It’s always a bit difficult when two stars are paired together in that you always want more out of them. And for The Help’s press Viola Davis was partnered with Emma Stone. At once you wanted to talk to the ubiquitous Stone about her upcoming work in films like The Amazing Spider-Man (which we did), but then with Davis there’s so much to talk about with the film, and her career, and what it means to be an older black actress in Hollywood (albeit one with an academy award nomination, and a Tony award). Better too much than too little. Check out our conversation…
The book was incredibly popular when it came out. Did you read it before you did the film and did that make you want to be a part of the film?
Emma Stone: I read it after I read the script. My mom had read it and people that I knew had read it, but she’s got a better answer to that one.
Viola Davis: I actually don’t have a better answer, but I did read the book, and I absolutely wanted to be a part of it. You just want to be a part of anything that has a lot of roles for black actresses. You just don’t stumble upon it. Usually it’s maybe one, maybe two black roles in a movie, especially in a mainstream movie. I said, “Oh, there are roles for black [actresses].” It was a fabulous book. You’ve all read it, I’m sure, and so it was a fabulous book, but of course I was thinking as an actress and beyond when I was reading the book. I was thinking, “Aibileen, Minny, Yule Mae, Constantine. That’s like four already. They’re doing good.” So, yeah. I said, “This is going to be good.”
Was it competitive then to actually land the part?
VD: Oh, yeah. The deprivation. The deprivation is something else, and so every black actress came out of the woodwork, who shall remain nameless.
Do you think that a movie like this will turn the tide a little bit?
VD: That’s an “I hope” thing. That’s a three hour discussion.
That scarcity of roles that’s not perfect today, but it was so much worse in the era that the movie takes place. Were you both surprised as you dug into what that time period was like, what people went through and how bad it could be?
ES: Yeah, absolutely. I don’t know if it’s my generation or if it’s just me, but I didn’t know the levels, the depths, the intricacies. I didn’t know on a day to day basis what life was like then. I learned a huge amount through the story and through researching the time period more, but I really hope for my generation that they will go see this movie because I don’t know that we know as much as we should about our very recent history. I mean, I remember sitting through European history. I remember sitting through what the Romans went through.
VD: We’re not educated. It’s swept under the rug. It’s the big white elephant in the room in our culture. It’s probably a part of our hypocrisy, that we’ve had a brutal history of race, a three hundred and forty six year history. So, I mean, I’m well aware of it because I made a point of making myself well aware of it, even at a young age, in my twenties. So, I knew what the day to day life was like, and I think that if anything I hope the book, or I know the book and the movie will bring that to life. I’m going to say what I’m going to say with a grain of salt; you hope that while people are being entertained and are laughing – we as Americans just want to be entertained and part of that is to escape whatever ills are going on in our personal lives and our political lives, but I hope that people aren’t laughing and having such a good time that they miss, even within that laughter and all of that, the larger message, that it doesn’t have an impact on people. We always want to shrink from it. I find in my life that whenever I’ve shrunk from anything it’s always come back to bite me right in the behind or it always keeps that dysfunction going. There’s enough of that. I think we’ve matured enough as a culture to step away from that. So, I hope that people will take that away from the movie.
Do you feel like it opens up the dialogue for things that are still happening today? Maybe it’s easier because it’s set in the past, but that maybe it can open the door to discussions of our society today.
VD: I hope. I mean, I think that once Obama became president there was a sigh of relief from people, thinking that racism is over. It’s like Hilary Clinton, if she were elected president would sexism be over? I mean, come on. We all know that whatever took three hundred and forty six years of doing is not going to be undone in fifty years. It’s just not. I hope that opens dialogue with people. I think that people in general are, and I know I am – I’ll put myself in there – afraid of honest discourse. We always want to be in agreement with each other because we want to get along. Some serious things are happening in terms of classicism. The class structure in this country is so polarized. Racism. I mean, you really see it coming out with Obama being president, all of those things. You hope that it opens up a dialogue. You just hope, but what can you do. You can’t change people overnight.
Do you like being in films that invite that dialogue as opposed to a romantic comedy?
VD: Oh, no. I’ll take a romantic comedy. I’ll take some. Shit. I want a straight up action movie, sci-fi. I want to be in Strange Days’ I loved Angela Bassett in that movie, my God. My muscles, taking a big gun. Yeah, that would be awesome.
This was new territory for you, really, Emma. We’ve seen you do many other things, but what was it like being in this great ensemble of women and get to dig into a more dramatic character and still get to be funny here and there?
ES: It was incredible. It was an amazing experience across the board, life wise, telling a story that I was so proud to be a part of, getting to meet these women and getting to work with these women. I love women. I don’t understand women that they’re afraid you’re not going to get along with women. I always say that women who say they have more guy friends than girlfriends are usually bitches.
VD: Yeah, exactly.
ES: They are, and it’s because you’re not that nice to girls then because girls are great. Women are great.
VD: That’s right, or you’re trying to steal their boyfriends.
