It’s a relatively cool summer’s day in Greenwood, Miss. In other words, it may be 100 degrees out, but at least it’s not 115. The cast and crew of The Help are filming a ’60s-era baby shower in a garden belonging to a character named Hilly Holbrook. Hilly’s a self-righteous — and racist — society lady played by Bryce Dallas Howard. But the heart of this particular scene belongs to a stoic maid who’s helping out even as Hilly humiliates her. The maid’s name is Aibileen. And she’s being played by Viola Davis, who’s currently dripping wet — in part because she’s wearing panty hose and extra padding to fill out her costume. ”It’s jungle weather,” says the actress. ”But it actually aids in my character’s frustration.” Davis is unusually devoted to the role: When she first read the Kathryn Stockett novel on which the movie is based, she was so moved by it that she wanted to option the book herself. Davis wasn’t able to, but she did succeed in snagging a role that many actresses clamored for. ”I literally met every famous black person in Hollywood, from Oprah Winfrey to Whoopi Goldberg,” says director Tate Taylor. ”I wanted Viola the whole time.”
If you haven’t yet read Stockett’s engrossing debut novel, you can be sure that your mother, grandmother, or girlfriend already has. It’s a poignant, painful novel shot through with gallows humor — a book that manages to evoke the urgency of the civil rights movement by examining the complex relationships between white Southern women and their maids. The Help debuted on the New York Times best-seller list back in March 2009, and has resided there for 81 weeks. Now DreamWorks is filming an adaptation that will hit screens on Aug. 12, 2011. Taylor, who not only is directing The Help but also wrote the screenplay, has only one feature film under his belt and — perhaps more significantly — has been a friend of the author’s ever since they grew up together in Jackson, Miss. He was canny enough to option Stockett’s book before she even had an agent. As Stockett herself remembers, ”At the time Tate asked me for the rights, I was just hoping the novel was going to get published! I laughed it off and told him, ‘I’m not giving you anything.’ In the end, I’m glad I did.”
Taylor’s success story — an untested filmmaker with enough conviction to hang on to a hot property even as Hollywood sharks circle round — is an improbable one, to put it mildly. ”I started reading the book on a plane from New York to Los Angeles,” Taylor says, while taking shelter from the unrelenting heat between scenes. ”And somewhere over Ohio I saw how this whole thing was going to play out: I’m going to get the rights, I’m going to make the movie with Kitty, and we’re going to do it. We never looked back. It took that determination because nobody wanted me to have it.” As he talks, Taylor wipes himself down with a paper towel, a more or less constant necessity. ”I knew I had to write a really good script, knock it out of the park, in order to be taken seriously,” he says.