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The film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s surprise 2009 bestseller The Help faces a couple of potential pitfalls: the racial politics of a white woman telling the story of black domestics in Mississippi during the civil-rights movement (via a book written by a white woman and a film by a white director, Tate Taylor) and Hollywood’s traditionally poor track record of portraying the South—particularly its accents—realistically. Twenty-two-year-old Emma Stone is carrying much of that responsibility. She stars as “Skeeter” Phelan, a new college grad working on a book about the domestic-attendant class with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer. Against the backdrop of Jim Crow and the murder of Medgar Evers, the trio’s secret project entails real danger. It’s heavy stuff for Stone, who’s best known for comedies like Superbad, Zombieland, Easy A and the recent Crazy, Stupid, Love, but it’s a key part of a slew of upcoming films poised to make her a big star. Stone shows she has the chops for that next step in The Help, buoyed by a strong supporting cast that includes Spencer, Davis, Allison Janney, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Sissy Spacek. Before the film opened, The A.V. Club talked to Stone about doing right by the book’s many fans (including her mom), dealing with the film’s politics, and why she freaks out before starting any movie.
The A.V. Club: There are a lot of potential pitfalls with a movie like this, with the racial politics, portrayal of Southern life, etc. What do you think was the key to avoiding them?
Emma Stone: I think, probably, the reason why everyone wanted to be involved was, it felt like Kathryn had already written a story that didn’t fall into all those pitfalls. In terms of the storytelling, it didn’t feel like we needed to be careful to make this story not a hokey Southern tale, because she didn’t write a hokey Southern tale. The dialect was incredibly hard for me. It was a really difficult thing.
AVC: People don’t really get that there are types of Southern dialects.
ES: Yeah, by county, there’s like 14 different accents in Mississippi alone. [Laughs.] And now, present day, a Mississippi accent is different than in 1963, the way Skeeter spoke, or the way Allison Janney’s character speaks. So we had a dialect coach, which is like going to visit France and having to translate all your emotions into French, and French isn’t your first language. I had to go through that filter, so it was interesting.
AVC: What kind of stuff did she have you do?
ES: Well, she was kind of amazing. She went and met a ton of people in Jackson of all different age ranges and recorded them and sat down with them and had them tell her their life stories. She was Viola’s dialect coach, she was Allison’s dialect coach, she was mine. There were a bunch of different dialects. But she sent me four or five different people talking about their lives that I would sit and listen to, and we honed in on which one we thought would make the most sense for Skeeter, and kind of pieces from all these different accents.
AVC: Like what kinds of pieces?
ES: Have you talked to Kathryn Stockett? She’s the writer of the book and she would say, [Adopts thick accent.] “Awwn” for “on.” But Tate [Taylor]’s also from Jackson, and he says, [Less thick.] “On.” It’s funny. It’s like a puzzle, putting together your individual accent and what you grew up with or what you heard. It must be insane to be a dialect coach, to balance all that out. [Laughs.]
AVC: How much thought went into the unintentional racial politics of the movie? There’s a certain criticism: “Oh, there’s a white woman saving black people.” The book was by a white woman, the movie’s being directed by a white man. How much was that on your mind?
ES: I don’t see this as a white woman saving these maids at all. I think Skeeter’s original intention, especially in the book, is pretty self-[centered]. She’s not a martyr character at all to me. When she first talks to Miss Stein in the book, she comes up with a bunch of ideas, and Miss Stein basically says, “You’re not gonna get published. No one’s gonna find this interesting.” So Skeeter thinks of what would be the most interesting, and that would be if she could speak to the maids in the middle of the civil-rights movement. It’s kind of from a self-serving place of wanting to be published, which I completely relate to, and it seems very human and realistic to me. She’s not a revolutionary in the Junior League; she’s a girl who wants to be published.
As time goes on, she learns more and more about what’s going on, what’s actually happening in society and the kinds of changes they are making. But I think that’s through Aibileen and Minny being brave enough to be part of it. Skeeter’s an idealistic girl who is saying, [Adopts her character’s accent.] “Wouldn’t it be so exciting if I could interview you?” You know, like, “No! You’re gonna get us killed! You’re insane.” Their bravery is what ultimately makes this story even happen. Skeeter doesn’t have a story to tell until the very end, when she’s finally learned just how these women have affected her. I definitely don’t see her as a savior in the story at all. But it has been interesting talking to Viola and Octavia and everyone. Going into the book, they’re reading from Kathryn Stockett’s perspective, and you open with Aibileen’s dialogue. It’s written in this dialect that I can’t even believe [Laughs.] that a white woman is willing to go there, and Viola said by page two, she was completely wrapped up in it and was no longer on guard the way she was when she first started reading the book.
AVC: It’s not like Gone With The Wind.
ES: No, and I think Skeeter even says that when she calls up Miss Stein. “No one asked Mammy how she feels in Gone With The Wind.” Mammy wasn’t really much of a fleshed-out character. She was just kind of there to take care of Miss Scarlett.
AVC: You mentioned in the book that Skeeter’s trying these different ideas to Miss Stein. Was there anything else in the book that didn’t make it into the movie that you wish had?
