NEW! Bryce Dallas Howard ('Jurassic World')
'A New World Order!'
One morning in April, Bryce Dallas Howard was about to spend the day with a dragon when she found out she’d inadvertently woken a monster. The actress was in New Zealand, filming Disney’s forthcoming live-action remake of 'Pete’s Dragon', when an anxious email popped up on her phone. It was from the director Colin Trevorrow, with whom she’d been shooting 'Jurassic World' a few months earlier.
“I wanted to check in with you and make sure you’re okay,” he had written. Overnight, Universal had released a teaser clip in which Howard’s character, Claire Dearing, the coolly capable operations manager of the film’s ill-fated theme park, which has finally opened for business, verbally spars with the park’s scruffy dinosaur wrangler Owen Grady, who’s played by Chris Pratt.
She’s terse and task-focused while he haplessly attempts to flirt: it’s a spiky encounter straight out of the Princess Leia/Han Solo playbook. But unexpectedly, Joss Whedon, the director of Marvel’s Avengers films, had taken exception to it. Online, he’d trashed the clip as “70s-era sexist”, adding: “She’s a stiff, he’s a life-force – really? Still?”
Whedon’s comments had triggered an avalanche of coverage and speculation, and Trevorrow was distraught. One of the 38-year-old director’s big ideas to refresh 'Jurassic World', when he was brought on board the film almost ten years into its development, was that the story would be restructured around a high-ranking female executive at the park – who, as Howard says, is “incredibly accomplished, but also flawed and myopic, and who reconnects with her humanity” when disaster strikes.
Back in 1993, the original 'Jurassic Park', directed by Steven Spielberg, was immediately recognized as the best Hollywood blockbuster of its generation, and that was down to its array of indelible characters as much as its industry-changing special effects. And during filming, Howard felt Claire was a worthy successor of Alan Grant, Ian Malcolm, Ellie Sattler and co. But sometimes on studio blockbusters, strange things can happen in the edit suite. Had she been demoted to love-interest?
Howard tells this story leaning forward in her seat, fingers splayed for dramatic effect, green eyes wide and bright. If you’ve seen her supremely eerie performance as Ivy Walker in M. Night Shyamalan’s 'The Village', or as Rosalind in Kenneth Branagh’s 'As You Like It', or spirited supporting work in films like 'The Help' and '50/50', you know the look.
Chatting recently with Howard in a suite at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in central London, and the 34-year-old actress is spending around 12 hours on a stopover between Beijing and Paris, where 'Jurassic World' is having its world premiere the following evening. She’s bristlingly awake, which is perhaps thanks to her outfit: an electric pink cardigan and floral-print organza skirt that seem designed to bludgeon jet-lag into submission.
“Part of me wanted to scream, ‘No, no, please don’t misunderstand!’,” she says. “Joss Whedon is a hero of mine, and what he’s done for women in film and television, particularly when it comes to writing female roles that would typically go to a man, is awesome."
“But the tricky thing with movies is, you release these little bits without the larger context. And that scene only shows my character at the beginning of her journey.”
The last line of Trevorrow’s email on that April morning reassured her that their film had stayed the course. “Don’t worry,” it read. “You’re still the hero.”
Indeed she is. Arriving in the swirling dust-cloud of 'Mad Max: Fury Road', 'Jurassic World' gives this summer’s blockbuster season its second alpha heroine – and third to seventh, if you also count the dinosaurs. Claire Dearing may not be as radical a character as Mad Max’s Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron with close-cropped hair, a smear of engine oil across her forehead, and revolution blazing in her eyes.
But the story of 'Jurassic World' is her personal journey – from the stone-cold careerist who begins the film looking for corporate sponsorship for the park’s latest tourist attraction, the genetically souped-up Indominus Rex, to the woman clutching a burning flare in the dark of the jungle, humbled but defiant, and facing these terrifying creatures animal to animal.
Because – spoiler alert! – things go wrong in 'Jurassic World', and the dinosaurs break loose and eat people, again. Howard remembers watching the original Jurassic Park when she was 12 years old, and feeling "shell-shocked” – "There was no explanation for how that film had been possible, other than that dinosaurs really and truly existed,” she says.
This was a memorably unusual experience: as the daughter of Ron Howard, the former Happy Days star and Oscar-winning director (for A Beautiful Mind), Howard spent as much of her childhood on film sets as she did at the family home, in a leafy southwestern nook of Connecticut. (One of her earliest memories is trying on the alien mask from Cocoon, when she was two.)
She remembers watching films with the eyes of an industry insider, wondering how this or that effect or shot had been achieved. Jurassic Park was one of the few to stump her.
For Howard, who now has two children with her husband of nine years, the actor Seth Gabel, appearing in this long-belated sequel wasn’t something to be taken lightly. “Jurassic Park was our Star Wars,” she says. “Chris, Colin and I are all in our 30s: it’s our generation’s movie. We were on set humming the John Williams theme song. You can’t help it! It’s iconic. We viewed everything through the lens of people who were first and foremost fans.”
The shoot sounds fun but gruelling: lots of filming at night, lots of cuts and bruises, and lots of being drenched by rain machines, all in the smart white business suit in which Howard’s character arrives at the office on the day the park descends into chaos. Filming took place on location in Hawaii, various Louisiana swamps, and in the abandoned Six Flags theme park outside of New Orleans, destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Howard has nothing but praise for Trevorrow, who by her account sounds like a hybrid of Mother Teresa and Stanley Kubrick. “He’s incredibly sure-footed, and very centered and humble, and sharp,” she enthuses. “He doesn’t have a bad bone in his body, this is someone who has no ego, and is just a happy guy, and grateful, and hardworking.”
