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'The Help': Best Cast

On-set insight from stars Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, and more

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It’s a woman’s world in The Help (Aug. 12), the adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s ubiquitous best-seller about some brave African-American maids daring to voice their experiences to a young white writer (Emma Stone, 22) in early-1960s Mississippi. Oscar nominee Viola Davis, 45, plays deep and deeply wounded Aibileen. Davis says the team of black actresses brought a particular sense of urgency to their roles. ”These are the stories of our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers,” she says. ”To the naked eye these characters could be full-out stereotypes, and it was our job to make them real.”

The pressure to tell a hard story with care brought out the loving best in the cast, according to Bryce Dallas Howard, 30, who plays Hilly, a wretched Junior Leaguer bent on humiliating her take-no-guff maid Minny (Octavia Spencer). ”To be able to work with this ensemble of women,” Howard says, ”it was like I was hanging out with all of my most supportive girlfriends and then all of a sudden there’s this movie that was made.” The cast’s camaraderie delighted director Tate Taylor, Stockett’s best childhood friend from Jackson, Miss. ”There was an air of selflessness that you just can’t believe,” he says. ”They were a family.”

It’s a common complaint that there aren’t enough rich roles out there for women, let alone women of color. So it’s a joy to celebrate a movie that puts material of this caliber into the hands of the aforementioned actresses, as well as Oscar nominee Cicely Tyson, Oscar winner Sissy Spacek, the formidable Allison Janney, and The Tree of Life star Jessica Chastain. ”The cast reminds me of the ensembles from The Color Purple, Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias,” says Spencer, 39. ”I’m so proud as an actress.”