Film: Rite of Passage

Bryce Dallas Howard fulfills a dream working with director Lars von Trier on Manderlay

Mar 22, 2006 at 2:06 pm
IFC Films

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Grace, a young woman who moves to a mysterious Southern plantation, in Manderlay, Lars von Trier's lastest exploration into American culture.

It's a common experience — maybe even a rite of passage — for young actresses. How will your parents react to watching your first nude scene on the big screen?

But a couple of elements made it uncommon for 25-year-old Bryce Dallas Howard, star of Manderlay, the second film in Danish director Lars von Trier's pessimistic yet oblique critique of American society and culture. (The first was Dogville in 2004.)

First, Howard's parents know something about film and the arts. Her dad is Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind). Second, this isn't just another demure, fleeting, romantic nude scene. It's an extended, graphic portrayal of sex — possibly a rape. It occurs on a bed on a virtually bare stage so that nothing about it is hidden or secretive. It's classic raw stuff from a director known for demanding that actresses bare themselves emotionally and sometimes physically.

Seated on a Los Angeles hotel-suite sofa with a pillow on her lap, her blue eyes and long red hair adding even more color to a room already alive with the vibrancy of its furnishings and patterns, Howard guesses how her father reacted to the scene. That's because he hasn't told her.

She assumes he responded as a dad first — uncomfortably. "He hasn't shared it with me," she says. "My instinct is he'd first react as a father and put himself in check as a filmmaker. That's the kind of personality he has, how he is in life. Always a father first."

Her mother, novelist Cheryl Howard, was more forthcoming. "As a writer, it was really interesting because she loved the film," Howard says, speaking with a straightforward maturity that belies her age. "She said the structure was unbelievable. As a mother, it was challenging for her to see those scenes but she is a bit tougher in that regard."

Like Dogville, Manderlay has a deconstructionist, intentionally theatrical set design. It's shot on a soundstage with lines on the floor serving to mark various geographic locales. Like Our Town, it has an off-stage narrator. But despite the transparency of all this, von Trier still seeks to create the classically cinematic illusion that the action is taking place in a fully realized, three-dimensional world rather than on a stage.

In the previous Dogville, Grace (Nicole Kidman) sought refuge in a Depression-era Colorado town only to be exploited and abused by the populace until her gangster father's men arrive to exterminate them. It is a pitilessly condemning look at American violence.

In Manderlay, a now-younger Grace (Howard) arrives from Colorado to a mysterious Southern plantation where the black residents haven't realized that slavery is over. She seeks to help them achieve freedom by becoming their benefactor and benign overlord. Suffice to say, complications ensue and the movie has a far less hopeful take on American race relations than, say, Crash. (You might, however, have trouble discerning exactly what that take is.)

Originally, Howard — born in Dallas and raised in Connecticut — set out to be a stage actress. She studied acting at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and then did additional training before getting work in such Manhattan productions as House/Garden, Tartuffe and Our Town. However, she did always have interest in film — especially since she had small parts in some of her father's movies.

Upon seeing 1996's Breaking the Waves, the strangely allegorical film in which a naive woman (Emily Watson) commits adultery because she believes it will cure her paralyzed husband, Howard dreamed about appearing in a von Trier film.

"With Breaking the Waves, what was so compelling to me was that it was so raw, so real, so emotional and yet so sweet in a strange way," she says. "And, aesthetically, it was something I'd never seen before — the breaks in the film and the rolling shots of scenery with Elton John playing. I just thought, 'Who was this filmmaker able to think of that and execute it?' "

Howard got her major break in the movies when director M. Night Shayamalan saw her on the stage and cast her on the spot to star in 2004's The Village. She won acclaim for her performance. Manderlay, however, came about through an audition.

"They were interested in having an unknown, someone very young who was malleable and resembled in some way Nicole Kidman — not look like her but had the innocence Nicole has," she says.

She relished the chance even though she knew it would involve that difficult, vulnerable sex scene. Not that she remembers it as it's presented in the movie.

"We'd have these really long takes that would last for an hour on stage because it was shot digitally," she says. "So the movie I saw I honestly don't remember doing. The parts I do remember, I remember as a memory that's real because I was existing in those states.

"So it's very strange to see it now. Was I blacked out when I did this, or who was watching me? He also clears the set when we shoot some scenes so you feel like you're alone. With Lars you give everything you have to give, and he gets to take from it what he wants."

Howard's career has really taken off. Even before Manderlay was released, Shyamalan had cast her in his next film, Lady in the Water, and Kenneth Branagh had signed her to play Rosalind in his upcoming As You Like It. Just recently, she agreed to play a love interest in Spider-Man 3.

But she's still awaiting a casting that has yet to come.

"My dream role would be to work with my dad, whatever that role would be," she says.©