Montgomeryas Octavia Spencer, who plays Minny Jackson in The Helpa, says her family won’t be able to attend the Hollywood premiere of the movie My Sister Getting Her PhD from the University of Alabama, so I thought it was more important, she said. (Photo courtesy of Dreamworks)

Catherine stockett Need help.

The first-time novelist had deep pages in her manuscript for “The Help,” but she still couldn’t get the perfect voice for one of her main characters, the outspoken maid Minny Jackson. .

Then she thought of Octavia Spencer, a native of Montgomery, a fiery force of nature who is the best friend of Stockett, a close friend of Jackson, Mississippi, director Tate Taylor.

She had found her Minny.

“There’s this thing Octavia can do when she’s telling a story,” Stockett says. “She really makes her eyes widen. She’s not a small person, and she can kind of put her weight in a story, and I loved that.

“Octavia will always tell you what she’s thinking,” she adds. “If she doesn’t say it, you can see it in her face.”

Spencer, best known for her role as immigration officer Constance Grady on the ABC sitcom “Ugly Betty,” not only inspired Minny in Stockett’s bestseller, but she was also able to bring her to life in the movie. adaptation of Taylor’s “The Help”. which opens nationwide on Wednesday.

Despite her internal relationships, the 39-year-old actress said she had to keep telling herself that she might not get the part.

“In Tate’s mind, there was never any question of him directing it, and he also wanted me to play the part,” Spencer said.

“At first they thought it was going to be an independent movie, but when they started courting the studios I kind of had to emotionally detach myself from the idea because that happens very rarely. Usually studios have a name. .

“This time around, DreamWorks and Participant have decided to keep the team together.”

This team dates back to 1995, when Taylor and Spencer met as assistants on the set of Joel Schumacher’s legal thriller. “A time to kill” in Canton, Miss.

He worked in the production office and she assisted casting director Shirley Fulton Crumley from Birmingham.

“Southerners have a way of sticking together,” recalls Taylor. “We were sort of insiders on ‘A Time to Kill’, among the very few people who came from the South.

“We just hit it off and fell in love with each other and became friends.”

Later, after both moving to Los Angeles to pursue film careers, Taylor and Spencer also became roommates.

“I actually moved in with him about five years ago when he bought a house, thinking that if I had to help someone pay off their mortgage, they would be my best friend,” Spencer says.

OUT BEHIND THE CAMERA

The sixth of seven children, Spencer grew up in Montgomery and graduated from Jefferson Davis High School, where she was part of the drama club.

After first attending Auburn University at Montgomery and then Alabama State University, she enrolled at Auburn University, where she earned a major in English and a double minor in journalism and theater.

Spencer always knew she wanted to be in the movie business, she says, but she figured it would be behind the camera, not in front.

She worked in the extras casting department on the Alabama-made films “Tom and Huck” and “The Grass Harp” before fate intervened when she worked on the crew of “A Time to Kill” , Schumacher’s adaptation of John Grisham’s first novel. .

She left with a speech with Sandra Bullock.

“I had worked on a number of films and every director had always wanted me to audition, and I wouldn’t,” says Spencer.

“And then I thought if the director (Schumacher) wanted me to audition for ‘A Time to Kill’, I would. And he was actually the first director who didn’t, then I would. asked if I could audition for one of the roles on a line.

“He said, ‘Not that role. I think you should read for Sandy’s (Bullock) nurse.’ So that’s the role he gave me. “

A year later, Bullock chose her in the short film “Making Sandwiches”, and Spencer has acted ever since, appearing in films such as “Being John Malkovich”, “Big Momma’s House”, “Spider-Man”, ” Bad Santa “”, “Coach Carter”, “Miss Congeniality 2”, “Seven Pounds”, “The Solist” and “Dinner for Schmucks”.

On television, she has appeared in episodes of “ER”, “NYPD Blue”, “Medium” and “Dharma & Greg”, as well as her recurring role in “Ugly Betty”.

Prior to adapting “The Help”, Taylor directed the short film “Chicken Party” and the black comedy “Pretty Ugly People”, and he chose his friend Spencer in both images.

“I knew how talented she was and considered her to be a huge advantage to all of my projects,” he says. “Now it looks like everyone has caught up and they are realizing it now.”

STARTING ROLE IN “HELP”

With its built-in audience of fans of Stockett’s book, “The Help” is set to be a late-summer box office hit, and Minny could just be Spencer’s flagship role.

The book and film explore the relationship between a young white graduate and two older black housekeepers in the early 1960s in Mississippi.

Spencer has been a fan of the book since Stockett sent her a copy to read ahead of publication.

“I loved that she wrote characters from that period, from an African American perspective, and what it could have been for women who were domestic workers,” Spencer said.

“She gave them a voice and an opinion. They weren’t moms like in Gone with the Wind. They were women who lived outside of work, and that’s what we could see. , and they were also very proactive in making changes in their community.

“So I loved that she made these ordinary women heroes.”

In a film filled with memorable characters and performances – including Viola Davis as faithful housekeeper Aibileen Clark, Emma Stone as aspiring writer Skeeter Phelan and Sissy Spacek as grumpy matriarch of Southern Missus Walters – Spencer flies scene after scene as the story goes – it’s like it’s Minny, whose secret chocolate pie recipe becomes a running joke throughout the movie and inspires the movie’s most repeated punchline.

“She brings a (sense of) comedy without having to be an actress. $?. $ ?. authenticity and a fiery and a vein of truth to the play,” Taylor says.

“The character is a great opposite of Aibileen, and Octavia was really able to bring all of those characteristics to life in a true way as a southerner.”

As “The Help” and Minny moved from the book to the screen, Spencer also made Stockett a new best friend.

So much so that when a frightened Stockett was about to embark on her first book tour, she begged Spencer to come with her.

“I was terrified,” Stockett recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I crossed that line writing this book with African American voices. They really think I can go on stage and read it, with black voices?’

“I called Octavia and said, ‘Please are you coming on tour with me?’ And that’s what she did, and it was such an amazing gift that she gave me. “

Now this giveaway has come full circle.

“In some ways it was kind of natural for her to play the part of Minny,” Stockett said. “She lived with Tate. She toured with me. Damn, she reads Minny’s voice on the audio (book), and that was way before the movie started.

“But yes, at the same time, she deserved the role. She wouldn’t have had it if she hadn’t been so amazing.”

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