Interview: Bryce Dallas Howard
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Bryce Dallas Howard on the poster for Lars Von Trier's Manderlay.
Currently Howard can be seen on the screen with Danny Glover and Willem Dafoe in Manderlay, Lars Von Trier's sequel to Dogville, where she takes over the role of Grace from Nicole Kidman, despite being much younger. In Los Angeles, Howard talked with reporters about working with the famous Danish director, Manderlay's political dimensions, and how surprised she was when she saw Von Trier's final cut of the film.
AboutFilm: What are the artistic challenges and advantages to doing a film on a sparsely decorated soundstage?
Howard: I only looked at it as an advantageous situation because I really had an opportunity to flex my muscles, using my imagination, which is my primary instrument. It was almost like playtime with all of us just running around and creating things and throwing things out there. It was really fun. It led in a way into the work we were doing. We would really allow ourselves to stretch in a way that we wouldn't have the opportunity to do in a conventional setting.
Question: How did Lars Von Trier give you direction?
Howard: It was a very unique situation. He shoots on DV so he has up to an hour of film before he needs to cut. He'll use that almost every single time. What he'll do is, we'll arrive on set, and there's absolutely no rehearsal whatsoever. We're not even really allowed to ask questions. He'll just start shooting. He clears the set so it's just himself holding the camera and the focus puller and the actors, and everyone else is gone. So there's an intimacy there that obviously isn't there when there's 200 people watching. He'll let us do whatever we want the first take, maybe the first couple of takes if he likes what we are doing. Then he'll take off the camera and we'll sit down and we'll talk about it, very briefly. He'll ask certain questions and tell us some things he'd like to see in that scene. Then we'll start shooting again, but he's very concise in his direction and he's very generous in the way he allows us, as actors, to explore the characters fully. He never tells us, “That was wrong,” or “Don't do that,” nothing like that. He always encourages us, so I was grateful for that.
Question: Is it intimidating to have him just standing there with the camera and no one else around?
Howard: No, no. I have a tendency to have a bit more stage fright. I get more nervous when there are large groups of people, as opposed to one on one, it's never a problem for me. I really preferred that. It was actually kind of challenging after working like that. I actually took a year, and didn't work at all for a year. And then my first film, it was a little jarring to be on a film set again. Also, he's so open. You can ask him anything, and you can criticize him in whichever way you want. He doesn't put up any walls at all with his personality, so it's a very generous and safe environment.
Question: What were the discussions like when you were being considered for the role?
Howard: Concise. He had heard through one of his friends who saw me in a play that I should be someone that he could look at for the role. I put myself on tape. At that point I wasn't allowed to read the script or anything. Then he watched many tapes, I believe, and then flew a few people out, and I had the audition. The audition was three hours long and we really didn't talk about it at all. He just had me do many improvisations.
Question: What kind of improvisations?
Howard: They had to do with the subject matter. At that point I had read the script. It was with one of his friends. We just went through some scenes you saw in the film, but we would just take it to absurd places. They all ended up being hilarious and kind of graphic, and very weird. That's what actors will do if you don't stop them. [laughs] They'll get raunchy with the material. Then I went home and a few weeks later found out that I had the part, which was totally insane, and then I didn't hear from him until the day before I got into the plane.
AboutFilm: The script obviously raises a lot of difficult issues. How did you respond to those issues when you first read the script, and did your attitude evolve over the course of making the film?
Howard: Hmm. Well, you know what? I wouldn't say that my attitude necessarily changed, but I was struck by something when I read the script, and it was my own ignorance. I realized how little I truly knew about this subject matter. I knew what I read in textbooks and nothing else, honestly, and I take fully responsibility for that. It gave me an opportunity to go out on my own and find as much research as I could, not only on slavery but about the repercussions of slavery in America and in other countries around the world. Then when we were shooting, it was fantastic because Dan Glover obviously is a massive voice within the African-American community, and is really intelligent and has taken a stand in his life to educate people about this. He was there every single day, and I was very grateful for that. It wasn't that I had an attitude shift, but I had a realization that I didn't know anything, and I needed to learn about this quite a bit more.
