Tate Taylor is living the dream. The screenwriter and director of “The Help” has seen his surprise blockbuster turn into an awards season darling. The film’s biggest kudos so far came over the past two days as it was nominated for best ensemble at the SAG Awards, best picture – drama at the Golden Globes and three of his actors, Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer, received both SAG and Golden Globe acting nominations. For a Hollywood lifer who spent over a decade trying to land his big break in the business, it sounds like he’s still pinching himself.
“It’s great. It’s rewarding,” Taylor says as energetically as always. “Prideful is the word I used to describe it.”
Taylor called me this morning after “The Help” had landed five Golden Globe nominations including a best original song nod for the song “The Living Proof” by Mary J. Blige and Thomas Newman. You’d never known Taylor didn’t find himself personally recognized in the screenwriting or directing categories. His enthusiasm is infections and seemingly endless. However, knowing his close friendship with star Spencer, I had to ask him if her nominations were more special to him.
“First and foremost, I’m really most excited for the movie because it was the accumulation of everybody. I mean, everybody worked their buts off and left everything we had in the Mississippi Delta soil,” Taylor says. “But, of course! She and I! Moving out here together as hicks from the South? Who naively thought we could do something? Of course I am. And I love her! It’s so great! I’m not saying she’s more talented than anybody, but of course. She’s like my sister. Of course I’m very proud of her. She’s been working her butt off forever. We would live together after rejection after rejection. Sunday night’s we’d make a big pot of chili to live on all week. Do you ever have those days? So, of course it’s exciting. I’m thrilled. I’d love for her to go all the way. In the same respect, I cast Jessica and nobody know who she was. So, that’s what is so amazing when she auditioned for me.”
If you hadn’t heard already, Spencer and Taylor became friends in 1995 when they were both production assistants on the set of Joel Schumacher’s “A Time To Kill” where Taylor says they “became immediate fast and best friends.”
“We followed each other out in 1996 to seek our fame and fortune,” Taylor reveals. “And when I was adapting the help she lived with me. And we packed up and went to Greenwood to make the movie. Yeah, this whole movie is that way. Me and Kathryn Stockett and Brunson [Green] and John Norris. We’ve all been best friends forever and it’s crazy man. A book nobody wanted to publish. And then we all got to be together and do it and then this result is just mind boggling.”
While both Spencer and Chastain have a legitimate shot at being nominated for Academy Awards and and even winning, its Viola Davis who may have the best chance at being rewarded with Oscar. The recognition Davis has received means just as much to Taylor as any other honor because “the movie would not be the movie without Viola.”
Taylor notes, “When you have these big, wonderful, Southern characters who can be so loud, you need this big dignified glue to make it all work. That’s what Viola Davis brought to the movie. That’s why I had to have her. And she’s so great and selfless to be so quiet when actors can be nervous when they are being overshadowed [in a scene]. And for her to trust that? That was phenomenal. I’ll never forget when I told Octavia in our house that Viola was going to be Aibileen she was like, ‘Oh, my god. I’m gonna learn so much from that woman. I’m so excited and scared.’ And then later, ‘Oh my god. I’m learning so much from Viola. She’s amazing.’ So, of course. She’s so powerful and giving. All these ladies were giving. No prima donnas. All the egos were check. We just made a good movie together.”
There was little doubt, however, even in the Summer when “The Help” was released, that it was a contender for SAG’s best ensemble honor. The picture features a number of under appreciated and little known actresses beyond Emma Stone and Bryce Dallas Howard that were key to making the film’s success.
“A lot of my casting is on instinct and personality,” Taylor says. “And if I can tell if I’m going to be able to communicate with them on a real level. I just don’t go by lists. I’m not that guy. You look at who got the parts and there were a lot of other people who were a lot more famous and bankable and you have to applaud the studio. They let me do it that way.”
For “The Help,” Taylor called his audition process “the Jackson test.”
“Being from Jackson, Mississippi, these women are alive and well today,” Taylor says. “They are political in their beliefs on racism and socially? These ladies are thriving. And my job, I had to not think about what the movie could be. I wanted to tell the truth. That was my ultimate goal as a filmmaker. And I was like, ‘Tate, let’s just make this about Jackson.’ So, when women would come in like Ahna O’Reilly, she had done one short film. And there were big actresses who wanted to play that part, but I was like, ‘No, I don’t believe her.’ And I would tell people, ‘I know I can’t explain what this is, but I know the Jackson test.’ And Ahna O’Reilly came in and blew it out of the water. I even thought she was Southern and she was from Northern California. She kept it a secret from me. That’s how good she was. And I got to cast her. And Anna Kamp. Always been a big fan and she’s from South Carolina and she got it. She got the nuances of Southern women. And Kerry Barden, my casting director, we just saw painstakingly saw hundreds of people and DreamWorks let me cast the movie that I wanted. That’s the best way to make a movie. And it just worked out wonderfully.”
Now? Taylor gets to celebrate with his longtime friends. And if the Globes are anything, it’s a big party with a nice open bar.
“oh, lord,” Taylor jokes. “We’ll probably already come there with a flask in our hand.”
And how can you not root for a feel good story like that?
“The Help” was just released on DVD and Blu-ray.
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