Each year, the Oscars recognize A-list talent we regularly see on screen, on the red carpet, and in tabloids. But the Academy Awards also reward those who work behind the scenes: the writers, editors, costume designers, and others who help create trophy-worthy movie magic. This Oscars season, we’ll be toasting those off-screen artists by delving into the hidden secrets that helped create the on-screen magic that we — and the Academy — fell in love with. For more access backstage during this Oscars season, click here for EW.com’s Oscars Behind the Scenes coverage.
Only one film has three acting Oscar nominations this year: Tate Taylor’s The Help. We asked the movie’s casting directors, Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee, to tell us how Best Actress nominee Viola Davis and Supporting Actress nominees Octavia Spencer and Jessica Chastain each landed their roles.
CASTING VIOLA DAVIS AS AIBILEEN
Davis was doing Fences on Broadway with Denzel Washington when she agreed to read for the role of Aibileen in New York. “She’s friends with True Blood‘s Nelsan Ellis, who plays the waiter at the diner in the movie. He and Tate had been friends for awhile, so Nelsan was instrumental in making an introduction,” Barden says. “I was thrilled when she came in, because I actually thought no way is she gonna come in while she’s doing a Broadway play. Almost everybody who is in the film came in and read. It was fun to see people like Bryce Dallas Howard, who was pretty well known at that point, come in and take her best shot at reading. It took on a really beautiful life because everybody wanted to be involved in the telling of this story.”
Schnee says they knew Davis was the one the moment she read the scene in which Skeeter (Emma Stone) first talks to her about wanting to interview her and write something from the point of view of the maids. “It’s in the final film, too. Before she says anything, something happens to Viola’s face. You can see her wheels turning about. Is this a good idea? What’s great about what she does as an actress is what she does when she doesn’t say anything, processing the idea of giving these interviews before she even says yes or no. There was such beauty in everything so still she did. That’s what really draws you in,” Schnee says. “Everything you see in the final performance she brings naturally with her into an audition — that sense of dignity. She’s so subtle and precise, and able to convey so much without speaking, which is not always easy for a theater actress to do. They’re usually bigger on screen than they need to be. Once we saw it on tape, even in an artificial environment like an audition, it was like, ‘That’s it.'”
If Barden’s memory serves him, Davis also did the scene in which Aibileen reads Skeeter what she’s written. “It’s such a heavy scene because it’s actually against the law for them to even be meeting with each other and talking about this, and yet, she starts talking about her first job and how she told this little boy that she was black because she drank too much coffee and starts laughing in the middle of it. It’s just so delightful,” he says.
Davis and Taylor immediately hit it off in the room, Barden remembers. “So he started playing around with her and they worked together on the scenes several times. After that, even though we continued to see other actresses, we hoped we’d be able to get her.”
Next: Octavia Spencer