Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in The Help
(© Dale Robinette/Dreamworks)
Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in The Help
(© Dale Robinette/Dreamworks)
Kathryn Stockett's critically acclaimed and best-selling novel The Help, set at the dawn of the civil rights movement, explores the intertwined lives of African-American maids and their white employers. Now, the big-screen adaptation of the book, starring Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, Octavia Spencer, and Sissy Spacek, is hitting theaters this week as one of the summer's most anticipated films.

The story follows two black maids, Aibileen (Davis) and Minny (Spencer), who open up to Skeeter (Stone), a young and ambitious white writer, about their experiences living in 1960's Greenwood, Mississippi. Like the book, the film is likely to spark a healthy race-relations debate over how blacks are portrayed in art and literature.

Indeed, the film's star, two-time Tony Award winner Viola Davis, admits to much consideration before she took on the role of Aibileen. "I thought, 'Do I really want to play a character that could be viewed as so subservient?' But I see her as more than that," explains Davis. "This is all we were back then; we were maids, a lot of us couldn't vote, yet she was able to break out of all that to pursue a goal and a dream to speak out. I think that's liberated."

Ultimately, Davis sees her contribution to the film as an artist's journey rather than a political statement. "We have to play the human being," she says. "It doesn't matter if it's politically incorrect. I don't want to make a statement. I don't want to play an image. I think the most revolutionary thing for me as an actress is to just play the role."

The film was shot entirely on location in Greenwood, which Spencer says was a wise choice. "That little town hasn't seen much change," says Spencer. "It's very true to the nature of the project. Mississippi is a character, and if we'd done it on a soundstage it would have been a totally different movie."

Allison Janney and Emma StoneinThe Help
(© Dlale Robinette/Dreamworks)
Allison Janney and Emma Stone
inThe Help
(© Dlale Robinette/Dreamworks)
Many of the film's other stars say they didn't have to look far -- geographically or philosophically -- to find the inspiration for their characters. Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays racist socialite Hilly Holbrook, simply had to talk to her family. "My mom [actress Cheryl Howard] spent a lot of her childhood in Louisiana," she notes. "She said to me, 'Don't play this character like she's Cruella Deville. You have to find the real woman in this because this was real and people need to know.'"

The actress -- whose father is Oscar-winner Ron Howard -- also admits it was a challenge to play someone whose morality was so opposite of her own. "I had to believe in the things I was saying and believe that what I was doing was right, because those were the circumstances back then with these women," she says. "They actually thought they were doing good -- which is so scary."

Spacek, who plays Hilly's mother, drew on her own past. "I lived during the era," she notes. "I was born in Texas and I remember segregated restrooms and water fountains, and yet I grew up in a small enough town that we all knew each other and played together. I remember integration, rumblings on TV about Mississippi and Georgia. That's what is so great about this book and movie; there are young people who never experienced that and I think it's good for them to know."

Janney, who plays Charlotte, the mother of Stone's aspiring writer, recognizes the story's darker moments. But she points out there were plenty of lighter moments -- both on the screen and on the set. "It was a lovefest," she says. "We had no bad girl drama, only good girl drama. Everyone enjoyed each other's company. We shared facial secrets, we rescued dogs, we talked about life, Crisco, and eating fried food. It was just wonderful."