In my opinion, Viola Davis is the finest actress in movies today. In “Doubt,” she gave the best performance of the year in one short but very powerful scene as the mother of a boy who may have been abused. She has made an indelible impression in brief appearances in movies as sympathetic therapists in “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” and “Trust,” best friends in “Eat Pray Love” and “Nights in Rodanthe,” as a mayor in “Law Abiding Citizen” and as a space ship captain in “Solaris.” It was truly a thrill to speak to her about playing the strong, quiet, principled maid Aibileen in “The Help.”
Like the other people working on the movie, she was very aware of the about the influence of the setting. “It’s easier to do this because you’re in Mississippi. It’s a different world. A different energy that informs everything you do. Going into Baptist Town [the primarily black neighborhood] you feel the spirits of the past.”
We asked about developing a Mississippi accent. “The accent is a work in progress. I was born in South Carolina and raised in Rhode Island. It’s my mother’s voice I hear in my head. I don’t want the accent to be as strong as it is in the book. I’ve read the criticism about the dialect online. I don’t want anything to distract from the character. I want to make it accessible.” Her research about the era included books, the Eyes on The Prize PBS series, “a documentary about maids, my mother, relatives, everybody.” She also remembered a teacher in college who was part of Freedom summer and came back to campus to talk about it.
Asked about the challenges of the story, she frankly acknowledged, “There’s a lot of pressure. There are two stories going on. It’s the experience of a lot of Caucasians with substitute mothers and the story of these maids, my mother’s story, who these women were when they went home. That’s the part that makes it a dirty secret, not palatable. That’s the story of those who worked for other people. Abeline was born in 1911. By [the setting of the movie] she has has 53 years of incredible history. You feel an incredible responsibility not to make it sanitized. That’s what Hollywood always does.”
And she spoke of the challenges of playing a character who by nature and culture seldom says what she is thinking. “Your internal dialog has got to be different from what you say….[that is what] makes it so rich.” It was sometimes very difficult to do. “You feel the rage, the frustration, the repression, the intense level of sadness, of going to your grave without ever realizing your dreams and hopes. Now we can speak our minds more. To be silent so much – it’s hard not to carry that rage when you leave the set.”