The starlet, the wizard, and the buzz

Special to The Times

Danish director Lars von Trier is famously phobic about traveling by plane, and though a number of his films have been set in the United States, he has never set foot on American soil.

He's also legendarily thorny and argumentative in interviews. But ask him about his latest leading actress, 24-year-old Bryce Dallas Howard, and he shows a gentler side.

"I'm not going to say anything bad about Bryce, so you can just forget it," he joked during a recent phone interview.

Howard, star of "The Village" and daughter of director Ron Howard, has signed on for the role of Grace in "Manderlay," the latest missive from Von Trier, due in theaters next month. The film is the second in a proposed trilogy. (In the previous film, "Dogville," the role of Grace was played by Nicole Kidman.)

The pairing of Von Trier, 49, and Howard has generated plenty of buzz. After all, there's just something irresistible about the idea of a budding starlet on-the-rise, a scion of Hollywood's own, no less, falling under the wizard-like tutelage of one of international cinema's most fearsome and irascible filmmakers.

Von Trier thinks that perhaps it is easier for younger actresses like Howard to put up with him.

"When you're that young, I think you wouldn't be scared off. When you're very young, you don't care what happens to you as long as you go in the right direction. Furthermore, there is nothing to be scared about, since I am the most kind person you could ever meet."

Switching directions, he added, "That is, of course, not true, but almost. Like in 'The Silence of the Lambs.' I don't eat actresses."

For a punch line, he changed tack once more.

"Not without a nice Chianti."

Despite the reputation that precedes him -- cemented in part by a string of fiery press conferences at his usual stamping grounds at the Cannes Film Festival -- when he came on the line for the recent phone interview, the man on the other end couldn't have been more charming or pleasant to speak with, chirping happily in a slightly singsong cadence.

Set in the 1930s, "Dogville" found Grace, daughter of a ruthless gangster, hiding out in a remote mountain village, where the film's unusual ascetic staging flowered into a sharp fable about the nature of society-building and ended with Grace burning the town to the ground. "Manderlay" is shot in the same style, utilizing an open-plan soundstage with bare-bones sets to convey a mixed sense of theatrical gravitas and dreamlike ambiguity.

This time Grace lands in a walled-off Southern plantation where slavery remains decades after the end of the Civil War, and she takes it upon herself to change things. While it can be difficult for audiences to get past the scab-picking of a story that deals with race relations in America, underneath is another allegorical tale of power and its abuses, and the often broad chasm between intentions and results.

Speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Howard explained that she has long been a fan of Von Trier's films. When the opportunity came up to audition for "Manderlay" she jumped at the chance, if for no other reason than that it meant she might meet the director and get an early chance to see the then-unreleased "Dogville."

She expressed some surprise at his reputation for being difficult, as she says she never encountered that side of Von Trier.

As Howard explained, "He has this personality that's been created for himself by the press that's completely not related to the man I know at all. I've never experienced anything like it in my life.

"He's just really thoughtful and sweet and caring and would do things like, if a scene was emotionally too difficult for me he would keep pushing and get some extraordinary things out of me, but then he would stop and allow me to have a healthy night. What kind of filmmaker would stop for the sake of their actress?"

"Dogville" was dogged by accusations of anti-Americanism, and it could be expected that "Manderlay" will be met by a similar response. As to whether she was ever able to pick Von Trier's brain for his true feelings and intentions on the matter, Howard said she struck out.

"Lars keeps things incredibly separate," she replied. "There's not much discussion about the script at all. You'll shoot for the day and then go have dinner. At dinner, if I'd bring up anything about the shoot or ask a question about the next day, he'd say, 'Oh, why do you want to ruin dinner by talking about work?' So I never really got around to any of that stuff."

Shooting on digital video, Von Trier will run through a scene over and over again, often prodding his performers along from behind the camera during each take.

Part of the mystique of Von Trier's work is the notion that he pushes his actresses to their very limits, drawing out work of an emotional intensity and rawness that few others are able to achieve. His films have never produced a performance from a male actor as noted as those he has elicited from previous female collaborators such as Kidman, Bjork or Emily Watson.

Asked why he seems to work better with female performers than their male counterparts, he joked around for a bit before settling in to a real, reasoned response.

"We kind of make the film together," he explained, "and that is a way that demands you give in to the project and give in to the director. That may be why I, for some reason, have an easier time with women, because if they are convinced you are doing the right thing, it's easier for them somehow to give in. Which is positive or negative, however you want to see it, but that is a difference there.

"It depends on how much imagination you have as an actor, and I think that imagination -- now I'm saying something I will probably regret about men and women -- but I think maybe the actresses I have met have been very good at staying in the situation even when talking to me and doing things again and again and again. Where a man would try to control a scene more, I think. Of course it is not always true, but both Nicole and Bryce were very good at trying things that were even wrong, which I think would be more difficult with a man."

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