Tate Taylor’s The Help offers a number of great roles for women, which is somewhat rare, and a number for older actress, which is rarer these days. Allison Janney and Sissy Spacek play the mothers of the two leads, and the two got on immediately, both while making the film (they don’t have any scenes together, though) and in our interview, where the two often overlapped and played off each other. It was a fun interview. Check it out…
Allison Janney: I can’t believe I got paired with Sissy. I want to be with you guys.
If you want to ask her questions, feel free.
AJ: How do you take a role like this and make it…
Sissy Spacek: Bigger?
AJ: so extraordinary? What you brought to it…
SS: I upstaged, embarrassingly.
You both have to do a lot with relatively little. But you’re both pros about it.
SS: Upstaging? (Laughs)
Making the most of a role that has three or four scenes.
AJ: Well, as Sissy says, there are no small roles, only
SS: Small actors. You know what, Kathryn Stockett wrote believable characters, no matter how small they were in the book, they were important and they were all multi-faceted, and complete characters. And every character was different so it was fun. I think we all loved the characters. I loved being Missus Walters.
AJ: I loved being Charlotte, on the page you kind of hate her, but I wanted to find the humanity in her, and her vulnerability and insecurity that made her do the terrible things she did. Charlotte’s “terrible awful” was throwing Constantine out of the house, which she does because of peer pressure. She knows it’s wrong but she does it anyway. She’s too wrapped up in what people thought of her as a Daughter of America.
SS: It was a small community they were living in, and you have to live with those people. And if you stepped out of line…
AJ: It’s all about appearances.
SS: We understood, and I loved your Charlotte, because I could see you were conflicted. You were a good person, you had to break out of that, and you did.
AJ: And you had dementia, but you knew exactly when to not have it to make a point.
SS: You know, she was not funny when she was a young woman and had all of her faculties (laughs).
Well, that’s the great thing about these characters, it features the Southern dichotomy where they can be charming and big, but then there can also be a dark side that can be glossed over. Did you play off of that, where you can kick that charm into high gear even though the character might be unlikeable?
AJ: There’s a scene that’s cut with Stuart – actually two – with Chris Lowell where you got to see that charm, the “where are you from?” That oozing Southern charm. It was a fun scene, but they cut it. But you don’t get to see her in public that much with the DAR, I mean the Daughters of America. We had to change the name.
SS: But we know who they are. (Laughs)
In senility your character seems to breaking away from those mores.
SS: She’s forgotten all of them. She probably wasn’t so politically correct before she started suffering from dementia. I think she doesn’t care at this point. And she’s so mad at Hilly. The reason she’s mad at Hilly is because Hilly stole Minny, Minny had worked for Missus Walters for years, and she was the best cook in five counties, and it was widely known. And her own daughter stole her away. So it’s not that she’s so morally correct. Hilly did put her in a rest home where she found a boyfriend. A big tall handsome guy at the end.
AJ: That’s Tate Taylor’s father.
Do you think these characters reflect your own experience in the south, is there something familiar about this story for you?
SS: This character doesn’t reflect my experiences in the South, but I did live in the south during that time as a child. And I remember thinking that it was weird that there were segregated bathrooms and water fountains, so I have lived to see the change, and it’s a beautiful thing. Now we have an African-America in the white house.
Did you see the younger members of the cast and crew getting a sense of how bad things were in that era.
SS: When you read the book and the script, it’s so beautifully laid out.
AJ: And Tate gave everyone the documentary Eyes on the Prize, and I think that just lays it out all there, it’s impactful.
As a southerner, I’m sure you’re very conscious of Southern drag, saying things like “I do declare!” Are you really aware of that when you watch these films?
SS: I think they did a beautiful job. I had a great dialect coach who taught me how to do a Minnesota accent, dragged me there, and I was just a little put out at how easy they made it look, but it’s beautiful to be in the location where you hear the accent all the time.
AJ: The community opened their doors to us, and I was there a week before filming, and Tate said “You’ve got to come to this house, this woman used to be a beauty pageant runner up, and I’d go over and have a milk punch with them, which is a thing they do on Sundays. It’s basically condensed milk with a bunch of bourbon in it. (laughs) I would drink that and have my iPhone on record and just go back and listen to them, and listen to these accents and think “this can’t be real, this can’t be real.”
