Bryce Dallas Howard: Too Good To Be True

You would expect Bryce Dallas Howard to be a garden-variety L.A. celebritot. It would be easy to imagine the daughter of Oscar-winning director Ron Howard sporting the latest Chloé bag, Juicy sweats and gargantuan sunglasses. You know the type: the kind that gets into fender benders while evading the paparazzi and shows up at Hollywood clubs with two bodyguards in tow. If Bryce were that way, America would already be obsessed with how much she weighs. She'd hang out at Koi with Kimberly Stewart, Nicole Richie and Ashlee Simpson. Her life in L.A. would resemble a reality show, with fresh installments every Monday in the pages of Us Weekly.

But Bryce Dallas Howard is none of the above.

She is the antithesis of the spoiled Beverly Hills brat. In fact, she grew up on the other side of the continent from Hollywood. And at 24, despite starring opposite Joaquin Phoenix in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village and replacing Nicole Kidman in Lars von Trier's Dogville sequel, Manderlay, the talented actress isn't even that famous -- yet. And while she might never become Hilton-grade tabloid bait, Bryce is about to emerge as the silver screen's next big thing.

"The Hollywood scene, these parties, freak me out," she whispers, as if she's afraid she might offend someone. She's sipping a herbal tonic in the bamboo-decked garden of Elixir, a tranquil health-food spot in West Hollywood. With her milky skin, flame-red hair and almond-shaped green-blue eyes, Bryce is arresting. She has the all-American good-girl looks of Claire Danes, spliced with the exotic, extraterrestrial beauty of Tilda Swinton. "I've never had a sip of alcohol in my life," she says. "I wasn't interested in losing control. There was alcoholism in my family, so I saw the negative effects and how difficult it was to recover. When I was in high school, I would never go to parties because I would be embarrassed to say no. Consequently, I had almost no social group."

Bryce's parents decided to raise their four children as far away from Hollywood as possible. Ron and Cheryl Howard, who have been together since they were 16, lived with their kids in Westchester County, New York, and Greenwich, Connecticut. Bryce is the oldest (she has a brother and twin sisters), and she got her middle name because she was conceived in Dallas, Texas. Her twin sisters have the same middle name -- Carlyle, as in the expensive Madison Avenue hotel. "It's kind of raunchy," Bryce says. She attended tony Greenwich Country Day, the same school as George H.W. Bush. "It gave me a sense of uniqueness," she recalls of the preppy environment. "We were the weirdos. Everyone was from old money or involved in the stock market or IBM. We were the wacky artists who had a farm on their property." Bryce, who claims to have been a "total nerd," discovered existentialism as a senior in high school and fell in love. "I was like, 'This is it! This is my religion.' I had never felt a connection to any sort of spirituality before that. It was very basic -- you're responsible for the choices that you make -- but it was mind-blowing at the time." In her spare hours she devoured books by Sartre, Beckett and Camus. She says her 10th-grade English teacher, Mr. Scotch, was one of her best friends.

That said, Bryce was a pretty glamorous geek. At 15 she attended Stagedoor Manor, a theater camp in the Catskills, where she acted in A Midsummer Night's Dream with Natalie Portman. She visited her dad on film sets, but hung out mostly with the crew. "I was never close to the actors. When I work on a film, I always tend to relate to the crew. I struggle immensely with celebrities of all forms. I get clammy hands and turn a little purple." But movie stars were a part of Bryce's life. Her godfather is Henry Winkler, aka "the Fonz" from television's legendary Happy Days, which also starred her father. It was only recently that Bryce first watched an episode of the wholesome sitcom. "My parents never showed it to us. We didn't really have access to a TV. I've seen the pilot now. I realized that it was this truly beloved show. Why would I avoid watching something that means so much to so many people?"

