If Tate Taylor had not chucked stones at a preschool classmate 35 years ago, the movie adaptation of “The Help” might never have happened.
The target of Taylor’s teasing that day at Covenant Presbyterian preschool in Jackson, Miss., was 5-year-old Kathryn Stockett.
“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.
“She had written it in a dialect,” Spencer says, “and [after] the very first line I was like: Oh, really?” But after reading the whole novel, Spencer found the characters nuanced.
And nuance is something Taylor says he was determined to bring to the film adaptation, which portrays African American women of the era who weren’t all docile and obedient.
“People insinuate African Americans were all victims until Lyndon Johnson,” he says. “And it’s not true. That isn’t depicted much in cinema.”
“That’s why this project is so refreshing,” Spencer says, jumping in. “The strength is there for the African American characters in the movie.”
Taylor and Spencer dive in to finish each other’s thoughts a lot, sometimes even completing sentences in unison. “He’s like a brother,” Spencer says at one point, noting that they were roommates for five years in L.A. until a few months ago, when she got her own place.
The two have worked hard to reach this moment: sitting in a Ritz-Carlton, on a press tour for a major Hollywood movie, happily discussing a project they worked on together that has buzz.
Though Spencer partially inspired Stockett to create the Minny character, and provided her voice on the audiobook, she still had to fight to get the role. And though Taylor had bought the movie rights from Stockett a year before the book got published, studio executives weren’t sure he was the man for the job — he had directed only one feature film, a low-key indie called “Pretty Ugly People.”
“I would send them the screenplay,” Taylor says, “and then they would be like, okay, we like the screenplay. But do you really have to direct it? These people that we’ve been dying to pay attention to us for 20 years — ”
He mimes hanging up the phone and pauses for effect: “Oh my God.”
But Taylor’s stubbornness paid off. The project ultimately landed at DreamWorks, where he was given creative control. He was able to cast Spencer as Minny and Janney as Skeeter’s mother. And he included his dear friend Stockett, consulting her about casting and inviting her down to Greenwood.
“They took a leap of faith,” Taylor says of DreamWorks co-founder Steven Spielberg and chief executive Stacey Snider. “And since then, we’ve all become friends.
“This whole thing has been about trust, loyalty, taking chances,” he adds with a broad smile. “Just like the . . . book.”