The Women of 'The Help'

VIDEO: Former "West Wing" actress talks about her current roles and opportunities.
ABCNEWS.com

Take one Oscar nominee and one Oscar winner, add to them a four-time Emmy nabber, a couple of up-and-coming stars and two relative unknowns, and you have (drum roll, please) the women of "The Help."

The big-screen version of Kathryn Stockett's 2009 best seller has been one of summer's most anticipated and, given its subject matter -- black maids speaking out through a young white woman in 1960s Mississippi -- controversial movies. After hitting theaters last Wednesday, it went on to haul in $25.5 million over the weekend (it's made $35.4 million since opening day). While those aren't "Harry Potter" numbers, they were enough to make "The Help" the No. 2 movie in the country, a huge win for the film.

REVIEW: 'The Help' Doesn't Need Any

Much of "The Help's" success is due to its stunning performances. Click through to check out the women who make the movie shine.

PHOTO: The Help
DreamWorks/Getty Images
Viola Davis

If anyone deserves a standing ovation this summer, it's Viola Davis. She is unrecognizable as Aibileen, transformed entirely into an aging black maid who desperately wants the true story of her profession to see the light of day. Her performance is stunning, the kind of thing that Oscar nominations are made of. (Davis scored one of those, along with a slew of other nods and awards, for 2008's "Doubt.")

Things are heating up for Davis off-screen as well. This week, she turned 46 and told E! News that she and her husband, actor Julius Tennon, are in the process of adopting their first child. Meanwhile, she's been ignoring the hype around "The Help."

"There's positive reviews?" she asked on at the film's Los Angeles premiere on Tuesday. "I've stayed off the Internet. But that's good. It's great, because you never know if it's going to work."

PHOTO: Emma Stone is shown in a scene from the movie, "The Help," left, and arriving at the film's Los Angeles Premiere held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater, Aug. 9, 2011 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
DreamWorks/Getty Images
Emma Stone

Emma Stone sinks her teeth into her meatiest role to date as writer/rebel Eugenia, better known as Skeeter. Though she's too good looking to mirror the book version of Skeeter, Stone pulls off her character's naivete and do-gooder sensibilities to a tee.

Stone has put her stamp on several movies in the past year -- "Friends With Benefits," "Crazy, Stupid, Love" and "The Amazing Spider-Man," scheduled for release next summer. The 22-year-old actress is everywhere these days, but still, she's trying to stay grounded.

"I haven't really given myself time or space to examine all of this because I don't think it's a good idea to," she recently told the Los Angeles Times. "You have to hold it lightly. You have to be like, 'This is gonna go away.' Because it will. After these movies come out, these questions will stop, and I'll be like, 'What happened?'"

PHOTO: Allison Janney is shown in a scene from the movie, "The Help," left, and arriving at the film's Los Angeles Premiere held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater, Aug. 9, 2011 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
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Allison Janney

As Skeeter's mother Charlotte, Allison Janney gets to dish out one of "The Help's" greatest lines, when she tells her daughter to doll up for a boy Skeeter loathes: "Love and hate are two horns on the same goat, Eugenia, and you need a goat." While Charlotte's health falters, her ability to nag never fails.

Fans of the 51-year-old "West Wing" co-star will enjoy her uncharacteristic Southern accent and retro housewife getups. Janney, a four-time Emmy winner, told ABC News' "What's the Buzz" that though she's got more experience than the greener members of the cast, on set, she and fellow Hollywood vet Sissy Spacek didn't preach. "We just really enjoy each other's company," she said. "We didn't really talk shop. We just ate a lot of fried food. We just had a great time."

PHOTO: Octavia Spencer is shown in a scene from the movie, "The Help," left, and arriving at the film's Los Angeles Premiere held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater, Aug. 9, 2011 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
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Octavia Spencer

Long-time character actress but relative unknown Octavia Spencer provides much of "The Help's" comic relief. As Minny, Aibleen's fellow maid and sassy sidekick, she flies in the face of Southern mores. When her culinary dunce of an employer suggests that maybe Minny burn the fried chicken so her husband doesn't suspect she's hired a maid, she gets served a wide-eyed glare and four words: "Minny don't burn chicken."

In real life, too, Spencer's got spunk. "I can honestly say Minny's physicality — of course, her voluptuousness — is based on me, and her sass and her strong will are definitely based on me," she recently told USA Today.

The 39-year-old actress got into the film industry to be a producer. But with dozens of movie credits to her name and "The Help" raising her profile, she's likely to remain in front of the camera. Her next film, "Flypaper," with Patrick Dempsey and Ashley Judd, is scheduled to open Aug. 19.

PHOTO: Bryce Dallas Howard is shown in a scene from the movie, "The Help," left, and arriving at the film's Los Angeles Premiere held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater, Aug. 9, 2011 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
DreamWorks/Getty Images
Bryce Dallas Howard

You haven't seen mean until you've seen Bryce Dallas Howard in "The Help." As ice-queen- turned-housewife Hilly, she stops at nothing to mow down those who get in her way, whether they're maids, friends or the wife of her ex-boyfriend. That she does it all with her bouffant perfectly hair-sprayed and her floral-print dresses pressed and pleated makes her all the more evil.

The 30-year-old daughter of actor-director Ron Howard sees little of herself in her character, though. She embraced Hilly as an opportunity to play someone she's not.

"She's really not a nice woman," Howard told About.com. "But it's really fun to be such a terrible character, and I think that the feeling on set is so joyful. I mean, we're having such a wonderful experience together."

Sissy Spacek

As Hilly's batty and mischievous mother, Sissy Spacek's Mrs. Walters delights when things go wrong. Her moment of glory: The "terrible awful" that befalls Hilly at the hands of Minny, her ex-maid.

The 61-year-old Oscar winner also relished her role in the film. "I had the great good fortune to be able to do some improv while we were shooting," she told "Access Hollywood." At the same time, "The Help" was surreal for Spacek. "I was just a child," she said of the civil rights era, "but I remember segregation. I also remember, vividly, integration. It wasn't that long ago but it seems like a long time ago. We've come a long way since then, thank goodness."

PHOTO: Jessica Chastain is shown in a scene from the movie, "The Help," left, and arriving at the film's Los Angeles Premiere held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater, Aug. 9, 2011 in Beverly Hills, Calif.
DreamWorks/Getty Images
Jessica Chastain

Jessica Chastain does her best Marilyn Monroe impression as socially clueless Celia, with a high-pitched giggle, breathy voice and hair so heavily bleached blond it looks as if it might break off. Her character's too-tight clothes and penchant for drinking too much makes for some hilariously awkward moments in "The Help."

But preparing for the role wasn't a party for the 30-year-old actress. The vegan yoga disciple gained 15 pounds for the role by microwaving and drinking cartons of soy ice-cream, she told E! Online.

"It was like a form of torture because you put on all this weight and then you're in the South where it's really hot and muggy and you're putting on girdles to suck you in," she added.

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