Just one year ago, she was christened the next golden child of Hollywood. Barely north of 20 years old, Bryce Dallas Howard had an accomplished background (she studied acting at the Stella Adler Conservatory), a starring role in a Hollywood blockbuster (M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village”) and a lineage that put her on the fast track to becoming the next Kate Hudson, Drew Barrymore or Gwyneth Paltrow.
Her father — actor-turned-director Ron Howard — was among the most powerful names in Hollywood. Through decades of wholesome family entertainment ranging from “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days” to “Cocoon” and “Apollo 13,” his name offered a respectable white-bread career to his offspring, one paved with romantic comedies, heartwarming dramas, Oscars and autographs sessions.
Then Bryce Dallas Howard met notorious film director Lars von Trier, and all of that went right out the window.
“He’s not into creating a very specific message and sending that message out as a solution,” the pale-skinned, blue-eyed charmer recently revealed of her next film’s enigmatic writer/director. “He’s into creating problems, and generating conflicts, that will drive people into creating solutions.”
As far as the first portion of that statement is concerned: mission accomplished. Over the past decade, the Danish von Trier has embraced such conflicts and problems while embracing a reputation as the world’s most controversial filmmaker. After organizing a group to rebel against Hollywood’s excesses in the mid-’90s, his minimalist films have included a drama about sex, God and a paralyzed oil worker (“Breaking the Waves”), and a violent quasi-musical (“Dancer in the Dark”) that simultaneously began and possibly ended Björk’s acting career. Von Trier’s thermometer boiled over, however, in 2003 when he released “Dogville” — a none-to-subtle indictment of America that featured Nicole Kidman getting graphically raped in scene after scene.
Quickly von Trier began talking sequel and Kidman removed herself from consideration, strengthening rumors of the director’s cruel treatment of his leading ladies in the name of emotional rawness. One had to wonder: What kind of actress would offer herself up for such a role?
“There was no tormenting going on whatsoever,” Howard insisted while granting a peek at “Manderlay,” the film that will mark the second installment in von Trier’s trilogy this February. “I’m an actress, and this is my job. And I’ll do what it takes to get to a certain place.”
In the sure-to-be-controversial film, Howard does quite a bit: “Manderlay” features a laundry list of potentially offensive themes, from American condemnation to masturbation to brutal violence, and even a scene featuring white actors in blackface.
Nevertheless, Howard was eager to appear in the film and was completely willing to hand herself over to the filmmaker. “Lars has a very specific vision as to the kind of performance he wants, and what he wants is the complete truth,” she said. “In order to get there, I have to cut through my own artifice as a performer, hit a wall and then something just opens up. Of course the techniques can be grueling, but it’s worthwhile. … As a human being, it’s like therapy.”
And so, Howard spends much of the film in various states of undress and becomes so emotionally bare that she’s often reduced to a quivering, incoherent wreck. One thing’s for sure: It’s a long way from Mayberry.
“[My father] saw the film, and he was very proud of it,” Howard insisted. “He was very impressed by it, incredibly. Of course, he’s my dad; he’s not gonna look at the sex scene and be like, ‘Oh, that was a great shot.’
“He was like this,” she giggled, covering her eyes.
“But he’s impressed with artists who push things, and that’s what Lars does,” the baby-faced 24-year-old added. “And he’s glad that I’m a part of that.”
“Manderlay” (whose producers recently made the revolutionary move of releasing its first 10 minutes via iTunes) is set a few months after the events of “Dogville” and has the seemingly innocent Grace (formerly Kidman, now Howard) stumbling upon an Alabama town that still condones slavery. When she nobly sets out to free the slaves and teach their white oppressors the errors of their ways, the woman is shocked to discover that many of them liked things better the way they were.
“We were trying to create a very different Grace than the Grace that had been created with Nicole in ‘Dogville,’ ” Howard noted. “And then there’ll be a completely different Grace created in ‘Washington,’ which is the third in his trilogy. I watched ‘Dogville’ and I studied [Kidman's] performance more because I just really respected, honored and loved what she did as an actress in ‘Dogville.’ And then I was kind of free and tried my best and did my own thing.”
Like “Dogville,” the sequel drops a cast of well-respected names (Willem Dafoe, Lauren Bacall, Danny Glover) into a landscape so barren that it makes the average “Our Town” production seem like a George Lucas sci-fi extravaganza. Also like its predecessor, the metaphors and messages of “Manderlay” can be read in dozens of ways, many of which may anger Americans who are unwilling to look at their country’s evolution with a critical eye.
“Listen,” the freckle-faced Howard asserted. “He’s a filmmaker, and he’s entitled to any opinion he has. And if this moves you in a certain way, then it’s doing exactly what Lars intended.”
Ultimately, Bryce Dallas Howard hopes to continue straddling the line between mainstream fare (she recently finished shooting Shyamalan’s next film, “Lady in the Water”) and lower-profile, independent offerings. And the only thing she’ll ever require from a director, she promises, is that he or she has something to say.
“My father has found his voice as a filmmaker. In the same way, Lars has found his voice as a filmmaker, and that’s very important,” she said, perhaps making the world’s first and last comparison between Ron Howard and Lars von Trier. “My dad makes films that are incredibly true to himself and the life he lives. Same thing with Lars.”
Check out everything we’ve got on “Manderlay.”
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