Interview: Bryce Dallas Howard On Playing The Villain

The actress tackles '60s racial segregation in The Help

Bryce Dallas Howard in The Help

Photo by Dale Robinette

Bryce Dallas Howard - 2011 MTV Movie Awards

Photo by Keystone Press

Evil wears a pink bow in The Help, the film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling book about the bonds between black maids and the white families they worked for during the civil rights movement in Jacksonville, Mississippi. Bryce Dallas Howard, most recently seen as the vampire Victoria in The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, plays Hilly Holbrook, a cheerfully racist housewife who’s as happy to lead her neighbourhood bridge club as she is to champion racist propaganda. She tangles with Emma Stone’s progressive Skeeter Phelan, an aspiring journalist who is urging the maids to speak about their experiences.

The 30-year-old Howard, currently in the middle of her second pregnancy—son Theo arrived in 2007—is soldiering through interviews today at the Park Hyatt hotel in Toronto despite admittedly struggling with morning sickness. She’s finding this season’s trends have given her options beyond the maternity section, such as the midnight blue maxi-dress she’s wearing today. “There’s so many maxi dresses out there!” she raves. “I am so grateful for that! I can walk into any store, for the most part, and there is going to be a maxi dress there.”

The actress brings this upbeat enthusiasm to her role in The Help, but combines it with a sinister subtext. Her character builds her maid a “coloureds only” bathroom and urges her community to follow suit. “Hilly didn’t perceive herself as the villain,” Howard explains. “She perceives herself as the hero.” Watching documentaries featuring women in the ’60s spouting racist dogma helped her understand how oblivious people could be. “She was taught to believe in those things,” she says.

The costumes, featuring plenty of Pepto-Bismol pink, also helped Howard understand her role as a prissy Southern belle. “There’s like the garter and the waist cincher and the puffy dress and everything and the jewellery,” she recalls. “You couldn’t help but walk in a different way and have a different sort of relationship to your own appearance. There’s the matching bow with the matching bow [under the neckline] and the matching bow on your shoes.” She laughs, “That’s a very particular kind of woman.”

The Help is in theatres August 10