For most actors it's difficult to rank their work by importance, most often because each project has a decidedly different meaning.
But for Viola Davis, there's no question that the new drama "The Help" is the most emotional project she has done to date. To begin with, not only does the film take place in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, it was actually filmed in areas where tragedies of the past still loom today.
"There was of such of a personal investment for me because of the history of the Civil Rights Movement was around us," Davis said in a recent interview. "We shot in Greenwood, Miss., just a few yards from the Tallahatchie
Stars Among Talented Ensemble In Drama Based On Stockett Best-Seller
River where Emmitt Till's body was found -- and 12 miles from Indianola, which was the birthplace of the White Citizen's Council -- so the setting has such of a strong and powerful history where people who look like me were brutalized."
Opening in theaters nationwide Wednesday, "The Help" chronicles the unlikely friendship between Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan (Emma Stone), Aibileen Clark (Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), three different women in Jackson, Miss., in the early 1960s. A headstrong college grad with aspirations of being a writer, Skeeter breaks societal rules and seeks to create change by asking Aibileen and Minny to reveal their untold stories as African-American maids in white households for her secret book project.
Originating as Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel of the same name, "The Help" has touched many lives including that of Davis, who sees Aibileen as much more than a character in a book or a movie.
"I don't see them as maids. I see them as my mother, my grandmother and my aunts. They were people to me," Davis said. "I had a very personal connection with them. Even the readers of 'The Help' don't know these women like I know these women. Even Kathryn Stockett doesn't know these women like I do."
And while most actors are able to move on to other projects following a role, Davis -- an acclaimed stage actress and Oscar nominee for the riveting film version of "Doubt" -- said leaving "The Help" in the past hasn't been so easy.
"It's hard to shake it off and disassociate yourself from a project like this after you're done. I had a responsibility much bigger than myself with this film," Davis said, humbly. "Projects where I have a personal investment come my way so infrequently. It made me work harder, that's for sure."
In "The Help," we find Aibileen as woman who has worked as a housekeeper all her life, having raised 17 children for her employers -- and suffering the loss of her only child, Treelore, who died unnecessarily in a tragic accident.
As a mother of two young children in real life, Davis said without question the most daunting aspect of playing Aibileen was wrapping her head around the fact that the character is dealing with the loss of her adult son.
"That was so difficult for me. I thought that that was the one thing that defined who this woman was, even in the book," Davis said. "Once you lose a child, I don't what other purpose you have in life. I don't know you can redefine your life because for me, a child pretty much would be it. I'm not saying you wouldn't have any other goals, but purpose? I don't know. Children are just so much a part of your life and who you are."
Breaking it down, Davis said "99 percent" of her work in creating Aibileen was being a mother to Treelore.
"For me, I had to create that love and that loss in order to define who Aibileen was, and that was difficult," Davis said. "When the script was given to me, very little about Treelore was in it, and I didn't feel that you could create Aibileen without Treelore. Having Treelore and subsequently losing him is what made her who she was. When you find this woman at the beginning of the book and the beginning of the movie, she pretty much is dead. She's just the walking dead and just getting by."
Davis said Aibileen does has moments of joy in the company of Mae Mobely (Eleanor and Emma Henry), a young girl whom she helps raise in one of her households. But the turning point for the character is when Skeeter comes into her life.
"Once Skeeter comes to her with her idea of the book, I think she comes to life again," Davis said. "I have to say I believe she reluctantly steps into this next phase of her life, and I believe without the book, and without recognizing that dream, I don't know where Aibileen would have ended up."
The timing of getting her for "The Help" couldn't have been any more perfect for Davis. In fact, director and screenwriter Tate Taylor waited for Davis to complete her commitment to the acclaimed August Wilson play "Fences" on Broadway (which earned her a Best Actress Tony) just so he could secure her for "The Help."
And while Davis knows "destiny" is a heavy term, she knows it had to have played a part in "The Help," if not in some way with everything she's done.
Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis in "The Help."
"I have to believe that any role I have done I was destined to do because to believe the opposite is quite frightening. Otherwise I would say, where did I go wrong?" Davis said, laughing. "But every once in a while, you do just stumble upon a role that just speaks to you. It speaks to your character."
"There are some roles that you were built to play, and I would characterize Aibileen as that," added Davis. "The fact that it just came to me at this time in my life and that I had been doing 'Fences' and thought I had missed the opportunity to play the role, and it still came back around for me."
Janney Held Out Hope For 'The Help'
Written for the screen and directed by Tate Taylor, "The Help" also stars Emmy winner Allison Janney in the pivotal role of Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter's controlling mother. While Skeeter is determined to have a career as a writer, Charlotte feels she would be better off getting married and having children.
In an odd sort of way "The Help" presented odd sorts of parallels to the social relevance of previous movie of Janney's with "Hairspray," where she plays (albeit in comic fashion) Prudy Pingleton, the overbearing mother of a free-thinking daughter during the Civil Rights era.
At least with "The Help," where she plays an overbearing mother of a free-thinking daughter during the Civil Rights era, the proceedings are much more serious and her character has some redeeming qualities.
"It's the same sort of theme, where a mother is trying to control her daughter, but of course Prudy took to measures that were a little more extreme by tying her daughter to her bed," Janney said with a laugh. "Only Prudy didn't come to the realization that Charlotte did in finding that she was wrong and needed to let her daughter be who she wanted to be."
Janney, of course, is no stranger to socially-relevant material, given her seven-year commitment to NBC's landmark series "The West Wing," which earned her four Emmys (two for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama and two others for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama) as Claudia Jean "C.J." Cregg.
And while her resume is filled with as many comedy credits (the film hit "Juno" and the sitcom "Mr. Sunshine"), Janney believes that she's naturally drawn to socially-relevant material as a performer -- and becoming a part of "The Help" is something that she was hoping to do for years.
"I got introduced to Kathryn Stockett through my dear friend Tate many years ago before the book even came out," Janney said. "Once it did and Tate said he was going to direct the movie version of it, he told me that there was a good part in it for me but I didn't get my hopes up in case it fell through. Then a week before the film started shooting, he asked me to do it."
Being such of a fan of the book, Janney said she's thrilled how well the material has translated on the big screen. She believes it may have something to do the fact with the Stockett and Taylor's friendship since childhood.
"I don't know if it's because Tate and Kathryn were such good friends and that they grew up with the same experiences, but Tate did such a good job of telling the story in the book without being able to put everything in there," Janney said. "He made the movie just as funny, touching and moving, and really impressed me with how he adapted the book. I'm sure Kathryn is very happy with what he did -- I certainly am. I'm so proud of him because I've been in every little movie he's done, so to have this experience happen to him is extraordinary."