sense (laughs). I know for me, I know Aibileen. Aibileen is my mother, Aibileen’s my grandmother, she’s my aunts, those women are very palpable to me. And I love to think that my mum and my grandmother made a difference.
For me, as an artist of colour, what makes it jump to the next level is when you tell a story that is expansive in terms of the races and the ages. For some reason it doesn’t feel like a story that is just a story about a very very specific person and race. It becomes more expansive in story telling. One thing, that strikes me, are the lives of the maids joining with the lives of the Caucasian women that they work for. That their lives intertwine. And the backdrop of history rises it to the level of making a larger statement than even the personal story.
Is that a key for you with this story, with ’The Help,’ about educating and touching people on a topic through a personal story?
Viola Davis: Yeah. It’s always easier to educate when you’re putting it in the context of a personal story. I think it’s easier for people to enter it and internalise it more. And that’s how you see it, you see how racism affected these friendships, but also how they found each other despite it. You have to think, this happened just 50 years ago, not very long ago. And you saw that the burden of racism and sexism is not just affecting people of colour and women, you see how it affects everything around us. I think you have to make it authentic as well, it’s very hard to escape it, very hard to not embody it, internalise it, and not allow yourself not to be affected by it if it’s told as authentically as possible.
Does the responsibility of taking on a role like this cut deeper because of the burden of representation? There are some really, really big issues being discussed and yet the story focuses on a white girl, which has been criticised by some people…
Viola Davis: I felt an incredible sense of responsibility to the African American community. I felt there was going to be a huge backlash playing the maid in 60s Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement. It’s usually a role that carries a lot of stigma to it. I was very reluctant to sign on, I have to admit, I was very, very, very reluctant. But I also know that I’m on the front lines as far as being a black actress in Hollywood. I read the scripts, I get them, so I know what’s out there, so therefore I can look at Aibileen and say it is a great role. Other people look at it from the outside and they have criticisms or whatever but they don’t know what I know, which is that I could play an extraordinary number of urban crack mothers, even by black writers and black directors.
At the end of the day I had to weigh it all in terms of my sensibility as an actress and as a human being. I know a good story when I see one. I know a great character when I see one, and Aibileen is a great character. I saw beyond the fact that she was a domestic, and I saw the human being and the human being behind the uniform is very rich. And it was something to play. I went on a journey with her and I’m sorry it’s a lead role for a black actress in Hollywood and you’re not going to see that too often. You certainly didn’t see it last year or the year before. The last time you saw it was with ‘Precious.’ And before that, I don’t know when. So, it was too much of an opportunity to pass down.
These issues that this films raises, the issues of racism and sexism, often times they still get trivialised and glossed over….
Viola Davis: I think we have a tendency, just in human nature, to sweep things under the rug. I always think that we either revise or erase our history, very rarely do we just face it and tell the truth about it. I think once you face it and tell the truth about it, there’s something about it that you can overcome. Race in the ‘60s is a very sensitive topic in America. America has a 350 year history of racism and sexism, that we still see the effects of it today. That’s the conversation that it sparks for me, that’s the discourse that it sparks. There’s something about talking about something, getting it out, revealing it for what it is, slaying that demon, for me that is when you can tap into your extraordinary strengths. And ‘The Help’ is about ordinary people who tap into extraordinary strengths within themselves.
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