Octavia Spencer knows the character of Minny in The Help better than anyone else. Not only did she perform the part with the author on her book tour and in the audio book edition, but it was her outspoken ebullience and confidence that helped to inspire the character when Kathryn Stockett was first writing the story. She spoke to a small group of online journalists on the set in Mississippi last August.
“The character of Minny is very, very loosely based on me,” she told us.
I met [director] Tate [Taylor]when both were production assistants on “A Time to Kill” in Jackson. My personality is not the best when I am hungry or hot. Kathryn Stockett said, “I’m writing a book” and I’m like, “Who isn’t, honey?” When I got it, I teased her about having a part — “Am I the love interest for Denzel?” I was afraid it was another Mammy. I hate “Gone With the Wind.” But then I read the first page – and stayed up all night.
She told us that Taylor is her best friend, like a brother. She went with Stockett on the book tour because the book is written in alternating first-person narratives and while Stockett was willing to write in dialect, she did not want to read aloud the African-American character’s voices. Spencer’s agents did not want her to go. It was pilot season, and they thought she should be available for parts that came up in television. But she went. Still, she was afraid she would not get the part in the movie. “Oh, God, there’s Mo’nique out there. And Queen Latifah,” she thought. But she got it.
Some of the challenges included driving the car from the 1960’s — no adjustable seat and no power breaks. And the clothes of the period: “Girdles and pointy bras. I’m a 200 lb woman – it’s all pushed in and sweaty.” This was a different experience for her as an actress. “I’m usually the humorous and sarcastic person in the drama. Good to get a chance to use a different set of muscles. There has to be that sense of what the danger was for these women.” And, like the other people we spoke to, she was grateful for the inspiration they drew from the location and history of the community. “Greenwood has a lot of history. I’m still reconciling that and having it for Minnie. The book makes that part of history palatable. It’s about the relationships and the bonds between the characters.” And she spoke about her hopes for what we can learn from a story set half a century ago. “What I love about this book is that we are having the conversations so that we can stop having the conversations.”