Tate Taylor and Octavia Spencer bonded on the Mississippi set of A Time to Kill and Spencer would later appear in all three films Taylor scripted and directed: the short film "Chicken Party" and the features Pretty Ugly People and The Help. Both are actors, Taylor having appeared in Winter's Bone, I Spy and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion and Spencer racking up ninety film and TV credits, including Dinner for Schmucks, Seven Pounds, Peep World, The Soloist, Drag Me to Hell, and Spider-Man, as well as TV's Ugly Betty, Dollhouse, The Big Bang Theory, Malcolm in the Middle and The X-Files. The old friends chatted with me at San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel, where they were promoting The Help, a '60s-set race drama.
Groucho: So, you two are having a moment, as they say, career-wise, with this film. It’s all coming together. And you’ve been career buddies almost from the start, isn’t that right?
Taylor Tate: Since ’95. We met as production assistants on A Time to Kill in Mississippi. I delivered call sheets to her office.
Octavia Spencer: (Laughs.) And gave me shoulder massages.
Groucho: So you were the runner type.
Tate Taylor: There you go. Ohh, runner, walker, crawler. Yeah.
Groucho: So did you two stay in touch from that point on?
Tate Taylor: Absolutely.
Octavia Spencer: We were inseparable.
TT: We became best friends immediately. After the conclusion of that film, we had both been asked by Sandra Bullock, who was in the film—she was going to give directing a shot—she said, “Y'all should come out to L.A. and be assistants on this short film I’m doing.” And I looked at Roc, and she was “I’ll go with you to L.A.” I said, “Well, I’ll go. I’m not going to get an acting-writing-directing career in Jackson, Mississippi.” We hit it off, and we just became friends and stayed in contact. And she’s graciously did anything I’ve ever asked her to be in. I’ve made a short film and a feature prior to this. She was in it. Just kept going, yeah.
OS: And produced a bunch.
G: And Octavia, you’ve made a couple of films yourself, haven’t you?
OS: Oh, about one or two.
(Octavia and Tate laugh.)
G: Is that something that you think you might want to push into a—
OS: You know what, the reason I decided to direct is so that I can understand acting more. Maybe somewhere way down the line. But producing? Definitely. But I just want to understand all the aspects of what we do.
G: So shooting in Mississippi. Obviously that was the only smart way to go. Did it present any unique challenges, or were there any sort of surprising benefits that you hadn’t considered?
TT: All the benefits. I knew. I knew. I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all; I just knew that to do justice to my friend’s novel—and being a Mississippian, her being a Mississippian, as Mississippians you know what a character Mississippi is. And I knew I had to bring the film there because it was going to benefit so greatly. When we were putting the shots together—my DP and my production designer—every shot we’re like, how can we Mississippi-ize this? With the crepe myrtles, the moths, the heat, the bugs, the sweat. So I knew that. What I wasn’t expecting to happen, which was so wonderful, was this strange—you had this incendiary place in the Deep South. And yet being in Mississippi in Greenwood, it was such an olive branch with all of our cast and crew. People fell in love with it and were not expecting to. People came kicking, screaming, and fighting: “Why do we have to go to Mississippi, this town with no movie theaters? And why do we have to go there when it’s so hot?” And then about a week later, they would all say, I don’t want to leave this place. And I’d say, “Why?” They would say, “Because it’s hot, and everybody’s a Christian, but they get drunk the night before church. And there’s roadkill everywhere. And we can just buy food that’s amazing. And everybody just knows everybody’s business, so it’s all out there and no one gives a shit.” And I just kept saying, “Mississippi is something.” Which is really cool for me. And I love that, it’s something. And my DP, y'know, he goes, “I live in Berkeley in this beautiful house. And it’s beautiful, but Mississippi’s something.” That was cool. I wasn’t prepared for that.
G: Cool, yeah. Now, Octavia, you are also a longtime friend of [Kathryn Stockett,] the author of the novel, correct?
OS: Actually, no.
G: No? Okay.
OS: I met her through Tate right—
TT: Right before.
OS: Yeah, right when she started writing the novel.
G: I see.
OS: And didn’t know her—we only had met—had one or two meetings when she—meetings being instances to meet—but became friends subsequently. As a result of—y'know, because she lived in Atlanta, and when we visited places I got to see her once or twice, but we’ve subsequently become really good friends.
G: But the story goes that something in your character maybe she had in mind or pictured when she was writing the character you play in the film. Is that true?
OS: Well, that is true. What happened was I—again, you know that Tate and I have known each other, and Brunson Green, the film producer, we’ve all known each other for about seventeen years. And we take vacations together, and we were actually working on the audio for—
TT: The short film "Chicken Party." We went and did the sound mix. We figured, we might as well go do it in New Orleans. That would be fun.
