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Tate Taylor: Don’t hide your roots

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — James Meredith speaks during the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration Saturday morning at the Natchez Convention Center. Meredith was the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi. Meredith and Kathryn Stockett, writer of the best-selling novel “The Help,” were awarded the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award Saturday.
Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat —
James Meredith speaks during the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration Saturday morning at the Natchez Convention Center. Meredith was the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi. Meredith and Kathryn Stockett, writer of the best-selling novel “The Help,” were awarded the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award Saturday.

NATCHEZ — A chance meeting with Horton Foote years ago in some sense contributed to the chain of events that resulted in Tate Taylor receiving an award named for Foote at the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration.

Speaking after he was presented the Horton Foote Award for Special Achievement in Screenwriting for “The Help,” his Oscar-nominated film, Taylor said he met Foote after attending one of the legendary play- and screenwriter’s shows in Los Angeles. Taylor was, at the time, pursuing an acting career.

“I had gone with the hope of meeting a casting director,” Taylor said.

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — Screenwriter and director Tate Taylor accepts the Horton Foote Award for Special Achievement in Screenwriting Saturday during the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration.
Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — Screenwriter and director Tate Taylor accepts the Horton Foote Award for Special Achievement in Screenwriting Saturday during the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration.

“Horton, like Southerners do, asked me so many questions about myself and said very little about himself, and made me feel comfortable amidst tattoo parlors in California.

“After meeting him, I realized one can stay true to their roots and be successful.”

Taylor said he decided to stop disguising his Mississippi accent and embrace his inner Southerner, but he found Tinseltown wasn’t ready for the South just yet.

“There were only so many redneck, dumb racist cop roles in Hollywood, and Matthew McConaughey had gotten there five years before me,” he said.

In an effort to expand his horizons, Taylor began writing as part of a class he was taking.

“That is when I fell in love with words and phrases, and I was very slowly learning to create,” he said.

Meanwhile, he kept up a correspondence with his long-time friend, Kathryn Stockett, who was working to get her first novel published. Stockett would eventually achieve acclaim as the author of “The Help,” but in those initial years, the pair learned writing together, Taylor said.

“We continued to send each other our bad writing across the country, but all the while we kept encouraging each other with truth and the harshest bluntness,” he said. “There was a smidge of healthy competition of who might succeed first, and she won, I must admit.”

Stockett — who was honored with the Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award for the novel “The Help,” which inspired Taylor’s film of the same name — said even before the book was published, Taylor asked her for the film rights.