By ANGIE CARNATHAN
When Starkville native Vikki Pilecki and her husband Jay decided to audition as extras in the movie “The Help,” the pair never expected to have a close up, once-in-a-lifetime experience with the inner workings of a big budget Hollywood film.
Vikki said although she was paid minimum wage, her experience in “The Help” was unforgettable. On May 13, 2010, Greenwood, Miss., was announced as the primary filming location for the big screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling book.
The pair was chosen to play Hilly Holbrook’s neighbors in the film. Holbrook was played by Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of actor and director Ron Howard.
“I’m on the sidewalk outside of Hilly’s house and my husband is across the street — we were making fun of Hilly when Skeeter had placed toilet bowls all on her front lawn,” Vikki Pilecki said.
Skeeter was played by Emma Stone.
Pilecki said 90 percent of the movie was filmed over four months at approximately 15 locations in her present hometown of Greenwood. It was an interesting experience, she said, to have Hollywood come to town and live amongst her family and her neighbors.
“The movie stars would shop at our Walmart; Cicely Tyson was seen at our CVS one day. My husband ... saw Allison Janney one day at the post office. You would see Emma Stone jogging or riding her bike around town. Viola Davis, who plays Abileen, and her husband would recognize people in the grocery store, and (they) come over to talk to you,” she said.
Pilecki said she and her husband were amazed at some of the things that went on the behind the scenes, including some Hollywood tricks of the trade.
“There was an old red work truck with a dull paint job that was used in our ‘toilet bowl’ scene to haul the commodes out of Hilly’s yard,” Pilecki said. “So in between each take, a man would take a garden hose and spray down the truck with water so that the truck would look shiny and new.”
As fascinating as some of the action was, however, Pilecki said the movie makers made it clear they wanted nothing leaked to the press or elsewhere during filming.
“The night they filmed the ‘rain scene’ in front of Hilly’s house was amazing. They actually did it with a bunch of scaffolds built up high with water pipes to make the rain,” she said. “But some extras got in trouble for taking pictures and posting them on Facebook, so they were called in by the producer the very next morning and told to remove the pictures immediately. We later found out that DreamWorks has people on staff that their whole job is to make sure movie scenes are not leaked out on social media networks.”
Pilecki said the extras were also instructed not to talk to any of the stars unless they were spoken to first, but the actors often talked to the extras when the cameras weren’t rolling.
“We got to work with Bryce Dallas Howard and Viola Davis, who plays Abileen, and Ahna O’Reilly, who plays Elizabeth Leefolt, Mae Mobley’s mother. They were all really nice,” she said. “We would break for lunch and the extras had to wait until the stars had gotten their food before we could eat, but then we would sit in the room with them and they would talk to us. All my friends wanted to know what the stars ate for lunch. I told them the ones who were watching their weight ate a lot of lettuce with beans on top.”
The hair and makeup was an experience all its own, Pilecki said.
“I had to attempt to sleep in those old plastic rollers the night before and show up on the set with rollers in hair and no make-up,” she said, adding that they then teased her hair really big. “One afternoon, we finished on the set, and my husband and I went home and took a nap. I slept for two hours on that hair, and when I woke up it went right back into place. Now I know how the women could go to the beauty shop just once a week back then.”
She said that some of the extras were also reprimanded for having a little too much summer fun.
“We had gone to the casting call in May, but they called us to actually shoot our scene in late July,” she said. “Many of us had gotten suntans by then, and the wardrobe people freaked out because in that time period people didn’t have suntans, so we were all having to exfoliate our skin before we showed up to actually film our scenes the week later. That was stressful.”
Pilecki and her husband came to Starkville Saturday to see the movie for the first time with their family. She said although she loved it, she couldn’t help but get distracted.
“Hilly Holbrook’s, Skeeter Phelan’s & Elizabeth Leefolt’s houses are within a mile from my house so it was really hard to focus on the movie because we were pointing out roads and places and all our friends who were extras,” she said. “We will definitely have to see it again.”
Watching the movie also made Pilecki think hard about the time period and the person she might have been if she had actually experienced it.
“There were parts in the movie that made us cringe,” she said. “The movie makes me question whether I would have been accepting like Skeeter or a person like her mom who caved to the peer pressure even though she knew it was wrong. I would hope that I would have fought for the right thing.”
Although she admits some things have not changed, overall Pilecki said she believes our state has come a long way
“We need to remember that this movie was based in Jackson in the early 1960s and times have changed dramatically here,” she said. “Were there women like Hilly Holbrook back then? Yes. Do we still have Hilly Holbrook’s today? Yes, but not as many. Are there still young, wealthy, white women like Elizabeth Leefolt who allow maids to raise their children while they go to Junior League meetings and play tennis? Yes there is, but luckily it’s no longer the norm.”