“We were getting our pictures taken and her eyes were disproportionate to her little body,” Taylor, now 42, explains during a recent interview at a Georgetown hotel, his Southern twang coming through full blast. “I think I made fun of her. I think I threw rocks at her that day, as she tells it. And we just became friends.”
Decades later, Stockett would write the best-selling novel “The Help,” an exploration of ’60s-era tensions between African American maids and their white employers in Jackson. Taylor would grow up to become a filmmaker, acquire the rights to “The Help” and direct the adaptation, which opens Wednesday.
Taylor and Stockett aren’t the only close friends linked by “The Help.” Seated beside him and laughingly calling him “evil” as he recalls the pebble-tossing is actress Octavia Spencer. Those two met 15 years ago as production assistants on the set of “A Time to Kill.” Now Spencer — who largely has played bit parts in films and TV shows, including a short and a feature directed by Taylor — has a co-starring role in “The Help,” portraying no-nonsense housekeeper Minny opposite Academy Award nominee Viola Davis.
Honestly, as Spencer and Tate discuss the bonds that preexisted the production (co-star Allison Janney also previously worked with Taylor and Spencer) as well as formed during it, it seems that just friends worked on “The Help.”
That’s notable considering the assignment: Taylor, a Caucasian man from the South, had to guide a cast of women, white and black, through the often ugly and racist terrain of the civil rights movement. Spencer, 39, insists that neither gender nor racial divides created discord on-set.
“The beauty of having my white friend direct it was that I realized this was just the world I was creating then,” she says. “And if anyone knew the sensitivities, Tate did, and understood where we had to be emotionally.”
Says Taylor: “At the end of the day, we would wrap and 1963 would come to a close. And literally, in 30 minutes, we’d all be eating dinner together, laughing, at somebody’s house.”
The two nostalgically describe a kumbaya vibe during the production, which took place in Greenwood, Miss., 96 miles north of Jackson. But both are keenly aware of the less positive perceptions of the novel written by their mutual friend.
While “The Help” has generated praise and phenomenal sales — it sat atop the Los Angeles Times bestseller list for more than a year after its February 2009 release — some reviewers and readers were uncomfortable with subservient African American women finding liberation via the open-minded and white character Skeeter (played in the movie by Emma Stone), who writes a life-altering tell-all about the indignities they endure.
Spencer says she understands why some people assume the story will dredge up antiquated mammy stereotypes because she jumped to similar conclusions when Stockett — who, yes, met Spencer through Taylor and is now a close friend — first showed her the manuscript.