In The Help, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly Hollbrook is the villain, a woman who insists that the Black maids who help raise their children and feed their families should have their own toilets as to not infect the white people. This is her cause, and it’s easy to root against her, but Howard makes her character fascinating, in spite of our modern understandings of how wrong she is. In person, Howard is nothing like her character (as to be expect) and at the time of the interview she was pregnant and glowing. Check it out…
Your character is kind of the villain of the piece. How did it feel like being in that skin?
Hilly didn’t fulfill any kind of fantasy where it’s like “Ah, I just want to be a racist.” (Laughs) So it wasn’t fun in the same way as if you were playing a bad girl or a mischievous character. But I think there is a freedom to playing someone who’s not likable and unappealing – you don’t have to worry about those things through the movie. I’ve had characters in the past where you need to consider those things and it’s as freeing of an experience. But I think because the movie also has so much humor in it — there are scenes where she is being totally absurd and those were the best.
Did you have to find anything to like about her?
I didn’t find anything that I liked. (Laughs) But I eventually got to a place where I realized that, in terms of the psychology behind her beliefs, she truly was ignorant and thought what she was doing was right. She thought she was protecting her children, her way of life, her future and her community. That was one of the most terrifying realizations that I had doing this character because in rehearsals I played her like Cruella DeVille – where she’s sort of this stock villain. Then I realized “wait a second, there were real women who were actually like that. Why?” Then I thought “Oh my gosh, she really thought she was right” and then she became a real person. While it was scary, it was a really important realization to have.
Did it bring to light just how bad things were in a way that you hadn’t really considered before when you dug into this time period?
Obviously from history books, from talking to people who lived through the civil rights movement, I knew it was really bad. But to actually play one of the bad guys, and to realize how much they thought they were right was really scary. You think about stuff now – I’m privately a political person but not publicly one – and so often I’ll be like ‘What on EARTH is going on here? I mean what is the problem, what is the issue!?’ And after playing this character, realizing the people who are against certain civil rights things that we’re facing right now, actually think they’re right is so scary because how can you argue with that? You just have to be stronger. You just have to win and that’s why, in the civil rights movement in the sixties, it got to the point where people were sacrificing their life. Not just their well-being but people were dying because that was the only way for there to be change and that was so scary. At the end of the day, as an actor, my job is to have a good story well-told.
The character fits into the story in a really interesting way because she stirs the pot so much to keep the different developments happening, but she’s also a focal point to the revenge on those we’re rooting for. It had to be kind of tricky finding where to play her so you could make her believably bad but also someone we could laugh as some of the bad things happen to her.
The thing that I wanted, that was most important for me, was believing that her and Skeeter actually had a friendship. That was the hardest thing for me and the ways in which Hilly stood up for her. I wanted that to be believable that she would and what you see in this movie is the rift of a friendship. And that was tricky because Skeeter’s progressive, Hilly’s not, so how would they ever be friends? Speaking from experience, and I’m sure you’ve all experienced this, but when you’re a young person, and they became friends when they were very young, they grow apart. When I look now at the friends I was with when I was six, seven, eight, or a young teenager, how crazy was it that they were my friends? They’re so incredibly different now. Skeeter went away to college for four years and my rationale behind this is that she changed a lot. It wasn’t that she was like Hilly at all but she was more demure and quiet, didn’t kind of speak up in the way that she does when she returns to Jackson.
Are you still friends with some of those wildly divergent people?
(Laughs) They’re not wildly divergent, it’s not like I had troubled friends or anything like that. You look back and you’re not necessarily going for the same kinds of things and it’s kind of interesting.
It seems that childhood friends are often based on proximity more than anything else. Was there any note in the script that your character had a ‘shit-eating grin’?
(Laughs) No, I don’t think so.
It sounds like the author was on set quite a bit and the director is from the South. How careful were you in modulating your performance and how much did you work with them in regards of ‘Is this too hard? Is this too soft?’
I worked really closely with Tate (Taylor). He had such an intimate understanding of this character that was so accurate that in moments where I was a little off, I would go to him and say ‘You just tell me exactly what I need to do.’ He was always dead-on. Kathryn (Stockett) was just incredibly supportive. She was on set a lot but she was mostly there just to be really graceful, lovely, warm, kind and supportive. If she said stuff to Tate (Taylor) behind the scenes we would’ve never had known. It wasn’t like “Kitty wants you to do it this way.”
