Palo Alto native lands role in Dreamworks' feature film 'The Help'

Ahna O'Reilly plays Southern housewife in film based on popular novel

At 6, she moved with her family from Palo Alto to France, where they drove around the country in a VW van before settling in a small town in the Alps. At 8, she was a von Trapp child in a local Washington state theater production. While she was at Menlo School in Atherton, she and her family played beach-goers in the 2004 sci-fi action film "Dinocroc."

And now, Ahna O'Reilly is breaking into the Hollywood spotlight, with a supporting role in the Dreamworks' production of "The Help," based on a 2009 novel by Kathryn Stockett. The film opened Wednesday (Aug. 10).

The novel centers on the concept of opportunity, and O'Reilly, a Palo Alto native, seems to be seizing it.

The petite, charming O'Reilly began her acting career as a child, and in a somewhat accidental way. "One summer, we were in Washington state, and we didn't really have many friends there," she says in an interview. "It was just me and my two little sisters, and there was this regional theater company starting up."

Her mom suggested the kids audition and maybe this could be a summer activity for them. They did, and wound up playing the three young von Trapp children in "The Sound of Music."

"Ever since then, since I was 8, I wanted to be an actress," O'Reilly says.

Returning to Palo Alto shortly thereafter, she continued her acting work, taking drama courses at Menlo School during high school, and later driving to San Francisco to participate in acting classes with her younger sister.

"I just always knew, since I was little, that that was what I wanted to do," she says, while sipping a cappuccino at Mayfield Bakery in Town & Country, one of her favorite local spots.

After graduating from Menlo School, she moved to Los Angeles to go to the University of Southern California. But after a year, she left USC to pursue acting.

"I think a lot of students, when they graduate from college, suffer from figuring out like, 'What do I do with my time?' ... I experienced that a little bit earlier."

She threw herself into finding a good acting class. "I knew I had to study (acting)."

Being a Northern California native, she had a rough transition into the LA lifestyle. "At first I didn't love LA -- I think because I love Northern California so much. But I love LA now. If you give it a chance, and can get over the traffic, it's a really interesting city with so much to offer."

Each day varies for her, with auditions, agent meetings, and classes at UCLA.

"Sometimes I can have three days and have nothing planned, or I can go through a week and have two to three auditions a day."

Her schedule varies by time of year. If it's during the TV pilot season (April), and she's going for a role, "it's just crazy," she says. "I'm up at 6 and in bed at 6, and just learning my lines."

However, she says, she still tries to live with a routine structure. "It mostly comes from me, and then whatever meetings or auditions I have thrown in there. No week or day really looks the same."

Her first credited acting job was in the 2008 film "Just Add Water," starring Danny DeVito, Dylan Walsh and Jonah Hill. She played a "cracked-out" pregnant teenager. "And don't blink, 'cause you'll miss me. I'm literally in it for two seconds!"

In "The Help," she plays a Southern housewife alongside actors Emma Stone, Sissy Spacek, Viola Davis, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Octavia Spencer. This all-female ensemble brings to life the story of a white college-educated young woman, Skeeter (played by Stone), returning home to Mississippi in 1962, and refuting the unspoken prejudices that deal with African-American household workers -- "the help."

With the nagging of Skeeter's mother (played by Spacek) and help from maids (played by Davis and Spencer), Skeeter challenges the local white social hierarchy, in the persons of Hilly (played by Dallas Howard) and Elizabeth (played by O'Reilly).

O'Reilly credits friend and actress Octavia Spencer for helping her land the part.

She met Spencer during the making of the 2009 film, "Herpes Boy," a festival favorite by Byron Lane. O'Reilly has her first "fleshed-out" role in the film, and Spencer co-stars.

"If I hadn't done ('Herpes Boy'), 'The Help' probably wouldn't have come my way because Octavia (Spencer) was the one who first called me with the part. She told me: 'There are so many female parts in it, you have to get in that room!'"

In fact, without Spencer's help, O'Reilly doubts she would have even auditioned. "The way it works with big movies like that with such a hot title, if you're at a big agency, they see all the girls from that agency. And I was not at a big agency; I did not have a very long resume. I did not have anything to get my foot in that door. So it was really Octavia being like: 'You've got to see this girl.' All of the stars aligned -- thank God!"

O'Reilly entered her audition for "The Help" with excitement. "I got all dressed up in 1960s clothing and did my hair -- it meant so much to me from the beginning."

It's easy to imagine the petite, blonde O'Reilly being transported back to an era of Southern subtle elegance. During the shooting, she moved to Mississippi for three months and lived with Spencer. "(Octavia) kind of took me under her wing."

"I've always been drawn to the South and fascinated by it. This was my first time being in Mississippi. I loved it. It's very different from here. There is such a rich, complicated history, which is what the movie is about."

The bestselling book "The Help" was the first novel by Kathryn Stockett. As O'Reilly explains it, the story "got tons of rejections." The author said to the cast: "I never thought anyone would read it."' And now, says O'Reilly, "it's this huge phenomenon."

"The Help" director Tate Taylor and Stockett were childhood friends, and grew up together in Jackson, Mississippi, where the novel takes place. Due to these connections, O'Reilly says, there was "such a family feel" when filming the movie. Stockett's daughter Lyla also appears in the movie adaptation in a cameo role as a young heroine Skeeter.

The atmosphere on the set was comfortable and fun, says O'Reilly. "Everyone got along so well. We're all friends. It was kind of like being at summer camp in a way."

Now that "The Help" is finished, she is open to a variety of acting projects.

"I would love to do theater, and live in New York someday. Movies are what I grew up with -- movies and theater. ...We didn't have a television when I was little, so I just didn't grow up with (TV shows) as my acting inspiration."

Upcoming projects include independent films "I Am Ben," costarring another Menlo School alum, Elyie Yost, and "Girls Girls Girls," a compilation of eight short films entirely written, directed, produced and edited by women. O'Reilly stars in one short directed by her former "Herpes Boy" co-star Beth Grant. O'Reilly's vignette, "The Perfect Fit," also stars her friend, Octavia Spencer.

"I want to do anything," she says near the end of an hour-long interview. "I just want to do things that are good, with good people, that are inspiring."

Samantha Bergeson of Portola Valley will be a junior this fall at Menlo School.

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