In the drama The Help, set in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960’s and adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name, actress Bryce Dallas Howard plays the film’s bitchy antagonist Hilly Holbrook. A villain who believes in her own self-righteousness and who has no idea that she is doing anything wrong, Hilly has the charisma needed for other women to follow her, but is also ice-cold and viciously cruel, if you cross her. Convinced she is justified, even though she is deeply misguided, Hilly’s actions cause Aibileen (Viola Davis) to go to Skeeter (Emma Stone) to share her stories about being a maid for wealthy white families for a secret writing project that the aspiring journalist is working on. While that unlikely friendship puts them all at risk, it also changes their lives in extraordinary ways that none of them ever could have imagined.
At the film’s press day, Bryce Dallas Howard talked about how much she wanted to be a part of such a fantastic project, how daunting it was to live up to the expectations of the fans of the book, making the character into a real woman instead of a two-dimensional villain, the fun and freedom of playing a bitch, and the honor she felt in working with Sissy Spacek, Viola Davis and Allison Janney. She also talked about taking on a dramedy with 50/50, in which she plays Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s girlfriend, and the experience she had producing the Gus Van Sant film Restless, due out in September. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
Question: Was this a project that was an easy decision to sign on for?
BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD: I auditioned for this. I really wanted to be in this. I hadn’t read the book. I heard about it, read the script and drove to the audition. On the way to the audition, I was talking to my mom and she asked me what I was auditioning for, and I told her it was The Help, and she had just read it in her book group and said it was extraordinary. The really eerie thing was that she was like, “What character are you gonna be auditioning for?,” and I said, “Hilly,” and without missing a beat, she said, “Oh, you’ll be perfect!” She experienced me at 15, so I understand what she’s talking about. She’s one of the only people who has seen that side of extreme rudeness. So then, after I auditioned, I thankfully heard pretty soon that I was being invited into the movie. Then, I read the book from there. So, I wanted to do it, and then after being offered it and reading the book, there was just no way that I wouldn’t have wanted to be a part of it. Even if I hadn’t read the book, there would have been no hesitancy. It was such a fantastic screenplay.
Was it daunting to take on this character and live up to the expectations of all the fans of the book?
HOWARD: When I was reading the script, and when reading the book, there’s a responsibility to create these as three-dimensional characters and not have Hilly Holbrook be some kind of Cruella DeVille, two-dimensional villain. I wanted to make her into a real woman because people were like that.
How much fun is it to play a bitch?
HOWARD: It’s fun to play a bitch. There’s a lot of freedom when you’re playing a character like that. You don’t need to worry about being likeable or appealing, or anything like that. I really, really, really enjoyed playing this character, and there were some tough things about her as well. It’s not like you’re playing some fantasy bad girl. She’s a genuinely evil person. It was like nothing that I had ever had the chance to do before. I’ve played a vampire (in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), but that’s more of a mythological character.
This was the first real person that I’ve played that’s despicable. She’s a real person and there’s a psychology behind her behavior. It’s not like she’s a sociopath or anything, which I felt was scarier. She had justified her actions and she felt like she was right, but she was a really cruel individual. Of course, she was racist, but she didn’t perceive herself as being that way. Above all, what she was, was ignorant. She actually thought what she was doing was right for her children, for her future, for her way of life. She was protecting something. When that dawned on me, that was really scary. She actually thought she was right, and women like that actually believe that what they’re doing is good.
How do you make that real, in today’s context?
HOWARD: For me, because the hardest thing for me to get behind was understanding how she could possibly think this way, I created actual stories of moments in her life that became the moments that she decided, “Oh, this is the way it needs to be.” For instance, she has a cold sore, at one point, so I just created this circumstance where she kept getting cold sores and she went to a doctor and said, “Why am I getting these cold sores?,” and the doctor handed her a pamphlet and said, “Have you ever used a bathroom that was maybe used by a black person?” And, she read the pamphlet about the importance of separate bathrooms, which is where she learned that from. I created this backstory where she learned that from a doctor. Those pamphlets were handed out and people were told that kind of information. That doesn’t make her an innocent, at all, whatsoever, but for myself, I had to create those moments in her history that amounted to a person that believed that what she was doing was right.
What was it like to work with Sissy Spacek and Viola Davis?
HOWARD: This is such an obvious thing to say, but it’s an honor. It really is. The thing that’s tough for me is to get over the fact that I’m working with them because you spend a significant period of time being in awe of them. I felt the same way about Allison Janney. These are powerhouse women, and have such tremendous talent and such integrity as individuals. I felt really, really lucky to work with them. You don’t want to mess up when you’re in a scene with them, at all.
Was 50/50 your first comedy?
HOWARD: Yeah, but I’m definitely not the funniest person in that movie. I play more of a dramatic role, and I’m not one of the central leads. That movie is really a bromance between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen. It’s based on a true story. It’s actually the story of the writer who wrote the screenplay. Will [Reiser] got cancer at 25 and was battling cancer, and his best friend, in real life, is Seth Rogen. The way in which they approached Will’s illness and his recovery was really through humor and through their friendship. One of the things they did, when Will was in recovery, was say, “Dude, we need to write this into a movie,” so they did.
Who are you playing in the film?
HOWARD: I play Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s girlfriend, who is definitely not right for him. That was a really fun part to play. She’s just a girl that makes really, really terrible decisions.
What is your next project?
HOWARD: Well, 50/50 is coming out in September. And, I produced a Gus Van Sant film, called Restless, that’s coming out in September. That’s an every day project. Mainly, what I’m going to be doing [is my pregnancy].
Is producing the next phase of your life?
HOWARD: I don’t know. That was a circumstance where I had developed a screenplay with one of my friends, who is a first-time screenwriter. He ended up being an astounding writer, and I was the person that was the protector of it. I was the person who was going to deliver it and hopefully make it into a reality. The smartest decision that I made was partnering up with people who knew a lot more than me. I’m really lucky that Gus was the filmmaker. I co-produced it with Imagine Entertainment, which is my dad’s company, so that was really a huge relief. At that point, I was really green, and just had instincts about things.