Tate (Taylor) said earlier “Whenever she came on set she just went into the house and then she fell asleep.”
I saw her on the couch taking a nap. One time I was walking past her, and I produced a movie that’s coming out later this year that’s called Restless. We in an intense moment in post-production while we were shooting The Help. So in between takes I was the person over in the corner of the house whispering ‘So what’s the next edit?’ Kitty went up to me once and said “Bryce, you never relax. You never have fun! I always see you working, working, working.” I was like “You are so balanced!”
You had your moment where Hollywood sort of discovered you. Emma’s kind of hitting that right now. What is it like seeing that for somebody else?
First of all, my discovery does not even remotely compare to what’s happening with Emma (Stone). I completely understand. One of my friends yesterday saw Crazy, Stupid, Love and said ‘Oh my gosh, it was the best movie. I was like “Emma, my friend loved your movie” and she was like “Yeah, it’s okay.” I’m like “Emma, why are you only in good movies?” (Laughs) So if you see her name in the front of a film you know it’s going to be a good movie. I felt really excited when I was cast in The Village and got the chance to be in a movie from drama school. The fact that it kind of kept happening, that I got the chance to work, it was something that I’m still amazed by. But with Emma, the thing that’s so incredible with what’s happening right now is that someone like her who’s so solid in her talent and as a human being, being acknowledged in the way that she is just right. It’s absolutely right and she’s going to be one of the greats, she just is. She’s going to be a female Bill Murray and Tom Hanks. She’s got it in her to do Meryl Streep performances, she’s just ridiculously talented and she can handle any kind of attention.
When this movie was kind of coming together and people were auditioning for this movie that everyone wanted to be in, did you ever get a sense of competition? Or did you just go in, do your thing and see what happens?
I never got any sense of competitive. I’ve never actually had any sense of competition in the ten years that I’ve been working, and I think that’s fortunate. I’ve heard other people say other stories and I definitely don’t want to invalidate that but I think I’ve been lucky. I’ve just stayed away at the right moments. It’s been pleasant.
Can you talk a bit more about working with the rest of the cast like Octavia (Spencer), Viola (Davis) and the others? How was that like?
You know the whole story with Octavia? She’s one of their closest friends and the character of Minnie was based on her. I think Octavia being in the movie represents some of the elements around this movie, which is that there’s an authenticity to the experience. The fact that Tate (Taylor) directed this movie and that Kathryn (Stockett) stood by him, making sure that was going to happen. DreamWorks gave him a lot of support and he was absolutely the right director. Could a more well-known director had directed this, they could had but not as well as Tate (Taylor) was going to. Viola is just an absolute powerhouse. She’s the best actress who could’ve played the role of Aibileen. She brought a level of artistic credibility that is incredibly meaningful and made us want to do our best because she’s unreal.
There’s the saying ‘If you run against a faster runner it makes you run faster.’ Is that the same on films where you can see what the level of — if someone’s bringing it then it brings you up and if nobody is bringing it… have you ever had an experience on the bad version of that?
I’ve never really had an experience where no one’s been apathetic. I’m pretty lucky that I’ve worked with people that are ridiculously passionate. A piece of advice my dad gave me was in the form of a story. He said that he loves basketball, he still plays basketball and has been on those dorky dad teams. When I was in high school they’d say “Your dad’s in the gymnasium” and I was like “Oh my gosh.” But when he was in high school he had a chance of being captain of the basketball team or a starter on varsity. He chose to be captain, a part of the starting line-up and he thinks that’s one of the biggest mistakes he’s ever made because “I’m not as good of a ball player because I did that. Because I didn’t choose to be a smaller guy on varsity.” In terms of working, you’re always going to grow when you’re with people who are more talented than you are. You’ll always grow. He’s told me that story at least forty times (Laughs) so I’ve always pushed myself to being in groups of people who were smarter, more-talented and I’ve even done that in sports as well. I’m not an incredible athlete but I did get on the varsity basketball team and I definitely was the worst player.
Have you taken roles just to be with other actors?
Yeah, I mean it’s never just like that. That’s something that’s always very enticing and exciting about a project, but for me it has a lot to do with the director, because the director becomes the storyteller after the writer is done with the script. Of course it has to do with the role, it has to do with what’s being said and if there’s astounding actors then that’s very important. If other elements are in place then usually really great actors are drawn into the piece. So that’s taken care of.
The Help opens August 10. Check it out.