I tell Emma Stone what she already knows: She has three movies out this summer, Friends with Benefits; Crazy, Stupid, Love; and, this week, The Help. She just finished shooting next year’s The Amazing Spider-Man. And she’s 22. As I sum up her résumé in a Chicago hotel room, Stone smiles—which she does easily and often—then breaks into a casual laugh. It’s a laugh that says, “I know, crazy, right?” In The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, the Phoenix native stars as Skeeter, a white woman in Mississippi in the early ’60s who persuades black maids—key among them Aibileen, played by Viola Davis—to let her publish their stories about working for white families and raising their children.
You’ve said it’s rare to read a script where a female character isn’t just a sounding board for a male character. This film’s almost entirely about women—is that partly what attracted you to it?
Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever read a script that’s had this many roles for women, much less this many really beautiful, fleshed-out, well-written roles for women. The story itself is what drew me to the movie more than anything. I was raised in Arizona and I went to public school, and the extent of my knowledge of the civil-rights movement was the story of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. I wonder how much my generation knows.
What did shooting in a small town in Mississippi illuminate for you in terms of racial relations then and now?
So much, so much. You’re in Mississippi, you’re in houses that still have housekeepers living there full-time, they’re in uniform, and we’re shooting in these houses and we’re meeting the owners of these houses, and these women have worked in their homes for 50 years, and they’re shaking your hand but not really making a whole lot of eye contact. And you’re standing there in 2010, when we shot it, and it’s just mind-boggling. And they’re so sweet and making you zucchini bread and introducing you to their children and inviting you over for dinner, and you’re on the Tallahatchie River six miles from where Emmett Till’s body was found.
Your character, Skeeter, realizes she doesn’t fit into her social milieu. You realized at age 14 you’d rather move to L.A. and act than go to school. Did you draw on that experience of difference to understand Skeeter’s?
Skeeter had [her family’s maid] Constantine telling her it was okay to be different and don’t listen to what those people say and you do what you want to do.
And who was that person for you?
My mother. The last thing in the world my parents would want to do is get on a stage or do a movie. They would probably rather die. But they let me be who I was and they supported me.
The New York Times said the novel “purports to value the maids’ lives while subordinating them to Skeeter and her writing ambitions.” Did you have that concern?
I think you’re equally put into both of those worlds. I just do not see Skeeter as a “savior”—[Gets close to the recorder] and I’m putting that in quotes. She’s idealistic and she really wants to be published, and that’s how it begins, not out of martyrdom or being revolutionary. Skeeter just comes up with an idea. Aibileen’s brave enough to go through with it.
Becoming a movie actor, you said, “is nothing like what I imagined.” How so?
Because it doesn’t feel like reality. Like sitting here right now. Being on the sets. Doing all that stuff doesn’t feel like reality. It still feels like me in these crazy circumstances, and I can’t ever really fully wrap my head around it.
“When do I wake up”?
When do I wake up. And I know there will be a point where I will, and I’ll look back and I’ll say, “Well, that was lovely, and thank God my family’s healthy.”
You’ve expressed a desire to maintain your privacy, but last year on Letterman—
Yeah, I was telling a really personal story.
About your mom having just recovered from breast cancer.
We were gonna go the next day [to Letterman], and I was like, “Mom, I’m so frickin’ excited, would you care if I tell the story?” And she was like, “I would be honored.” She’s all about talking about breast cancer and finding a cure. But I never want to put anyone in a spotlight that does not want to be in a spotlight. My brother would kill me [Laughing] if I started revealing personal stories about him.
Your younger brother—he’s in college now?
He’s in college, yeah.
Unlike you, he did the college route.
Yeah. I got my GED. I just wanna clarify: I did get my GED. I was homeschooled [after public school] through age 16. [Laughs]
You can read and write.
I can read and write, at least.
The Help opens August 10.