Watch CBSN Live

Viola Davis: "The Help" a pressure cooker for me

Viola Davis has been a top-rated actress for more than two decades, picking up two Tony awards and an Oscar nomination along the way.

In her new movie, "The Help," based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, she plays Aibileen Clark, a maid in the South who isn't allowed to dream of a better life. Davis stars in "The Help" along with Octavia Spencer and Emma Stone.

"Apes," "The Help" in box office photo finish
Pictures: "The Help" premiere

On "The Early Show," Davis said the role didn't come without stress.

"I want to rename this movie 'The Pressure Cooker,'" she joked.

She explained, "So many people have read it, so many people have grown up with these surrogate mothers, and the there's a huge pressure with the African-American community, because I was playing a maid in 2011. And there's so much, kind of, stigma attached to playing a maid in movies."

Davis has said she took the role in part because her mother was once a maid.

Quoting from an interview with Davis, "Early Show" co-anchor Chris Wragge said, "You said, 'No one invested in her potential. She had gifts but there were no choices for her.' She was a maid back then."

Davis said, "She was a maid to this woman who lived in a trailer, and every time she went to clean the trailer, there was nothing to clean. And it was after maybe several weeks she realized that the woman was just lonely. You know? But my mom grew up on Singleton Plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina. She now has sciatic nerve damage. She said all those days of working tobacco, cotton fields, taking care of children since she was 4 years old. She was 4 when she started taking care of kids on the plantation. It doesn't stop her from going to the casino, the sciatica nerve, but I modeled the character after her because there are so many black women who led such hard lives, but still had so much joy and compassion and love in their hearts."

But filming in Mississippi wasn't all serious, according to Davis.

When asked about co-star Emma Stone's parties, Davis said, "What happens in Greenwood stays in Greenwood. But I would get the phone calls late at night saying, especially Octavia (my co-star), 'I got some apple pie for you.' 'Oh, I love apple pie.' She says, 'No, apple pie,' meaning moonshine."

Davis, who gained some weight for the role, says she's working on getting back in shape with her husband Julius Tennon, a former linebacker for the University of Texas.

"I got to work out now," she said. "I mean, I got to do that. But, you know, my husband...used to have 38-inch thighs and a 22-inch neck. So he's been working out for most of his life. So he wants a wife who's in shape."

She recalled, "In Mississippi, it's very easy to gain weight with all that fried food."

But looking back on the role now, Davis says it was a joy to play her character.

She said, "It was such a joy to go on a journey and to get -- just pay homage to these women who contributed so much to our culture, you know. And I think there's something in this movie for everyone."