On the surface, "The Help" scene-stealers Allison Janney and Octavia Spencer might not appear to have a lot in common. According to them, Janney is a much better card player than Spencer, who has absolutely no poker face. Spencer describes herself as "loud and passionate" while noting Janney is always calm and gracious under pressure. Yet the two have been close friends for more than a decade; Spencer was there when Janney's career skyrocketed with "The West Wing," and now Janney is on hand to witness Spencer's breakthrough success as outspoken maid Minny Jackson in "The Help."
Though Janney and Spencer have no scenes together, "The Help" is the third movie they have appeared in under the direction of Tate Taylor, their friend and Spencer's former roommate. But they share a love for the film and an obvious affection for each other.
Back Stage: Do you recall the first time you worked together?
Allison Janney: The first movie I did with Octavia was Tate's movie "Chicken Party." It was the first time I got to spend a lot of time with her, and I didn't want to be apart from her. If she went to the bathroom, I'd go with her. Because wherever she is, she makes me laugh. It was hysterical. Nobody is more fun to be around when they're angry. She would get so upset—
Octavia Spencer: I was doing a play, and I had to be at the theater at 6 because I have a ritual.
Janney: She would shout, "I'm a busy woman!" (Laughs.) That was her first play, and I was so amazed at how she made it look effortless. As Minny, too, she has this huge part and so much to do, and you would think she might be nervous—but no. She is so effortless and simple and completely classy.
Spencer: Talk about making it look easy—Allison is the reason boatloads of people show up every day to this town thinking they're going to make it big, because she really does make it look simple. I remember the first time I saw the pilot of "The West Wing," I told her, "You're going to win an Emmy, and the show's going to win an Emmy." She has this quality—she has always been one of those people I use as the bar. As in, if I could just be in the neighborhood of giving a performance like the ones she gives, I would be thrilled.
Back Stage: Do you continue to work with a teacher or coach?
Spencer: I do. It's easier to walk into a scene and say, "He went thataway!" and make it quippish. But with "The Help," it was a much larger role, and I had to know where I was with an emotional arc and all this stuff I'd never done before. So I worked with Jemal McNeil, who I knew coached Taraji P. Henson on "Hustle & Flow."
Janney: I was actually just thinking about working with acting coaches, which I still feel is the most valuable thing to do when you're working on stuff. I'm actually in search of a perfect acting coach right now. Because as an actor, it helps to have someone to bounce ideas off of, and you don't always have the luxury of time to do that with the director—they've got so much to do. Any time I get any project I think, "I don't know how to do this. I've forgotten." It's a bizarre thing I go through.
Spencer: That must be something that all actors experience, because I'm scared to death of my next part!
Janney: It's terrifying; there's no science to this craft. When I was doing "A View From the Bridge" on Broadway, I had to check in with myself every day and see what mattered to me that day and what I cared about that day. Sometimes something would work for me, and sometimes it wouldn't. You'd look for anything to use. You never know where it's going to come from and how you're going to do it. Sometimes you don't know until a second before you do it, and sometimes you just suck.
Spencer: The worst is when I know I'm going to have to cry in a scene.
Janney: I hate that!
Spencer: And I'm like, "I don't feel like crying! What if I can't cry?" That happened to me on "Coach Carter." I'd never had to cry on camera, and right before you go, the makeup person comes in and starts tweaking you, and I'm like, "I need a second to reconnect!" I just finally pushed it all down and said, "I'm making the choice not to cry—I'm not going to do it!" I remember asking Sam Jackson, "Have you ever done all the prep work in the trailer and then got to the set and felt like you couldn't get there?" And he went, "Nope." It made me laugh in the moment, but on the drive home I was like, "I'm a horrible actor! All they wanted me to do was cry and I couldn't!" But I found strength in the thought that maybe my character really didn't want to cry, didn't want to show that vulnerability.
Back Stage: How do you feel about the audition process?
Janney: I remember whenever I had an audition I'd be so nervous, and Steven Rogers, a dear friend of ours, would say, "Honey, you get to act today!" So I try to remember that when I go to an audition.
Spencer: I do that, too. Auditions make me nervous; any time I have to perform I get stage fright. I think about that when I'm about to audition: "It's the one time you get to perform it, so enjoy it."
Janney: Another trick I use is, for example, if the character's name is Kathy, I think, "Kathy couldn't be here today, so you're very lucky to have me!"
Spencer: I like that! I'm going to steal that, Janney!
Back Stage: Octavia, you were there when Allison's career really took off. With yours taking off with "The Help," have you asked her for any advice on navigating the Hollywood process?
Spencer: I watch her. She is graciousness. I remember when you went to test for "West Wing."
Janney: We had dinner at Tate's the night before.
Spencer: And you ate so much it totally could have cost you that job.
Janney: My audition was the next day, and most actors would have said, "I have to be at home." I don't know what possessed me; I just wanted to have fun.
Spencer: She's always been a working actor, but seeing how she went from anonymity to fame, I was there when it really exploded. And she never, ever, ever changed who she was. I've seen people go from being important to important. And she is not like that; she's the most grounded person ever. So I remember that, because I could be flipping burgers, trying to earn a living.
Janney: You know, I used to love when I would go to the Emmys or whatever and would have Octavia come over. She would try on the jewels I got to wear and ask how I was going to do my hair and what I was going to wear and remind me it was all so exciting. Today was the first time, I'm sitting in my house and you're here getting in hair and makeup for this [interview], and I almost started to cry. It was just so cool; it's so nice to see this happen for someone I love so much.