Bryce Dallas Howard: on Gold, Black Mirror, and her first sip of alcohol
“There was a simple joy in playing someone with big hair and big boobs.”
Originally published in The Times (of London), 31 January 2017.
Bryce Dallas Howard leans forward to investigate a bizarre chocolate installation promoting the film she is here to talk about. Half of it snaps off in her hands and she squeals, then inspects the lump of confectionary in her hand featuring half of co-star Matthew McConaughey’s head. She sets the chunk aside with a sigh of regret. “I have Jurassic in six weeks, so no way Jose,” she says, referring to the next installment in the relentless dinosaur park franchise.
Gold features no computer-generated leviathans and is directed by Stephen Gaghan (writer of Traffic, writer-director of Syriana), starring Howard as Kaylene, charming, ebullient longterm girlfriend of Kenny, a balding, paunchy gold prospector down on his luck (McConaughey, all guns blazing), who strikes it big in the Indonesian rain forest with the help of a mystical geologist called Mike Acosta (Edgar Ramirez, playing it cool). A tale of fading empires, desperate last bids for glory and the corrupting influence of ‘gold at all costs’, it’s a period romp through 80s excess that feels decidedly relevant today.
“This is a very American story,” Howard says, fair-skinned face and tumbling red hair poking out from a pile of cushions she has playfully arranged to shield herself from the suite’s over-zealous air conditioning. “Love it or hate it, this is the American dream. What happens when you get it, and when you lose it.”
Enthusiastic, open and clearly at ease with her chosen craft, Bryce is te 35-year-old daughter of Oscar-winning actor-director Ron Howard, who played Richie in long-running TV series Happy Days (Henry Winkler, ‘The Fonz’, is Bryce’s godfather), and later became director of Hollywood smashes such as Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind. With other directors, actors and writers scattered throughout her family, it’s not hugely surprising Bryce Dallas Howard went into film, though she and her siblings were deliberately raised away from the tumultuous world of showbiz in suburban Westchester county, New York. Nevertheless, she studied performing arts, including at a camp at Vassar College where she says she did a play with Natalie Portman, who was there although she was already a professional actress. “That was the first time I was like, Oh, the fun acting that happens can also happen professionally in movies.” Then, a stage performance of As You Like It caught the eye of director M Night Shyamalan, who cast Howard in his twisty 2004 thriller The Village, launching her film career.
“When I first started acting, it was all theatre. I don’t know why I didn’t think about acting in movies, it was more about being in a crew, just being part of it. When I did The Village, after I wrapped, they’d be like, Oh, Bryce, you’re still here?,” she laughs. “I’d still be there, like ‘Can I help out? Is there anything to help out with?’”
Nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance in Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 film adaptation of As You Like It, Howard has become a well respected actress appearing in ensemble productions such as 2011’s The Help, while dipping into producing (Gus Van Sant’s Restless) and directing short films, all while appearing in a stream of blockbusters including Spider-Man 3, two Twilight installments and Terminator Salvation, as well as Jurassic World. Playing Kaylene in Gold came as some relief, and she enthuses about working on a “grown-up” film, the fun of collaborating with costume designer Danny Glicker on fabulous outfits like an 80s gold lame dress, and the simple joy of playing someone with “big hair and big boobs”.
“I was reading the script and one of the first lines in describing Kay was, ‘Kay’s pants are too tight but only because she’s happy.’ I was like, ‘I know that girl!,” she laughs. “Oh, I won’t be hungry that whole movie. That’s amazing.”
Gold is nevertheless very much a boy’s club. As well as McConnaughey and Ramirez, Howard holds her own amid a pack of jostling male presences that includes Bill Camp, Toby Kebbell and Corey Stoll. More often than not in Hollywood, that’s how it is, she shrugs, so she’s used to it — “Like Mad Men, it’s a depiction of what we think to be a bygone era.” (She emphasises the word think.) And like most films set in the 70s and 80s, everyone smokes and drinks so incessantly that you wonder how anyone survived the era at all. “These were careers dominated by the male gender. As a result, it was more ruthless, physical… People having heart attacks from doing drugs. An uncivilized time.”
