‘The Help' is about the courage to change

Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are enjoying noon tea at the Ritz, which isn't all that strange for an award-winning actress (Davis has won two Tony Awards) and an actress hailed as one of the funniest in Hollywood (an honor Spencer earned in 2009 from Entertainment Weekly).

But as they sip from fine china and sample French macaroons and petits fours, they can't help but slip into character. "We is in high cotton now," says Davis as Aibileen Clark, protagonist of "The Help," a movie about black maids in the 1960s and a white socialite who take great risks in hopes of bringing societal change. Spencer lets out a giggle reminiscent of Minny Jackson, Aibileen's best friend.

And now this tête-à-tête has become ironic because we all know there is no way two black maids would ever be in the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead casually lounging and eating off the china -- certainly not in the 1960s, when the movie takes place -- and maybe, not even today.

"The Help," which opened Wednesday, is based on the best-selling novel by Atlanta-based author Kathryn Stockett. Set in Stockett's hometown of Jackson, Miss., the film tells the story of Aibileen, a black maid who has raised 17 white children, but finds herself changed after the death of her own child. Minny (Spencer), her best friend, is a big mouth, who keeps getting fired for sassing her employers. And Skeeter, played by Emma Stone, is the white socialite who is frustratingly single, but well-educated and intent on becoming a writer.

The three join together to work on a project that reveals the underbelly of relationships between black and white women of the time. Davis admits she had some trepidation portraying a maid in 2011, but Aibileen was the kind of role that doesn't come around often, she said, even for an actress with chops.

"[Aibileen] is a good role. I don't get to play characters who go on a journey," said Davis. "As an actress of color, you have few options. The options that are out there aren't fully fleshed out people, and the role that is fleshed out [happens to be] a maid."

Spencer expressed similar views about the roles of Aibileen and Minny. "These are smart women," she said. "They may not be educated, but they have a point of view. Why are we upset that they are maids? To me, it says the occupation is less valued, but these people are the reason ... I get to be an actress [today]."

Davis said playing Aibileen required very little research, noting that just getting by is an intimate experience for many African-Americans. She did, however, find it challenging to marry the past and the present. To know, for example, that she was working not far from the Tallahatchie River, where Emmett Till (the 14-year-old murdered in 1955 for reportedly flirting with a white woman) was found, and then go home to her tony apartment in Greenwood and shed Aibileen along with the rest of the past.

Bringing an authenticity to the role was so important to Davis, that at one point she pushed for changes in the film. "I had to ask Tate [Taylor, the director] to delete a few scenes," Davis said. Those would be early scenes when Aibileen shared stories about her deceased son with Skeeter, something Davis felt would never have happened so soon. "I pushed Tate to build in that this isn't a relationship where trust is given, it has to be proven. By the end, [Aibileen and Skeeter have] a respectful relationship."

Spencer faced her own challenges with Minny, Aibileen's brash sidekick who is also a battered wife. "Minny is such a dichotomy," said Spencer. "The world sees her as a person who stands up for herself and she is strong, but she is also an abused woman. Once I stopped judging her, I was able to play her."

As it happens, the role is loosely based on Spencer, who spoke her mind when she first met Stockett. She admits to having her Minny moments, but says she has a more tactful execution. "I have never been fired for my mouth, but I have been promoted," Spencer said.

Both actresses said they learned a lot from the characters they portrayed. "Aibileen has a whole lot more courage than I do," said Davis. "I learned about real courage -- to live on after the loss of a child, to start her life anew ... the ability, even in her grief, to love so unconditionally."

Spencer learned that she has a lot of work to do when it comes to her civic duties. "Being a part of the solution has a whole new meaning for me now," she said. "I try to put myself in other people's shoes."

While the movie is set in the civil rights era, it is really about relationships, said both actresses, who hope that audiences, particularly African-American moviegoers, will recognize the effort and respond positively. "People need to look beyond the fact that this takes place in the civil rights era," Spencer said. "It is about finding the courage to make a change in your life."