Bryce Dallas Howard has lied, manipulated and created complicated subterfuges to get what she wants '- and that's in real life, not on the big screen. Does that make the daughter of Ron Howard a scoundrel?
Of course not. The Opie look-alike, who turns 25 in March, is as sweet and innocent as you would expect from the daughter of the King of Nice. She wasn't raised in Hollywood, although she lives there now, and she has little to do with her club-hopping contemporaries who make headlines with eating disorders, arrests and shotgun engagements.
"Pretty boring," she laughs, during a day of interviews in a Midtown Manhattan hotel to promote her new film, Manderlay, from Danish director Lars von Trier.
That makes it all the more shocking when she strips nude in the movie, which is an intellectual treatise on racism that is so highly stylized that there are no sets or locations '- just actors on a bare soundstage pretending there are walls and doors.
Howard's character, Grace, is a naive girl on the run with her gangster father who innocently tries to help a group of African-Americans who are still held in slavery in the 1930s. She gets tied up in their drama as she tries to convert their plantation to a co-op, and she ends up in love with one of the former slaves.
"I'm an actress. I signed up for it. It's my job," Howard says. "And the sex scene was not a purely sexual scene. It was a seriously emotional scene and said quite a bit about the character and her journey."
That being said, she adds, "I don't think that's my dad's favorite scene to watch '- he's not going to put it on repeat."
Given her father's sentimental and wholesome taste in movies, Howard didn't grow up inclined to strip off her clothes at the slightest provocation. She and her three younger siblings spent a sheltered childhood in the relative sanity of the East Coast. That didn't just mean there were no horrid action movies; she grew up without ever watching Happy Days and paid little attention overall to her family's long show-business history. She was a waitress when she was in high school, and spent one school year alone in suburban New York when she didn't want to miss school to go on a movie set.
But when it came time to get serious about acting, the young Howard took on a new persona. She became Bryce Dallas, and she remained incognito through her sophomore year at New York University. She even lied to get her first job, going in for an audition for a play at the Manhattan Theater Club without revealing her true identity.
She landed the role, and from there she has been on an upward ascent. Regrets? Hardly. "I'm so glad I did that play," she says. Looking for unknowns, a producer came to see her and thought she seemed interesting. Turns out he was scouting for M. Night Shyamalan, and she ended up cast as the virtuous, blind Ivy Walker in The Village. Another night and another producer, and she ended up taking over Nicole Kidman's Dogville role as the defiant Grace in Manderlay.
Howard's previous brushes with Hollywood had consisted of accompanying her father on movie sets and filling in little parts, but now she was hitting the big time. The next horror-movie queen. The next Nicole Kidman. All that had to come after that was the shocking starlet behavior.
But that didn't happen.
"I'm like that," she says, shrugging in her denim vest and dark shirt and jeans, which make her look like she just stopped by for an interview from her job as a barista at Starbucks. "I was that kid in high school. The one time I went to a party, everyone was completely shocked that I was there, and I left like five minutes later."
When she had some unwanted time off between jobs after coming back from Europe on Manderlay, she didn't even waste her time sunning by the pool or working on her abs (not that she'd need to). She enrolled in classes, and although she still has a year left to go on her NYU degree, she didn't enroll formally in any program. "I created stuff for myself," she explains. "I enrolled in a couple of different curricula for writing. I learned how to write a screenplay, because it's so technical. Then I created a curriculum on how to direct."
After working steadily again '- on Shyamalan's next film, Lady in the Water, and Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It '- she's in another lull at the moment and back to taking classes. "It's hard as an actor, because you don't look at them as breaks," she says. "You just look at them as a nebulous void before you get another job. In order to cope, I've created another curriculum for myself. I took a course with UCLA and I'm taking different Robert McKee [screenwriting and story] seminars."
But this time she's getting recognized, and when McKee slams movies like he famously does, people come over to sympathize with her, saying they really do like her dad's films.