Howard herself has never touched alcohol, except for one moment during the filming of this movie. She notes that usually while shooting it’s not real alcohol, but in celebratory bar scene, “Matthew’s going around, pops the champagne. It’s a party! He motorboats me… is that what it’s called?” She jiggles. “We’re all dancing. He comes up to me like, ‘Oh, Kay, baby,’ pours champagne and puts it up to my lips. And I feel a camera next to me and I smell, and I’m like, ‘Holy fuck, is this alcohol?’ I’ve gone 35 years without a sip, so I’m like, ‘Mmmm!’” She mimes a combination of horror and enthusiasm. “Afterwards I’m like, ‘Don’t lick your lips, don’t lick your lips…” She was worried about altitude sickness and alcohol consumption, because they were shooting in New Mexico, until someone explained it “doesn’t absorb through your skin… you’re going to be fine.” She drank a lot of water anyway, she laughs.
At the Golden Globes earlier this year, Meryl Streep used her acceptance speech to rebuke then president-elect Donald Trump for mocking a disabled reporter, and to warn that a free press needs to be defended. Conservative commentators savaged Streep for expressing her views, not least The Donald himself (“overrated”), while many applauded, including Howard’s father, who tweeted his support and called out what he saw as Trump’s hypocrisy.
“I think every human being should say what they think at every opportunity they have. All the time,” she says firmly. “People on the street get asked what they think… People in the movies say something of a political nature and people immediately jump on them.”
Bryce Dallas Howard gained a crash course in online political discussion when she joined Instagram while preparing for an episode of tech-dystopia series Black Mirror, where she appears in a horrifying, not-so-distant world where everyone is rated on social media from 1 to 5. She decided to not “be political” at all, but on US election day posted what she thought was an innocuous picture with an ‘I Voted’ badge. “And the hashtag ‘I’m With Her’. It’s the only time I said it…” She trails off.
“Then the comments… Some people were unstable. You could tell.” One person was angrily complaining artists should keep their thoughts to themselves — Howard looked at that account and found it was highly political. “I was like, ‘Oh, do they think our Instagram is different?’ They express their views to the people around them, too.” She sounds genuinely bewildered, like she’s still trying to work it out.
The Women’s March recently brought gender issues to the forefront of political debate, with its defense of equality and women’s reproductive rights. “When I first started doing press, there was this time when people would say, ‘Oh, I’m a humanist, not a feminist. It wasn’t accepted to be a feminist. Now, it’s expected that women stand up for women and that men stand up for women. That shift is critical and I’m hungry for it.”
Films always felt like home to her — she and her dad still stop when they see a set and cross the street to check out what’s happening. She is married to another actor, Seth Gabel (in a number of popular series including Fringe and Salem), and has two small children who often come with her on set in the way she did as a child, including a recent trip to New Zealand for the filming of family movie Pete’s Dragon. Stunt days are the best, she explains, partly because there’s no sound, so if they laugh or scream, they don’t ruin the take. She plans to neither encourage nor discourage them from going into acting, saying she will probably wait until they’re adults in the same way her parents did.
“When I was 11, I was allowed to tape auditions for my dad, and I saw there were so many talented people, I didn’t make any assumptions acting would work out. I thought I would have a better shot at being a first AD [assistant director]. Which I would love as well.”
In 2006, she directed a short film called Orchids, and wishes that could be her focus. “It’s really doable and fun, and it’s that vibe that I had in college, where it’s like, ‘Let’s put on a show.’ Permit or no permit, you did it. I don’t want to give up acting like my dad did, though.”
She and her father have yet to work together professionally, but they talk about it sometimes. “I emailed him last night about Hidden Figures,” she says. “Let’s find a story from history! He’s like, ‘Yeah, great idea’.” There’s a pause. “Then I’m like, Ohhh, I have to find something from history. If you want to get something done, you have to do it yourself.”
She visited her 88-year-old grandfather two nights ago, actor Rance Howard, who has appeared in many series, as well as most of his son’s films, to tell him about an idea for a podcast series. He advised her not to spread herself too thin, and proceeded to “tell me this story about Orson Welles having difficulty finishing a couple of things. He was like, ‘I think Orson Welles is a good model for you’.” She laughs. “Aww, Grandad.”
“If I have learned anything in ten years of parenting so far, it’s that you might be able to have it all… but certainly not all at once. I do have a lot of energy and I have a lot of determination. I think a lot of people have become refocused as of late, because of the times we’re in. It’s like, this is the time. No more time to waste.”
Originally published in The Times