In The Help, Emma Stone plays Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, a young woman who returns home from college to embark on a career as a journalist, in the early 1960s just as the Civil Rights Movement was becoming a force for change. We have a special Q/A with the actress below!
Did the film match up to your expectations?
Emma Stone: It’s really great. I’m very proud to be part of a film like this. We are all so excited and it’s done so well. It’s incredible.
Describe your character.
Emma Stone: Skeeter is a 23 three year old who has recently graduated from college with a degree in journalism. When she returns home, she discovers that the maid who raised her has left the family and no one is telling her why and she finds out that she has been fired after 23 years. And Skeeter, much like Kathryn when she wrote the book, has an idea to try and understand what it must be like for women to work with a family for that long, when they become part of the family, and they are fired. So she approaches Aibileen (Viola Davis) about writing a book and when Aibileen agrees it all starts.
What are the themes that the story deals with?
Emma Stone: I think The Help touches on so many themes. I think Kathryn set out to write characters, not a message, but the thing that is so wonderful about this story is that it’s about being human, it’s not like she was trying to get across some social message. So there are themes of love, friendship, acceptance, the relationship between a mother and daughter, the relationship between carer and a child, first love, self-acceptance, overcoming adversity, it’s the story of the underdog, the story of bravery in the face of being jailed or being killed. It’s a story about racial inequality, gender inequality – there are so many messages and themes. Courage is probably the biggest theme of all.
It also has a lot to say about friendship, doesn’t it? And that friendship comes from everywhere and anywhere.
Emma Stone: Absolutely. I’ve always felt that true friendship is one of the most important relationships you can have in your life and you can be related to someone without necessarily being friends with someone. Your sibling is family but isn’t necessarily a friend. Friendship is the core of any relationship – whether it’s a love relationship, a family relationship or just a friendship. It’s the most important thing we can be to each other as human beings This story is all about accepting someone as a friend even though socially, at that time, you are taught that you shouldn’t.
Have you had important friendships in your own life?
Emma Stone: Absolutely. I’ve had hugely important friendships. There are childhood friends that are still a big part of my life and people that I don’t see so much but they are still important in my life. I think as time goes on you work with people or meet people socially who become mentors or true friends or love interests in your life and all of those people are so formative and key to your existence – as they say, no man is an island.
Let’s talk about the time period that the film is set in. It wasn’t that long ago. Did you know much about that time period?
Emma Stone: I knew of the time period but obviously I didn’t live through it, I didn’t experience it, so even though I knew a little about it by embarking on the film I learned so much more about it. Viola talks about this and I think she’s right, when it comes to the dirty parts of our history, the parts that we’ve moved past, we don’t want to talk about them and we’ve brushed them under the rug. So growing up in Arizona in a very conservative state, where there’s a lot of immigration, there’s a lot of help, there wasn’t a lot of discussion of this time period. So I heard about the good parts, the good things, the big moments but I didn’t hear about the day to day, the ordinary people who make such a huge difference in the world so this was an incredible learning experience for me.
How did you research the period? Books, documentaries?
Emma Stone: Yes, Tate gave us an incredible documentary series, The Eyes on The Prize, six one-hour programmes about the civil rights movement in that period. And it was really informative, incredible to watch and staggering to hear the stories of violence and inequality for no good reason – just hate and ignorance. It was fascinating and horrifying. And I read books on the Jim Crow Laws (which covered racial segregation in public places). Jim Crow was a man who made these laws in Mississippi that decreed that everybody had to use separate bathrooms, separate cinemas, water fountains and lunch counters – he created this legal separation. In our story Skeeter goes to the library and learns all about this and she learns that white and black human beings co-mingling can be grounds for being thrown into jail. And learning that she goes to Aibileen’s house and says ‘I now know that it’s illegal what we’re doing, it’s illegal to be sitting here discussing this…’ It’s unreal.
Things have been going really well in your career. But was this one different for you and in a way, life changing?
Emma Stone: Absolutely life changing and not just in the sense that I learned so much and it was such an enriching experience personally. And it was a different experience being in the South and having to learn a new accent or being in the Sixties, all these things that I’d never experienced before, but it was so enriching as an actor. I saw for the first time how to look at acting in a different way and how to put yourself aside for a character. And I don’t know that I did that before. I think very differently now after The Help, so it was an incredible and very important experience for me.
Was it important that you all bonded? Did that help with the performances?
Emma Stone: Yes, absolutely. We were in a small town and we didn’t know anybody else, we just had each other. It was very exciting to shoot on location because you don’t just go home at night the way you would if you are in New York or Los Angeles. So it really was a complete bonding experience and we would hang out with each other and have block parties, it was really incredible.
Have they become friends?
Emma Stone: Oh my God, yes, we’ve become great friends and I know that we’ll be friends for life. We’re a great team. We all get along so well, thankfully, because we all had to spend a lot of time with each other. But it’s been a great experience and so much fun, too.
Did you start acting when you were growing up in Arizona?
Emma Stone: Yes, I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona and it was a nice place to grow up. There was a great youth theatre company there where I got to do improvisation at a very young age. I was 11 when I started doing improv and learning where your passion lies at just 11 years old – I was so lucky.
Did you know from that point on that was what you wanted to do?
Emma Stone: I think I knew from the age of 7 when I was in my first school play.
Were you encouraged or discouraged?
Emma Stone: My parents didn’t really get it at first, I think because I was so little. I remember as soon as we went to this theatre, I was begging them, ‘please, please, please let me do it.’ And my Mom didn’t really want me to go because it was down town and she thought it was a dangerous area. But finally she took me to this acting class and they said ‘we need to see what level you will be in.’ and they were having auditions for this play at the theatre. I auditioned for Wind In the Willows – I was Otter in >o?Wind in the Willows! Isn’t that funny – that was my first ever play. And it kind of just went from there – and Mom and Dad have been incredibly supportive.
The Help is out on DVD December 6th, 2011!