There’s a lot of different things going on for you career wise right now, a lot of different things going on. How are you receiving all this sort of attention?
ES: That changes on a daily basis. I don’t know. I think that everybody in this cast is doing a lot right now. I guess I was just in a lot of movies that studios have been promoting on buses and things like that. Everyone is doing a lot and has a lot of really incredible things going on. So, we’re all kind of in a similar boat, but just in a different way.
Everyone seems like they’re in unique and different places in their careers, all the women who worked on this movie. Was there a lot of advice sharing and perspective gathering from that sort of thing?
ES: Sissy Spacek told me to wear sunscreen.
Are there times where you get or want advice, or is that just our perception of what goes on?
VD: Yeah. Back in 1980 something when I did Sophie’s Choice.
ES: Does Meryl [Streep] give a lot of advice?
VD: You know what, she does not give a lot of advice. I would say that in general, but there are times that she sneaks it in. She’ll sneak it in, and you’re like, ”Okay, you’re telling me what to do right now,” but I would take her advice. I would take her advice if she gave it to me. But, no. I didn’t give you any advice. I didn’t give it to anybody.
The South has that charming face of hospitality, and yet at the same time it has to own its dark history to a degree. How did you find that aspect of it while you were there? Did you get a sense of whether we can put that behind us?
VD: Nobody ever owns their history. I don’t think that people own their history. It’s a hard thing, even in our personal lives. You just want to say, ‘Excuse me. I remember back in 19-something. I remember who you used to be.’ I do this all the time with people, and then especially as time has gone by it’s like they just kind of let that die. It becomes invisible. So, I don’t didn’t seen the ownedness of the past, but I saw a lot of southern hospitality. Would you say that?
ES: Yeah. I definitely saw the southern hospitality. Everything starts with, ‘I don’t want to bother you, but –’ and then thirty minutes later you’re like, ‘I really have to go to work. I really have to go to work.’ It’s so nice, and my neighbor brought me zucchini bread right when I moved in.
VD: They invite you into their homes.
ES: They invite you into their homes and you meet their kids.
VD: But nobody owns up to the past. Everybody used to be liberal. Nobody can relate to Hilly. “We never were like that, We didn’t own slaves. We weren’t a part of the Jim Crow. I never remember any of that happening with the bathrooms.” Did you ever hear anyone talk about that? It’s just the way that people are, in general.
Bryce [Dallas Howard] talked about her character’s relationship to Skeeter, that they were close before Skeeter left for college and then college is what changed her perspective. Do you think that’s the case and is that how you developed the character?
ES: Well, I think that Skeeter wanted to fit in with her friends. You don’t want to have those hard conversations. What is she going to do? She always had Constantine, so she always had a sense of reality, and Hilly didn’t have that. I think that going away to college gave Skeeter some distance and perspective. Skeeter in the book was the girl who didn’t go to the party. She had to be dragged out to the sorority gatherings because she was in there writing and doing what she wanted to do. I think that she maybe finally became more comfortable with being alone and not having that kind of mentality, but even when she gets back why is going to the Junior League meetings? She doesn’t have to, but she does because she wants to please her mother even though her mother doesn’t really respect her that much. And she wants to please her friends even though she doesn’t really agree with what they’re saying. I have friends to day that if we really sat down, there’s a lot of things that I don’t agree on with them, but there are some redeeming qualities that I can find in people that make me want to be their friend. I can relate to that, to wanting to be accepted and then finally having that breaking point where they just realize that they’re just too different to ever get along anymore.
VD: And do you have the same friends now that you had when you were eighteen? Think about that.
Well, now with Facebook –
ES: Now you have the same friends you had when you were three on Facebook.
VD: I did that on Facebook. I friended this kid. I was like, “Oh, my God, from Central Falls High School. Yes. I’m going to friend him.” Then weeks went by and I thought, “He was always mean to me and he’s my buddy now,” but I had to leave him because then I would be, like you said, causing conflict. “When we were in third grade you were a jerk.”
ES: That’s why I got rid of my Facebook.
Are you excited about Spider-Man and getting the word out there? What are you excited about people getting the chance to see?
ES: I really liked it. I was drawn to that part because I liked what happens between Gwen and Peter. That’s pretty much what my involvement is, with Peter. I think that Andrew [Garfield] is incredible, and so that was really wonderful for me. It’s really interesting to be a part of something that so many people hold so close to their hearts, that so many people grew up with. To get to be involved in this world of passionate people, Comic-Con is one of my favorite places in the world. I got to go for Zombieland and it is just a full convention center of people who care so much. I mean, it literally buzzes. To be a part of something that has that kind of passion and that kind of enthusiasm behind it, it really is kind of a cool and exciting thing.
What do either of you get that passionate about?
VD: Food. My husband. My home.
ES: Movies. Watching movies.
Do you have a favorite movie?
ES: My favorite movie is City Lights.
VD: You mentioned one of my favorite movies. Network. Citizen Kane. I own Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley. John Ford. I want to be in a John Ford movie.
The Help opens August 10. Check it out.