Originally published August 8, 2011 at 7:00 PM | Page modified August 9, 2011 at 11:05 AM

Corrected version

Actress Viola Davis is no stranger to 'The Help'

An interview with Viola Davis, the Oscar-nominated actress who stars as Aibileen in the new film adaptation of the best-selling novel "The Help."

Seattle Times movie critic

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'The Help'

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When Viola Davis first read Kathryn Stockett's novel "The Help," she saw a movie in her head — and thought she might be the first to bring it to the screen.

"I told my husband [actor Julius Tennon], 'We're going to option this book!,' " Davis said. "We're going to produce it, and I'm going to employ all these black actresses, and I'm just going to put it on the map! I just had this idea that I was going to be the savior of women of color in Hollywood. And then I found out that Tate Taylor had the rights to the book, and the movie was already kind of in the works," she said, laughing. You sense that Davis, a charming and informal voice on the other end of a telephone last week, laughs frequently.

Davis, a Juilliard-trained actor best known for her Oscar-nominated role opposite Meryl Streep in "Doubt" (and for her stage work, for which she has won two Tony Awards), nonetheless found her way to "The Help," which opens Wednesday in theaters nationwide. She plays Aibileen, a maid in early-'60s Jackson, Miss., who quietly endures her employer's racist remarks and casual cruelty — only to go home and write down her thoughts in a journal.

To play Mrs. Miller in "Doubt" — a character with barely 15 minutes of screen time — Davis has said that she wrote a character biography that was more than 50 pages. Aibileen, her largest screen role to date, didn't need a bio; she was right there on the page. But the role was challenging, despite the wealth of material. "She is a quiet character, and quiet characters are very difficult," Davis said. "In the book, a lot of Aibileen's character is stream of consciousness, her thought process. Very little is said with her."

To supplement the character on the page, Davis drew on other influences for Aibileen. "I was born in South Carolina," she said. "Aibileen and Minny [another maid and primary character in the book] are just an extension of my family. These are women I know."

And she immersed herself in the history of the period, reading numerous books about the civil-rights movement. "I really felt like if I read as much as I could, I'd have something maybe nuanced in my performance that could provide some further authenticity." Davis especially appreciated a novel called "Freshwater Road," by Denise Nicholas, "about this young black girl from Chicago who moves to Mississippi for the summer to become a freedom fighter, but it's just about her everyday life."

Davis cited a helpful "Eyes on the Prize" documentary about maids in the South, and said she also based the character, "very, very loosely," on civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. "She was born the same year as Aibileen, in Mississippi."

Davis, who'll next be seen on screen in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, with Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks) adds that she has "one really big fantasy" for her character: that Aibileen, after the events of the book, went on to become involved in the civil-rights movement. "I don't think Aibileen knows [what she wants in her future]," Davis said. "I just think she knows what she does not want anymore."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

This article was corrected on Aug. 9, 2011. In an earlier version, the title of Denise Nicholas' book and the setting of the movie "The Help" were misstated.

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