ELIXIR is an oasis for tea drinkers on the block of Melrose just west of La Cienega where a string of cafes are typically crowded with beautiful people who look as if they've just come from, or are going to, an audition. Left to her own devices, Bryce Dallas Howard would never settle down in Elixir's tranquil garden dolled up the way she is for a photo shoot on this January morning. Her red hair has been curled and twisted into a Barbie-goes-to-the-prom up-do and her large, wide-set, pale-green eyes and enviable cheekbones have been artfully highlighted.
Pointy-toed high-heeled pumps peek out from the hem of her jeans. She'll kick them off and change into a pair of uncool sneakers before walking home. Glamour on command is doable, but the 24-year-old actress with three movies coming out this year is nobody's It girl.
"It's hilarious to see myself all made up," she says. "Over the holidays, my sister and one of my friends had an intervention with me and told me I couldn't go outside looking the way I usually do, which is with no makeup and a little sloppy. I know I don't come off like an actress. I've never been the most beautiful girl. I've always been more of a character."
Her celluloid characters have included a Shakespearean coquette, a courageous blind girl on the saintly side and a nymph-like creature from another world who has surfaced in modern-day Philadelphia. It isn't that Howard wasn't offered the girlfriend parts. She's opted instead for roles not geared to showcase her beauty or charm.
Choosing a variety of parts, then disappearing into them shouldn't be a radical career strategy. Isn't that what actors do? Well, some of them. Considering that Howard swims in the same talent pool as Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Claire Danes and her good friend Zooey Deschanel, she might have picked more mainstream projects or tried to establish a cinematic persona audiences could recognize from film to film.
"In the beginning, you can't really have a strategy, you're just lucky to get what you get," she says. "I'm still in a state of shock about having a career that's somewhat sustaining itself. I have a one-bedroom apartment and I just got wallpaper. I look at it every day and think, 'I can't believe I can afford wallpaper, and that I earned the money doing movies.' It's very strange to me. When I was making 200 bucks a week doing shows in New York, in order to supplement my income I worked as a nanny and a dog walker during the day and I would go to work in the theater at night. I thought it was a great life."
RECLAIMING HER NAME
SHE might never have left it if writer-director M. Night Shyamalan hadn't seen her in a student production when she was an undergraduate at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She was billed as Bryce Dallas then and had even applied to college using that name, because she didn't want to trade on the status of her father, Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard.
"I started working as Bryce Dallas," she says, "but then I had a conversation with my dad about my name, and he felt he was very proud of his legacy. [Ron Howard is the son and brother of actors, and acted before becoming a director.] I realized I'm proud to be my parents' daughter and proud to use my last name."
Shyamalan didn't hesitate to cast Howard in a key role in the 2004 film "The Village," even though she had worked only as an extra in some of her father's movies. "Bryce has a regal quality that harks back to the screen stars of yesterday," Shyamalan says, "silent-era stars like Lillian Gish who weren't burdened with all the layers of conflict we have today. Her presence onstage was so luminous. When people see 'The Village,' they say she's radiant, or a revelation. That's what I saw on the stage. There's a purity to her that comes through in her acting. When an emotion comes through, it's unadulterated."
GROWING UP IN THE EAST
HOWARD was brought up in Connecticut. Her parents were high school sweethearts in Burbank who decided to raise their children in a community not dominated by the entertainment industry. "When I moved to Los Angeles, people knew me," Howard says. "I mean, they knew who my father was before I walked into the room, which was very bizarre. That didn't happen in Connecticut. If people were aware of what he did for a living, they were too polite to let me know."
The family stuck together, going on location with Ron along with a tutor for Bryce, her twin sisters and younger brother. Howard doesn't drink, has never been to a club, and is comfortable enough with herself not to panic if she gains a few pounds. "I never wanted people seeing me drunk or out of control and saying, 'Oh, her parents must not have raised her very well.' I want to make sure that I'm not disrespectful to my family and the reputation they've spent generations building."
PROCESSION OF ROLES
SHYAMALAN predicts that Howard will have a long career. "The gunk from fame and money -- all those things that would gunk up the system -- won't get in her way," he says. Their collaboration was so mutually satisfying that he offered her the role of a sprite in jeopardy in his next film, "Lady in the Water," a supernatural fable scheduled to open July 21. Between filming "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" last year, Howard traveled to London to appear in Kenneth Branagh's film version of "As You Like It," which will be in theaters next fall, and to Sweden to star in "Manderlay" for unconventional writer-director Lars von Trier.
"Manderlay," the second film in a planned trilogy -- in the first, "Dogville," Nicole Kidman played the role of a Depression-era gangster's daughter that Howard took on -- will be released the first weekend in February.
An artsy exercise filmed on a barren soundstage without scenery or props, "Manderlay" was the sort of project Howard was well-suited for, having studied experimental theater at NYU. "I look for characters and material that are original," she says. "If that manifests as things that are bizarre, like what Lars has done, that's fine. Working with Lars was like being back in drama school."
At NYU, Howard felt she was in an environment where she could afford to screw up. "That really helped me so much," she says. "If I had started working right off the bat, I don't think I would have succeeded. I would have been afraid to dig deeper. I wasn't considered one of the biggest talents in my class, because I was bad so much of the time." She still isn't afraid to be bad. "I feel if I get the job, that boosts my ego enough. If a director believes in me enough to give me the job, he can say whatever he wants after that, and it's not going to break me down."