After high school Bryce enrolled at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts program. She did experimental theater, appearing nude onstage in a production called Hamlet Machine. In her junior year, she dropped out of NYU to do professional theater. During a performance of As You Like It at the Public Theater, The Sixth Sense director Shyamalan was in the audience. Two weeks later the director called Bryce and offered her the pivotal role of Ivy, the blind girl in The Village. She wasn't required to audition. Shyamalan just handed her a manila envelope with the script in it. "You can't get more discovered than that," Bryce says, shaking her head slowly in disbelief. "If I were a really negative person, I'd be waiting for the frying pan to drop on my head." There was also no audition necessary for Shyamalan's new film, out in July, the surreal fantasy Lady in the Water, in which Bryce plays the title role and stars opposite Paul Giamatti. In the film an apartment building superintendent (Giamatti) discovers a character (Bryce) from a bedtime story with whom he falls in love while trying to rescue her.

Lars von Trier, the avant-garde Danish director, has earned a reputation for being difficult. Björk said that she would never make another film with him after starring in Dancer in the Dark, and when Nicole Kidman dropped out of Manderlay, the sequel to Dogville, there were more rumors. Bryce replaced Kidman in Manderlay (part two of a trilogy), which will be released in early February. The film explores racial oppression in the 1930s South at a plantation where slavery still exists; Grace (Bryce) struggles to liberate the slaves. She admits to being initially skittish about working with von Trier. "I went into that situation really expecting the worst and was so shocked and so sad that [Lars] has been made into something he isn't at all. He's really very sweet. When Lars talks about Björk, he talks about her really fondly. He has a company that is 70 percent women because he thinks women are smarter than men." Replacing an actress like Kidman is a daunting challenge, so Bryce wanted to make the character of Grace completely her own. "I saw Dogville eight times. I really tried to avoid mimicking her in any way because we were trying to create an entirely different character. I've met Nicole and she's ridiculously lovely. I've heard from other people that she's been very encouraging of me in secret ways." Completing her cinematic hat trick is her role in Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It in which she plays Rosalind -- the part she played onstage that so impressed Shyamalan.

Ron Howard always puts at least one of his family members in each of his films. When each of his children turned seven, they were allowed to be extras. Bryce was in the background of Parenthood and Apollo 13. She would love the opportunity to work with her father in the future but is cautious about the prospect. "My family is more important than anything. I don't want to ever feel that [my father] was somehow disappointing me by not putting me in one of his movies." The best acting advice Howard has given his daughter is on how to handle the downtime. "The time in between jobs can be devastating. A lot of my friends get really, really depressed." To occupy her free time, Bryce is writing a screenplay called Quantum Suicide. "It's super-dark and totally perverse. My grandfather was a scientist. I love quantum physics."

A devout vegan since Joaquin Phoenix showed her the documentary about animal cruelty Earthlings, which he produced, Bryce says her biggest indulgence has been hiring her own chef to prepare raw food. Other than that, she claims she's "really stingy with money." "My parents never wanted us to get used to a lifestyle that we wouldn't be able to maintain on our own. My mom used to buy us clothes every two years and make temporary alterations. My mom made a point of raising us like that." Nonetheless, Bryce is a veritable fashion whiz and logs on to frequently. "My dream is to go to one of the fashion shows with my best friend. I like to see the collections: Zac Posen, Rochas. Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein is excellent. I love Stella McCartney because she makes vegan shoes. I have the most difficult time finding non-leather products."

Next year Bryce is marrying her fiancé, an actor whom she met at NYU. "I'm excited. I've never even had a birthday party for myself. I'm thinking about starting a family and the commitments and sacrifices that are required."

Bryce mentions that the women in her life -- her grandmother, mother and sisters -- tend to be psychic. "I've had some episodes like that." And although her future seems bright and busy, what with three movies on the horizon and an impending marriage, she says, "This is in-between time." Bryce finishes her herbal tonic and straightens the collar of her black sweater. Her sea-foam-colored eyes gaze out into the lush garden as if searching for something in the trees. "You know something, I don't really know what I'm going to do next."

Stylist's assistant: Wyman Chang * Makeup by Kara Yishimoto Bua/ * Hair by Creighton @ Exclusive Artists/Redken

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