SS: I think they’re all very proud at how far the world has come, they’re as happy as anyone else that we’ve survived that.
How is the condensed milk and bourbon thing because it sounds terrible.
SS: You don’t taste a thing.
AJ: It’s different, there’s something else to cut it, maybe soda water, and some people don’t like bourbon so they put in rum, or maybe both (laughs). I can’t remember.
If you can’t remember it was probably both.
AJ: It’s really good though. And it’s a breakfast drink.
SS: It was very relaxed, and it was a tiny little town, and we were shooting for several weeks and we’d walk to a different church fellowship hall to have our meals, and it was such a relaxed and small town, and someone would ask “where’s Bruce, and I’d say “oh, she walked over to the hotel.” Usually they’re like “You’re in your room or you’re in the make-up chair, where’s Bryce?” But on this one it was like “I’m going over to the hotel, I’ll be back in twenty minutes.” It was just unreal, and no one was on you.
AJ: Well, because there was no place to go and nothing to do. (laughs) There were two places, the hotel and the place where we were eating. You can’t really get lost in town.
This has a lot of great roles for women, and between this and Bridesmaids, do you think things are turning, or is that more of a press thing?
SS: It’s a press thing.
AJ: I feel like we should say “yes it’s a trend” to get it going. It would be nice if it were.
SS: When they’re films filled with women that do well it’s always a good thing.
Haven’t we seen that trend come and go?
SS: I’ve found that in all the years that I’ve been in Hollywood, you can go to party with all the hard-hitting players, and though the people change, the conversations are all exactly the same. It’s just the players who come and go.
Tate said you’ve been in everything he’s done. Are you a part of the family?
AJ: Yes, and I’m so glad it paid off because I’d be doing eighteen hours days at The West Wing and Tate would say “You’ve got a call time tomorrow of 6 AM” and I would go “No!” But I would do these little movies with him, and he always made it fun. That’s the one thing Tate demands is that we’re always having fun no matter what. And he did that on this set. He always makes sure there’s great food.
SS: I don’t remember going over schedule, and it was a huge script with a lot of characters, and we all felt like we were the stars, and we all felt like we had all the time in the world, and that’s thanks to Tate, and I’m in the family now, I’m happy to say.
AJ: It’s great to be a part of it and watching this whole movie come together. Kitty and Tate grew up together and I read this book before it came out, I read it in the galleys, and I knew Kitty before she wrote it and to have Octavia – who’s my dear friend – come into it, it’s amazing.
Did Tate ever mess with you once you got on this big budget production? Did he ever tease you like you weren’t going to be in it?
AJ: Yes. (laughs) Yes he did.
SS: “You come over here right now or you’re not going to be in this movie!”
AJ: He said that to me all the time, that rat. I loaned him money for something – before he got paid for anything – and I don’t know if he got paid for this yet, and I loaned him a considerable amount of money and he paid me back in cash. Brought me over a big box of money.
SS: In one dollar bills?
AJ: I threw the money up in the air, you know, he was struggling and to finally have something that hits, it’s really rewarding to see.
Did you read the book thinking you might play Charlotte?
Tate told us that there was always going to be a role for you.
AJ: When I first read it – this is where I am – you know how you always think you’re younger than you are? I thought I could play Skeeter. I did. And then I thought “oh, I’m no longer an ingénue.” But I was playing forty year old women when I was ten.
SS: I was playing teenagers until I was forty. (laughs) We did have so much fun though.
AJ: I was hanging out with Emma, and I felt like we were the same age. Am I the only who does that?
Do you guys give advice?
SS: Only when asked.
You guys have a great rapport, have you worked together before?
AJ: We hung out in the make-up trailer together.
SS: We’re the old timers.
AJ: I made her have a couple drinks with me in the hotel.
I just realized you worked with both of the stars of Badlands.
AJ: I know, I love them both.
AJ: You and Marty (Sheen).
SS: Oh, the president? He was a thug when I worked with him. A cute thug.
I just saw you in Prime Cut.
SS: You just saw a lot of me. (laughs) I’m afraid so. That was my “one for uncle.”
The Help opens August 10. Check it out.