Bryce Dallas Howard has had an interesting career in Hollywood. The daughter of actor-turned-director Ron Howard, Bryce made her mark after appearing in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village in 2004. She followed that up in 2005 in Lars von Trier’s Manderlay, an indirect sequel to his 2003 film Dogville. She has kept busy ever since, starring in such films as Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water (2006), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Terminator: Salvation (2009), and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010), where she took over the role of the evil vamp Victoria from Canadian actress Rachelle Lefevre.
Her latest role, as the bigot Hilly Holbrook in the adaptation of the 1960s Mississippi-set drama The Help, is one of her most challenging and controversial parts to date. She will make you angry, make you loathe her, and yet you will still try to find something redeeming about her. Although Bryce initially struggled with how to deal with the character, she ended up turning out a memorable performance that could lead to her first Oscar nomination.
Criticize This! spoke with Dallas during her press stop in Toronto. She chatted about playing Hilly, whether she hopes to get into directing, and what she’ll be back in Toronto for in September. Read our Q&A below.
Brian McKechnie: What attracted you to the part of Hilly?
Bryce Dallas Howard: When I read the book she’s the character that you love to hate and that’s just a really fun character to play. But when we were in Mississippi doing rehearsals I realized I needed to actually play her as a three-dimensional character and not just a two-dimensional villain. That was where the challenge was for me.
BM: Was it difficult getting into that bigot mindset she has to carry?
BDH: If it wasn’t difficult then there is a major problem [laughs]. That was really hard because it’s something you don’t relate to. I didn’t even want to understand that. They say you shouldn’t judge your character, but I totally judged Hilly. And it created distance for me that I needed to breakthrough in order to ultimately play the role.
What allowed me to wrap my mind around her was to really understand the essence of her ignorance. I think in her nature she’s a cruel person and she’s naturally oppressive and power hungry, and would be like that no matter how she was raised. I do believe she was raised to believe certain things and that is why she feels so damn self-righteous in the way that she’s living her life.
BM: How much did the book the film is based on influence the way you portrayed the character?
BDH: A lot. It’s like cheating almost. When you read a screenplay, and you’re filling out a character, you have so many questions that you need to use your imagination in order to answer. With a book you go to the book.
BM: What was it like filming in Mississippi?
BDH: It was so helpful to shoot in Mississippi. We shot in a town called Greenwood and it’s very well preserved because [appliance maker] Viking comes from there. So everyone who makes Viking lives there and the town is really flourishing. As a result all these houses that existed in the 1960s still look that way and are still operating because people there have the means to do that. If you go a little further out, the towns aren’t doing that well and it would be hard to imagine what it would have been like.
BM: You’ve had a healthy acting career so far. Are there any dream roles you have in mind?
BDH: Things that come into my life are always such a surprise. I can never quite anticipate what type of role will come up. I really want to work with my dad as an actor. That’s definitely a dream of mine. I love working with great filmmakers and actors that I respect. I just never know what ultimately might happen. I’m also not very objective about myself and I don’t understand how I’m perceived necessarily and that’s why every film is a surprise.
BM: You wrote and directed a short film a few years ago. Do you want to do more writing and directing?
BDH: I’m directing a short film this year in September actually. It’s funny because when I did my first short it was when I was pregnant and now I’m pregnant again. There’s also a screenplay I’ve co-written that I hope to direct, but you never how those things are going to go until you’re on set. I love being an actor but [directing] is a personal fascination I would love to explore more.
BM: What do you hope the audience gets out of The Help?
BDH: On the simplest level it’s a good story, well told. That’s the primary objective with any movie. But with this particular film I think the book resonated with people in such a powerful way that I hope the movie succeeds on that level as well. When a book is being adapted, and a book that is so beloved, you just hope that you don’t fall short. I think if we could achieve a similar impact as the book that would be something very meaningful.
BM: Your next film, 50/50, is premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Can you tell us a bit about your role in that?
BDH: I also play a despicable person in that. I don’t know what the deal is [laughs]. The movie is based on a true story. The writer who wrote the screenplay went through a similar experience as the main character. It’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, and Joe’s character is diagnosed with cancer at a really young age and they face his illness together. It’s a really remarkable, hilarious, honest story about friendship in the face of unexpected illness. I play Joe’s girlfriend who doesn’t handle it so well.
There’s a movie I produced that’s coming to Toronto as well called Restless. Gus Van Sant directed it. It’s the longest I’ll ever get to be at the festival. I’m going to be here full-time.
The Help is currently in theatres. Watch a featurette on Bryce’s character Hilly below.
Top image: A scene from The Help. Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures.