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An actor like Bryce Dallas Howard comes along

An actor like Bryce Dallas Howard comes along only once in a great while, managing to combine a fresh talent with a classic Hollywood glamour. With her porcelain skin and giant blue pools of eyes, she embodies an allure that is simultaneously modern and yet a throwback to the golden age of movie stars. She even has the classic discovery tale to add to her mystique. Little of this would matter if Howard didn't have the chops to back up that mythos; even those who loathed M. Night Shyamalan's thriller The Village found rapturous things to say about Howard's performance as the film's blind, sheltered heroine. And with her new love-it-or-hate-it film, Lars Von Trier's Manderlay, she's earning equally glowing notices for stepping into the role once played by Nicole Kidman. That her father is Oscar-winning director Ron Howard is usually mentioned as an afterthought when discussing her abilities, and that says a lot, particularly in a business that likes to cry nepotism at every turn.

In person, she is a stunning redhead with an air of confidence set off by her modesty about her talents. While attending New York University Tisch School of the Arts, she was cast in its production of Hamletmachine, her first breakthrough role. Yet she plays down her involvement. "It was a very cool play, and I just happened to be in it," she says. Agent Meredith Wechter caught the show and promptly signed Howard for representation. Wechter was just starting out at the time but is now a major player at ICM, and Howard is still with her. "I auditioned for two years and got nothing," Howard recalls. "And then a show came up at the Manhattan Theatre Club, and that was a miracle. After that, shows just kept happening." While her plan was always to finish college, she ended up working so much she never earned her degree. "I never had to go back," she says, before groaning good-naturedly. "My parents are going to be so humiliated that I'm saying I didn't graduate."

Howard's next break came when she landed the role of Rosalind in As You Like It at the Public Theater. It led her—directly and indirectly—to three prominent roles with three world-renowned directors. Perhaps most impressive is that Howard was not the first choice for Rosalind in this production. "There was a wonderful actress who was supposed to do it and ended up booking a pilot and had to go to Los Angeles," she reveals. "It was the day before rehearsals were supposed to start, and they brought in some actors to audition. It was a Friday, and by the end of the day, I knew I had the part, and we started on a Monday." Even now, Howard marvels at the luck of it all. "It was so by chance," she notes. "You just never know what your life is going to look like."

As You Like It was where Shyamalan discovered the then-unknown and cast her as the lead in The Village. Howard vividly recalls briefly going up to greet him the night he attended. "Everyone was talking about him being there. I knew what he looked like because I'm one of those geeks who watches all the extras on the DVDs," she admits, laughing. "He said later I was really cold, but I was just so nervous. I didn't want to be gushing."

Shortly thereafter the show closed, and Howard left New York to visit her parents in L.A. That's when her agent telephoned her, saying Shyamalan wanted to call her. "I just waited in the one part of the house that got cell service, staring at my phone," she recalls. "He finally called and said, 'Can you go to lunch tomorrow?' I said, 'Yeah. Where?' He said, 'New York.' I said, 'No problem.'" Unfortunately, Howard didn't have money for airfare. "I had gotten in this huge fight with my parents the day before because I had borrowed money from them that I wasn't able to pay back," she admits. "I was struggling, making $200 a week at the Public. They were really unhappy with me, and here I was, asking for more money for a plane ticket." They finally agreed to spot her, and the next day Howard found herself sitting across a table from Shyamalan. "He said, 'Look, I know this is crazy, but I want to offer you the lead role in my next film,'" she recalls. "It was so ridiculous and surreal. It was this dream of every actor, being discovered."

Howard's performance as the sweet and courageous Ivy Walker earned the actor acclaim and a slew of offers to appear in big-budget Hollywood films, but she had already committed to the independent Manderlay. Her part in the film did not, as one would expect, result from her work in The Village. Rather, she was cast by Von Trier based on the recommendation of his producer's friend, who saw Howard in—you guessed it—As You Like It.

Manderlay is a follow-up to Von Trier's equally controversial Dogville, in which Kidman played Grace, a mobster's daughter who learns about the dangers of good intentions. Like Dogville, Manderlay was shot in a Brechtian style on a sparse sound stage with no sets. This time, Grace stumbles upon a plantation where slavery was never abolished. In her attempts to free the residents, Grace once again glimpses the darker side of human nature. It's a tough, difficult film from a director with a reputation for being tough and difficult, but Howard has nothing but raves for her collaborator. "All those rumors about Lars are disconcerting, really," she says. "He was so gentle and so kind. Lars has a vision for his work, and he's in many ways uncompromising about that vision. And that's how it should be. If more directors in this world stuck to their guns and made the movies they want to make, there would be many more great films, many more terrible films, and hardly any mediocre films."

In The Village and in Manderlay, Howard projects purity and goodness without being boring—an ability that is a double-edged sword. "I've been told over and over again that I have a kind of innocence, and I have no control over it," she admits. "I'll go out for a sexy part, and I'll be dressed up in a miniskirt or something, and they'll call my agent and say, 'She looks like an angelic 12-year-old.' I just don't ooze a sexuality, and sometimes it really works against me. It's an interesting challenge I'm trying to combat."

Helping her in that fight is Shyamalan, who cast her in his upcoming Lady in the Water, opposite Paul Giamatti. While little can be revealed about the filmmaker's notoriously secret plots, Howard reportedly plays a mermaidlike creature discovered in an apartment complex swimming pool. Shyamalan had Howard in mind when he wrote the part, and the actor hints it will be an opportunity to show a new side of herself. "It's interesting because he knows me really well, and he wrote something that uses the inherent qualities I have and then moves it around so I can try something I never tried before," she hints. "You'll know what I mean when you see it."

After that, Howard will be seen in Kenneth Branagh's film version of none other than As You Like It, once again donning Rosalind's corset. Though Branagh hadn't seen Howard in the play, she strongly believes she never would have gotten the part if she hadn't played it before. "I believe he was only going to cast a British actress, and he was in town for, like, three hours," she says. "I was getting ready to go to bed, and my agent called me and said, 'We're sending over sides right now; you have to go in tomorrow morning.' If I hadn't done that show, I wouldn't have been able to do anything for the audition. Kenneth was, like, 'Have you done this before?'"

Howard also just signed on to join the cast of Spider-Man 3 as potential love interest Gwen Stacey. And at some point she'd love to get back to the theatre; she's a member of New York's Theater Mitu, the artistic director of which is Hamletmachine writer-director-producer Ruben Polendo. Howard now finds it a bit amusing to be so in-demand in the film world. "When I was doing theatre and auditioning for films, no one was biting. No one was interested," she notes. "There were some casting offices who literally said, 'We're not interested in Bryce.' I would come in and do my wacky auditioning style, which is kind of kamikaze auditioning, and it was too much. So it's funny that I've ended up here."

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