AboutFilm: And did you?
Howard: Yeah, and I hope I am continuing to. There is a nice moment when you realize there is a problem, and you try and create a solution, and the you realize you can't create a solution because you don't know what the solution is. The moment I admit that I don't know, then all of a sudden I am listening for the person who might know what the answer is. Before I wasn't listening that way. I wasn't actively listening. I was passively listening. I think that active listening might cause a shift. If everyone turns to that way of being, then when that one voice of truth comes up, the it's heard.
AboutFilm: Which is of course what Grace doesn't do. Listen.
Howard: Right. And that is something that I learned, yeah.
AboutFilm: In addition to commenting on race relations, the film can be seen to speak about US foreign policy. Do you think it speaks to both race relations and foreign policy, or more one than the other, or do you just think of it as a story?
Howard: I was absolutely focusing on the story. When you are creating a character, you use what is going to move you. The moment I would start thinking about anything that's presently going on in the world, I would start to become Bryce. I would start to have my own behaviors and create my own feelings about those issues. That wasn't my job as an actor; I needed to create a character. I just focused on Grace, who's staying on a plantation in Alabama in the 1930s. But absolutely, at dinnertime we would get into these huge discussions that were very political in nature, but I don't think that they were intentionally brought up because we were trying to convey those ideas in the film. That wasn't our job. We were vessels for Lars, and then he has his own agendas. I don't think his agenda is ever to didactic in nature, but he is illuminating issues, absolutely. These are things we know are going on presently. I think it's very brave of him to do what he's doing.
Question: This movie is kind of a sequel to Dogville, and you play Nicole Kidman's character. Did you talk to her?
Howard: Well, I watched Dogville many, many times, more because I enjoyed it than anything else. I never had a chance to talk to Nicole about it, but I also don't feel like it was necessary because Lars made it very clear from the get-go that he wanted to create an entirely different character. I think it almost might have been a hindrance if I asked her about her process because I put her in such high esteem that I would have wanted to take her words like jewels, you know, and take them for my own. I'm glad that there was some separation created.
Question: For the third film in Von Trier's American trilogy, you've said that you probably wouldn't be able to be Grace. Is there any chance that you could be in the third?
Howard: Actually I got that because I saw some footage of Lars talking right after he had done Dogville, and he said that he could do the trilogy with one actress or with three different actresses. But since then he's expressed that he may want to do the third film with Nicole and I, but he hasn't committed to that. He hasn't written the script yet or anything. I don't know how he would do it. I say it publicly because he said it publicly. I really want him to do that. That would be pretty awesome.
Question: Did you hang out with the other actors and what did you talk about?
Howard: It was great. We filmed in Trollhättan, Sweden, in the wintertime. It's very lovely, and it's in a very rural part of Sweden. So it was quiet. We would finish a day of filming, and because we were shooting in a warehouse essentially, we didn't have to have the crazy hours that movies often have because we weren't waiting for the sunlight or for the rain to stop. It was very humane hours. Then we would come home, and we would simply have to be together because there was no where else to go. We would go on really long walks, or go cross-country skiing, or have dinner together. There was a bar there, and I know a lot of people stayed up pretty late just talking at the bar, and [there was] a lot of dancing. But when actors get together I find they don't really like to talk about movies or their job that often. They like to talk about the world, or the things that are really exciting to them and about each other. Actors tend to have a lot of curiosity so it's just a lot of questions.
Question: Who do you keep in touch with?
Howard: The person I keep in touch with mostly is Lars. Then there are a few other actors. A lot of them are from England, so I get to see them when I am there or when they are here.
Question: Did Lars go skiing?
Howard: Yes, and I have some funny images of Lars just falling over and sliding down this mountain!
Question: What did you love most about Lars' style?