It’s impossible to get Howard to say anything disobliging about anyone (believe me, I tried). Perhaps that’s because her experiences on various blockbuster productions have been mostly positive: she was a mean Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man 3, before Emma Stone took on the role in the Andrew Garfield-fronted reboots, and played the predatory vampire Victoria in the best of the Twilight films, Eclipse.
Things were notoriously tougher on the set of Terminator Salvation, though. The 2009 film was blighted by extensive last-minute rewrites and on-set arguments, one of which – a tirade launched by Christian Bale at the director of photography, Shane Hurlbut – which was recorded and later leaked on the internet. When Howard talks about what went right on Jurassic World, it’s often in relation to what she’s seen going hideously wrong elsewhere.
“And that can be very challenging. ‘Look over there!’,” she pantomimes, pretending to be a hapless director. “‘Something that looks a bit like this is going to be over there, and you have to respond a little like this.’ And it’s a bit like, ohhh-kay."
“Whereas with Colin, he had so thoughtfully planned out every single moment of this movie, and pre-animated every sequence in which there were dinosaurs, so we all knew our role in those scenes and what our characters were seeing. And I didn’t have those insecure moments on set where you think, ‘Is this too big, is this too small?’ Because he was so clear with his vision.”
As a graduate of New York’s famously exacting Tisch School of the Arts, Howard of course has an esoteric piece of dramatic theory stashed away for use in such circumstances. "I think it was an old-school Stanislavsky protégé [she’s absolutely right; it was Sanford Meisner, and I had to look it up] who said that acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” she says. “And that is what acting is: boom. Whether you’re standing on stage, looking into the wings at an imaginary castle, or on a film set, running from a dinosaur that isn’t there.”
Howard started out as an imaginary-castle kind of actress, and fell into invisible-dinosaur work almost by mistake. After attending the Experimental Theatre Wing at Tisch and the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, she immersed herself in the city’s theatre scene.
When she was 21 years old, she was cast as Rosalind in a youthful off-Broadway production of As You Like It, and among the various performing arts types lured in by the buzz was M. Night Shyamalan, whose three most recent films – The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs – had established him as a pop auteur to be reckoned with.
Shyamalan hung around after the performance to meet her, and a few weeks later, he arranged a lunch in New York. "I thought to myself, ‘Oh, he’s a director and he’s got kids – maybe he’s interested in how my parents raised me and my siblings,” Howard says, modestly and slightly absurdly. But of course, he wanted to cast her in a film, and mid-way through their meal, he pulled a manila envelope from his rucksack with his latest screenplay, a suspenseful thriller called 'The Village', inside. And that was it: one of the lead roles in a £160 million-grossing Hollywood film, with no audition, no meetings, and no screen test.
Immediately after a private screening of 'The Village' at Shyamalan’s 125-acre Pennsylvania estate – “literally on the walk back from the theatre to his office,” Howard says – the director was already offering her the lead role in his next film. This was to be a magic-realist fairy tale called 'Lady in the Water', in which she would play a nymph who emerges from the swimming pool in a dreary apartment complex, and transforms the life of a maintenance man with a tragic past.
Did she feel like a muse at this point? She looks aghast. “Oh my goodness! No,” she says, quite carefully. “I just felt lucky to be along for the ride.”
This ride, however, was to prove a little bumpier than the last. The Man Who Heard Voices, Michael Bamberger’s behind-the-scenes account of the making of The Lady in the Water, details some terse moments on set, most of which were connected to Disney’s misgivings over the film’s aggressively odd script. Occasionally, Howard was caught in the crossfire. At the time, she was a vegan, which for some reason seems to have been a source of enormous irritation to Shyamalan, along with the Martin Luther King and Albert Einstein posters she hung in her trailer.
If you’re unfamiliar with Lady in the Water, it’s worth seeking out: Howard and her co-star, Paul Giamatti, give two of the finest performances you’ll ever see in a film this dumbfoundingly awful. Perhaps for that reason, Howard was able to walk away with barely a scratch and straight on to the set of Branagh’s As You Like It, on which, in a neat tying-up of that chapter of her life, she revisited the role of Rosalind and was nominated for a Golden Globe.
Nine years on, how does she feel about Lady in the Water’s reception? “Well, my feeling with movies, or any kind of entertainment, is that the goal is to be unignorable,” she says thoughtfully. “I mean, I started in experimental theatre, in productions like Hamletmachine, where I was basically naked on the stage for two hours. So for something to be good or bad or popular or unpopular wasn’t within my framework. You just want to be a part of something people talked about.”
Is she proud of the film? “Yes, absolutely! One hundred percent proud,” she grins, before stressing how much she’d love to work with Shyamalan again one day: “I absolutely would.”
I ask her if her generosity towards directors might have something to do with being raised by one, and she immediately agrees, reminiscing about a childhood spent watching her father commanded enormous crews and high-profile casts: Tom Hanks and Darryl Hannah on Splash, Steve Martin on Parenthood, and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman on Far and Away. Though she didn’t know it at the time, she was looking at her own future, mapped out in the stars her father directed. “When I was grounded, I wouldn’t be allowed to go on set,” she says. “That’s how much I loved it.”
Howard openly idolizes her father, and sees the man who raised her reflected in his work: “There’s something present in all of his movies which is that human decency wins above all else,” she says. "He couldn't make a movie about bad, mean, horrible people. He couldn’t relate to that.”
My tongue starts to curl at the sweetness of this, but Howard is deadly serious. Her father, she goes on, has always been her mentor: for as long as she can remember, he showed her that work could be a playground, and fantasy a viable career. “It’s thanks to him I’m sitting here today,” she beams, and it’s clear she could never have ended up anywhere else. The invisible dinosaurs were circling from the start.
Back To Archives