ES: There were elements of getting to know Stuart’s family. His father in the book is a senator, and she goes over for this dinner, which is a really funny, heartbreaking scene in the book because the father is a drunk. It becomes a really interesting whole level to Skeeter and Stuart that understandably, for time and the fact that we only have two hours instead of 444 pages, that wasn’t in there. But I would’ve liked that. There was also a really interesting scene with a naked man in Celia’s backyard in the book, which is really bizarre, and you see Celia turn into a total badass, and Minny defends her. It was a really strange and interesting scene.
AVC: Did you guys shoot much more than what is in the movie?
ES: Not much more, but there are definitely some things.
AVC: Like what?
ES: Tate has explained it all to me, so I totally understand why it’s not in the movie, but there was one where Hilly kicks me out of this Junior League—it’s a real standoff—after Skeeter puts the toilets on her lawn. But I think it’s pretty much insinuated. Then there was a scene with the maids, and one of them basically sits down with me and says, “You know we hate you, right?” Which was really beautiful and interesting, and again, very realistic. All these women are like, “We don’t trust you. We don’t trust what you’re doing. Why are you here? What are you gaining from this?” Aibileen basically escorts her out, but everyone’s silently agreeing with what she said to me. I thought that was a kind of an incredible scene, and the actress was incredible, so I’m pretty bummed that that scene didn’t make it.
AVC: Did you feel especially nervous about working on this film? The other roles you’ve done haven’t matched the thematic scale.
ES: Yeah. Well, without fail, about a week before shooting anything, I’m always like, “Oh my God, I’m completely unprepared. I haven’t done enough research. I haven’t got anything right.” It’d be like taking a final or something. “Fuck, it’s so much work to get done!” [Laughs.] So it’s like the night before the final. That happens every time I’m about to start a project, as I’m sure it does to most people when they have to start a new job or something you care about a lot, or you want to do right. But the thing about Tate is that he’s insane.
AVC: You’ve talked about how big of a fan of the book your mom is. Does this feel like your first really big, “legitimate” movie in that sense?
ES: Well, the thing that’s also interesting about this is, it’s the first time I’ve ever done a movie based on a book, an adaptation. It’s so funny, because you usually get a script and you tell people what the story’s about, and they have no idea what’s going on. Whereas this, you come into it, and it seems like everyone you talk to has [Laughs.] a million opinions on the cast and the way the story should be told. Viola keeps saying this movie should be called The Big Responsibility instead of The Help, because there were so many groups of people that you wanna do right by. You want to do right by Southerners and the African-American community and the readers of the book and the people that grew up with domestics and the people who worked as domestics. There’s a million different groups that you’re trying to please and satisfy that you’re worried about not loving what comes across onscreen. You kind of have to simplify. But yes, definitely. Coming from my mom… [Sighs, then laughs.]
AVC: But you also have to know that you can’t please everybody.
ES: No. Of course, and that’s something you have to come to terms with in life, growing up, as well. With your work, you have to realize that at the end of the day, you can only do the best you can do, and you have to just live up to your own goals, if possible.
AVC: This is a good time for you, because it seems like you’re on the precipice of big things: a lot of films this summer, a blockbuster next year. To have a film where you’re having to please all these people at this juncture in your career, it seems like there would be a lot of pressure.
ES: Well, this whole world doesn’t really feel like reality. It never has. As much as I try to be present, it just doesn’t really feel like reality. It feels like a fleeting thing. I’ll remember this time and look back on it fondly, but I don’t expect it to last forever. There’s a million other incredibly wonderful girls that are much more talented than me that are out there all the time. So I’m just trying to appreciate it for what it is. But I don’t want it to take on that feeling of pressure, because I don’t know where that’s gonna get me. That’ll drive me crazy. And what’s the pressure? What is the pressure, exactly?
AVC: To succeed?
ES: But success to me is my friends and family are healthy and happy and I feel good about myself at the end of the night and I can sleep at night. I mean, being able to work on projects that I love and care about has been the greatest gift ever, and that’s been a pretty recent thing in my life. But success for me at some point will probably be having a family. [Laughs.] I don’t know how I define it.
AVC: You’ve said you want to emulate Diane Keaton, and Tate Taylor said he was looking for a “Joan Cusack at 20” type for this role, but it also seems like Sissy Spacek would be a role model for you.
ES: Yes! Absolutely. You could reach the scene, and you could never have any idea that she’s Sissy Spacek. She’s like, a mom, so down-to-earth, so relatable and human and not in her head or in her shit at all! Yeah, she’s a total role model. Because I find more and more, as time goes on, these people I meet, they are starting to become these people I look up to more and more. Like Julianne Moore, also, on Crazy Stupid Love: kids, husband, priorities straight. Or Woody Harrelson’s like that. Those are the people I really admire, and that’s success to me: being able to balance that life and not buy into it. And do the work that you want to do and makes you happy, because you’re lucky enough to do it. But if I never got a role again, I’ve got this incredible life.
AVC: And they’ve been able to work—
ES: Steadily, because they followed their hearts and because they made decisions creatively and did what was important to them. That’s the ultimate goal, is never falling into that… thing.