Before I saw “The Help,” i mostly thought of Bryce Dallas Howard as a blood-sucking vampire, M. Night Shyamalan’s muse or Ron Howard’s little girl. But I’ll have a hard time shaking my latest recollection of her as Hilly, a sweetly vicious, adamantly racist Southern belle. Still, sitting down for an interview, the very pregnant star seemed to be the antithesis of her character. Thank God.
Howard, a devoted vegan who also doesn’t eat sugar, was just as sweet as pie — and, unfortunately, a question about pie was the only one I didn’t get to squeeze in before our time was over. In the film, there’s a pivotal scene in which Hilly has to chow down on a chocolate pie — and her co-stars informed me that Howard was stuck eating a brown, unsweetened, tofu-ish concoction — and had to do it with the enthusiasm little kids reserve for birthday cake. It’s a great scene in the movie, and when I mentioned it as I was walking out, Howard grinned and said something that’s not only a spoiler, but can’t be reprinted here. But I got the impression that diving into that scene meant a lot more to her as an actress than having to choke down some disgusting pseudo-pie.
What was harder for Howard to swallow (yes, the metaphors just keep coming) was the way children are treated in the film. Not only are they passed off to strangers to raise, they’re mostly neglected by their mothers, who are too busy playing bridge or hanging out with their friends to pay attention to them. Howard, who called the treatment of one character “a form of child abuse” admits that the “heartbreaking” material wasn’t easy to read in the book. For those who haven’t read the book, it’s just as crushing on screen.
I wasn’t surprised that Howard didn’t have much sympathy for her villainous character. Still, by recognizing her as not only “ignorant” but a “product of her time,” she manages to play Hilly as a layered, complex villain who honestly doesn’t think that refusing to let her African-American maid use the family restroom is abominable behavior. More importantly, Howard manages to go toe-to-toe with some pretty stellar performances (Viola Davis, Oscar nominated for “Doubt,” is most likely looking at another nod). There’s a pretty good chance that, if the “The Help” gets kudos, Howard has a shot at getting some recognition, too. And that’s worth some bad pie, no doubt.
To hear more from Howard about working on “The Help,” check out the embedded video in this post. “The Help” hits theaters August 10.