When Bryce Dallas Howard was 4 years old, a clod she’d never met handed her a script to slip to her father. One year later, Ron Howard and his writer wife, Cheryl, moved from Los Angeles to rural Connecticut, where their four kids enjoyed childhoods shielded from Hollywood crassness. Bryce, who gets her middle name from the city she was born in (just as well it wasn’t Hackensack) ended up becoming an actress anyway, but she’s no garden-variety starlet. Having studied at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, she paid her dues on stage and still does, producing and acting in an experimental theater company she founded with a bunch of college friends: “We take these ancient rituals like The Mahabharata and translate them into present-day theater,” she says over bottled water at a Beverly Hills hotel. But Howard got her movie break early on when director M. Night Shyamalan and a friend of Lars von Trier each spotted her on Broadway playing Rosalind in As You Like It (a role she will reprise later this year in Kenneth Branagh’s film of the Shakespeare comedy) and cast her in movies that are fast establishing her as one of the most promising young talents in the industry. Howard shone in Shyamalan’s otherwise moribund The Village (2004), as a blind young woman who nonetheless sees what those around her don’t. Now, taking over from Dogville star Nicole Kidman in Manderlay — part two of von Trier’s America-the-Ugly trilogy — she excels again as Grace, a young woman who sees but is blind to the needs of all around her. Not bad for a 24-year-old whose parents, she says, “neither encouraged nor discouraged” her from entering the film business, yet offered their daughter unstinting support when she moved back to Los Angeles three years ago to pursue a career in movies.
This unexpectedly tall, slender redhead, who came across stocky and studiously ordinary in The Village, sports a more glam, elfin look these days. In Manderlay, with her shagged hair, wide blue eyes and elongated ski-slope of a nose, she looks for all the world like a young Rita Tushingham — an ingénue for sure, but with a steely edge of monomania. Certainly, von Trier likes to brings out the extremity in all his leading ladies. Manderlay is a more challenging and rewarding movie by far than his crude Dogville, and as Grace, the earnestly liberal mobster’s daughter who tries to democratize a group of plantation slaves who remain in bondage long after abolition, Howard proves a far less distracting presence than Kidman, whose florid, movie-star-in-chains turn had more than a touch of artified porn about it. Von Trier wanted a radically different reading this time, but Grace Number Two remains less a character than the realization of an idea about the perils of idealism unshackled from political savvy — not an easy role for a neophyte, but one Howard pulls off with startling intensity.
“With this film you can look at the characters as political ideas or the product of a political agenda,” says Howard. “But an actor can’t — or at least I can’t — attach anything creative onto that. I need a concrete human being to grasp onto, so that’s what I did. The one piece of direction that Lars consistently gave me is that Grace is determined and emotional, and when she’s both at once, that’s when problems happen. My entire performance was based on that. And then we just experimented. Going to the set in the morning, I prepared myself to be as open as possible, and I’d just go at it. At the end Lars cut together his Grace.”In person, Howard wears a hoodie over a modestly low-cut top and high-heeled boots — an Ameri-girl outfit rather at odds with the expert makeup she’s wearing for a photo shoot — and has the polished veneer of any well-schooled Hollywood rising star.
(She murmurs circumspect nothings when I tell her I didn’t care for Dogville.) But there’s an unspoiled, daughter-of-Opie innocence about her, and she shares her father’s ambivalence about life in Hollywood. “There was just too much access to my dad, even when he was at home,” she says. “I find this happening to me since I moved here. You go home for the day, and it’s not the end of the day. It doesn’t stop. There’s a party to go to, or a dinner, or a premiere. My parents didn’t feel that was the lifestyle they wanted to have.” Howard comes across preternaturally well adjusted, but she understands Grace, she says, because she too has an evangelical bent. “I became a vegan right after making this movie, and it freaked out a lot of my friends and my parents. I’d say, ‘We can’t go to restaurants together anymore.’ I had no sense of humor and I was very stern. Only when I lightened up did people start to listen.”
Howard is very serious about her work and gushes a daughterly, almost puppyish devotion to both von Trier, whom she describes as “a very kind, gentle man,” and to Shyamalan, each of whom, in his way, she finds charismatic and inspiring. “They know what to push for and what they can relax about because it all comes from them,” she says. “Directors who haven’t written their own material often push, push, push, so that they can make their choices in the editing room, whereas a writer-director just has it up there anyway. With Lars in particular, I was bringing my openness and my emotional body, and he would almost play me like an instrument.” Howard is itching to play Grace in the third part of von Trier’s trilogy, though if she does, she’ll be one of two Graces. In the meantime, she’s busy as a bee. This year she will star opposite Paul Giamatti in a new Shyamalan fantasy, Lady in the Water, play Mary Queen of Scots in a British biopic now in production, and have a supporting role in Spider-Man 3. But ask what movie part she dreams of, and she’ll tell you without hesitation. “A role in one of my dad’s films.”