OS: And I went—because I had to—and Kathryn came down, and I was about a hundred pounds heavier, decided that I was on a diet. I don’t like being hot. We were there in August. It was a hundred-and-something degrees. And—
TT: I'm takin' her on a walking tour; she's had a raisin all day.
OS: And let’s just say it was the perfect storm for irritability.
OS: So Kathryn had also known that the voice of Aibileen would be inspired by her caregiver growing up, Demetrie, but I don’t think she’d figured out who Minny would be. And—
TT: She wanted a ying and a yang—
TT: Between these two women.
OS: A nice contrast. And of course, you know, Aibileen is so poised and very stoic in a lot of ways and just a sage. And Minny is just a cannonball.
OS: Just—what do you call it? A bull in a china shop.
TT: Bull in a china shop.
OS: And so I think that’s pretty much what she—
TT: And then after that weekend, Kathryn called me. She’s like “I love Octavia. Oh my gosh. That was so much fun.” She was like “I hope she doesn't care, but I really want to draw on her when I create—while I’m creating Minny.” I said, “Maybe you just don’t tell her.”
OS: Oh ho!
TT: Let me ease this into her as she—while you write the book.
OS: And you never told me—never told me until she was finished with the book and it was being published.
TT: And I did. I said—Kathryn modeled this—you inspired the character of Minny. And Octavia’s like, “Oh God. Somebody wrote a book. Ohh, what’s this woman doing copying me.”
TT: I brought her the manuscript. She was living with me at the time. And she's like “Alright, let me read it.” And her door shut. Now, I think she came out for air and to go to the bathroom, like, twice in forty-eight hours. And she came out of her room just [mock-crying:] “Wh-huh-my gosh, this is so good! I gotta call her. I’m so honored.” And it was great. And that was it!
G: Now, there is sort of a Hollywood tradition of telling African-American stories somewhat through a white filter, right? And I wonder, you know, I guess the book is told from multiple perspectives, but did you feel any sort of pressure to make it more from Skeeter’s point of view when you were developing the script?
TT: Not at all. What I liked about Kathryn’s manuscript, which I—'cause, y'know, she told me what it was about. And I didn’t prejudge it. I just thought I knew what it was going to be like. And then she—I started reading it. And, y'know, I had this amazing woman shape me: Carol Lee. My mom was a single mom, and she had to bring in help, and I had two mothers, basically. But when Kathryn—or I started reading Kathryn’s book, and we got to the chapters about Aibileen, and I started going into Aibileen’s world. I’m like, “Oh my gosh.” Here’s a subject that has supposedly—seemingly been exhausting, and this is the first time we get to see that these women are complete people. They’re not victims.
TT: They’re educated. They go to church. They have friends. They make jokes. They have children. They’re mentors to people. And they just are victims of the circumstance of this is the only job that they could get. So it was just like—I called her. I said, “Oh my gosh. You’ve done something that no one’s thought to do. And it was the most obvious and most important point of view to represent!" "Really?!" I go, "Yes!" When I was adapting it, I’m like "This is Aibileen’s story. Period." So it was a no-brainer.
G: I have to ask Octavia one more question. I read about your habit of writing "thank you" notes to producers and colleagues after you do a film, and I was just kind of reflecting on—and I talked about it with Emma earlier, too—Hollywood is an industry that really, it kind of—like many industries—runs on “help.” You know, not to say that you’re writing to those people on the films, but it did occur to me maybe doing a project like The Help gives you a new sensitivity to—and of course you were both PAs, so, you know.
OS: Um, I—I’m sorry, I don’t…
G: I don’t know that I really asked a question there, but—
G: I guess what I’m saying is do you think your attitude has helped your career, maybe, in as much as your talent has?
TT: Being a gracious Southerner.
OS: Well, I was about to say, that’s what we’ve always been taught, as Southerners, is to say, "Thank you." If someone sends you something or, y'know, does something for you, you say, "Thank you." And also because I know—long before there were Minnys and Aibileens and people who were housekeepers and perhaps felt invisible, I think it is always a gracious thing to acknowledge someone’s influence and going out of their way to help you. So, absolutely. I will always say, "Thank you."
G: And, if you had your druthers, where would you go next with your career? Now that you have sort of a stepping stone here, a more prominent part?
OS: Um, I would produce something that is a robot-alien-killing machine that could franchise.
G: With you inside.
TT: Whatever gets her fifty grand a week, and she just walks out in a green leotard, goes, "AHH!"
TT: "That’s a wrap!"
OS: "Thank you, Octavia."
G: That sounds like a plan. You'd have to write a lot of "thank you" notes after that one. Okay, thanks a lot.
OS: Thank you!
TT: Appreciate it.
G: Pleasure talking to you.
OS: Nice meeting you, Peter.