Howard: How freeing it was. How you got to get everything out of your system. It's really difficult when you're working on a conventional film set, because you get three or four takes, and by the time they have to move on, you're just like, “Oh my God I should have done this. That was awful.” With Lars you get it out of your system completely. You go home saying, “I did absolutely my best.” You've also at some point in there done your absolute worst, so you hope he doesn't choose that. You feel very emptied.
AboutFilm: So you have no idea before you see the final cut which choices he will make—
Howard: Oh my God, no!
AboutFilm: So what was your reaction when you saw the film?
Howard: It was so bizarre! I was completely surprised. He asked that I not create a certain character, because he wanted to have flexibility within my work. That was really challenging for me. I love creating things in my room, and it's almost like show and tell. You show up like, “This is what I have to offer.” So he would use the first eight or ten takes just getting rid of the garbage I created in my bedroom at three o'clock in the morning. And then I would just be present to something. When I saw the movie it was completely different from what I thought Grace was going to be like.
AboutFilm: What did you think she was going to be like?
Howard: I kept saying, and this is going to sound so weird, but I kept saying to my friends, “I am so funny in this movie! Quirky and funny!” [laughs] I saw it, and I'm crying the entire time. I have to say I'm really pleased with what he cut together. Absolutely. I'm kind of relieved that he got rid of the version I created, because it would have been totally inappropriate.
Question: What is next for you?
Howard: I did a few films that are coming out this year. I did As You Like It with Kenneth Brannagh and Lady In The Water with M. Night Shyamalan.
Question: What was it like working with Kenneth Branagh?
Howard: Awesome, because he knows everything that anyone needs to know about Shakespeare. It was wonderful. He is an actor as well, so it was my first experience working with a director who had acted.
Question: Were you nervous tackling Shakespeare?
Howard: I guess I was kind of nervous. I find nerves can cripple me in a way, so if I start to feel nervous I try to transfer that into some form of excitement. I wanted to do it right. The challenge was I found out about the role just before we shot, and filming was five weeks. It was just my instincts, so I was just going for it. I felt safe with Kenneth. He's really quite good.
Question: Did you have a background with Shakespeare before this?
Howard: I did a bit, and with that role specifically. I did that role in a production with the Public Theatre in New York. They are quite good and the director there taught me quite a bit. Also at school that's what I tried to focus on. Still, it takes a lifetime. It really, really does.
AboutFilm: Where did you go to school?
Howard: NYU, but I'm a drop out. I have a year left to go.
AboutFilm: Are you going to go back to Tisch?
Howard: You know what, I don't know. Yesterday, I got a booklet with all the classes and it looked nice, but my agent will strangle me [for thinking about school now]. That would be nice, but it's not something I am really taking seriously right now. I like acting in this way.
Question: Were you studying acting?
Howard: I had a double major in creative writing and acting.
Question: When did you decide you wanted to be in this industry?
Howard: It's so hard to answer that question because there wasn't ever a defining moment for me. I was always a little kid who had a huge imaginary life. I had an imaginary friend until I was ten or something. It was really inappropriate, and I was considered psychotic by some. I did all the plays in high school, and I was really attracted to it. When I was applying to schools I thought if I get into NYU then this is such a great program then I will go there and major in acting, and that's what happened.
AboutFilm: So will you continue writing?
Howard: Yes, I am writing something now. It's my first screenplay.
AboutFilm: What's it about?
Howard: Uh, it's a bit about quantum physics. It's kind of a lofty goal! [laughs] I'm learning how stupid I truly am as I read these things. If nothing else comes of it, it's really fascinating.
AboutFilm: Does that help your acting as well, to get into the mechanics of a story?
Howard: Absolutely, and creating a character. Screenplay writers, they have to do everything. They have to look at the movie as a director, as they write. They have to act out all the roles in their minds. They have to create the sets in their minds. They do every job and put it down on paper. It's taking me a long time.
AboutFilm: You're in pre-production on Mary Queen of Scots, is that right?
Howard: Mm-mm. That movie is living in the land of lost movies right now.
[Read the AboutFilm review of Manderlay]
Article and interviews © February 2006 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2005 Magnolia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
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