Going after the key leading role of Aibileen Clark in the new film The Help was a no-brainer for actress Viola Davis, for it was a plum Hollywood role for a middle-aged woman of color.
"I lobbied hard for it, as did as every black actress in Hollywood," Davis recalled at a recent press day for the drama, set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the midst of the civil rights movement. "When you see a black actress playing a role in Hollywood in a big movie, you know every black actress is lobbying for that role. Because we don't have a lot of them!"
Wanting to win the coveted role of Aibileen in the adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name was one thing, but as a modern-day American black woman, she had some misgivings about playing a subservient Southern black maid who secretly yearns to be a writer. At 45, Davis is a bit too young to remember 1963 and the events that shattered the color barrier in America. But she is certainly aware of what happened, and what the world was like for women of color. And she was not positive she wanted to step into those shoes.
"It was a lot of negotiation on my part, in my mind [about doing the role]," the two-time Tony Award winner and Academy Award nominee recalled, "because I thought, 'Do I want to play a character that could be viewed as so subservient?'"
"I've always had a problem with race plays and movies, because while I'm filming and shooting, or doing the play, I always feel some sense of repressed anger. Overwhelming anger and, 'How do I get through this?' And I don't like taking that home with me. So I always say, 'I don't want to do it.' So then I decided to do this, and I was like, 'Oh, damn!'"
In The Help, Aibileen risks everything (not only her job but even her life) to work with a young white woman to secretly write a book. It's filled with the stories of both sides of life between the two classes of women in Jackson, the wealthy whites who hire the black maids, and the maids themselves. It's a risky business as Mississippi, like much of the South at the time, is being shaken by black activists who are vocally beginning to assert their desire for truly equal rights, not the racist Jim Crow "separate but equal" system in place at the time. Prejudice and violence are all around them as they work on their book, but the women’s secret sparks a smaller revolution inside the world of the maids.
The film is generating hot buzz, and Oscar predictions abound for the Tate Taylor-directed film, Davis herself and the rest of the stellar cast, including Emma Stone, Sissy Spacek, Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney and Octavia Spencer. But don't tell Viola Davis that.
"Buzz drives me crazy!" she exclaimed. "Buzz makes you nervous, because buzz is about expectation. Because people walk into the movie with expectations of either it being better or worse than what it is. But either way, it's always better if people have no expectations whatsoever. No buzz."
It's too late for that, and Viola Davis will just have to get used to it, for The Help is very likely going to ride that positive buzz all the way through to awards season this winter, with the actress' fine work as Aibileen leading the charge.
Jenny Peters' credits include writing on film, celebrities, parties, travel, restaurants and fashion for USA Today Weekend, the Los Angeles Daily News, Cosmopolitan, Los Angeles Confidential, Buzz, and many other domestic and international publications. She currently pens the Variety VPage party column as well as the "Seen and Heard" column for that same magazine, and is the West Coast Bureau Chief of Fashion Wire Daily.