Legs tucked up under a voluminous patterned skirt on an even more voluminous sofa, Bryce Dallas Howard’s white high heels (Prada, I think) have been kicked off and are lying, prone, on the carpet. Good for her. Only, it’s a little bit funny because I’ve spent the morning watching the actor doing things in high heels that no human should really be able to do. Running across Tarmac. Running, full pelt, across a highly polished floor. Running through a jungle. All of this in flesh coloured heels, the kind you might see the Duchess of Cambridge tottering about in at a charity event. It’s true that all of these stunts (I’m going for it, that’s what I’m calling them) were performed in a movie, Jurassic World, the newest instalment in the Jurassic Park series, which has taken 22 years to get to the screen, that is chock-full of special effects – CGI, motion capture, well, you know, enormous dinosaurs – but, like her co-star Chris Pratt’s muscles, Howard’s high heels, and what she does in them, are the real deal. No technical trickery or digital deception, she just really did it.
“I think I was fixated more on that than perhaps anything else in the movie,” she says. “I was like I’m going to do so many ankle strengthening exercises.
“It felt really badass to me to get to have the heroic moments that this character has, particularly at the end when she is vulnerable and filthy and she’s been through this journey and reconnected with her own humanity. And she’s got her heels on.” She grins. “She’s a lady. I love it that she doesn’t lose the heels. We thought of the Romancing the Stone method [Michael Douglas lopped off Kathleen Turner’s heels with a machete] but we were like Claire knows how to get around in heels.”
Howard is a ball of energy. She talks a lot. Fast. She fixes you with her gaze and just goes for it. She does a line in west coast cockiness and sometimes sounds bona fide Hollywood. She says things like “oh my gosh” – Americans really don’t swear. But she also seems totally down to earth. The table beside her is scattered with cosmetics. Not showy cosmetics, for my benefit, just stuff she might want to use, stuff that lurks at the bottom of most handbags. Lip balm, tissues, a lipstick, yes it’s Chanel, but still. And in front of her a coffee cup has been drained, no green tea or fresh mint sprigs floating listlessly in water.
Howard may be the third generation of a Hollywood dynasty - her father is Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, the man who, no matter how many gold statuettes he accrues for his mantelpiece will always be Richie Cunningham from Happy Days – but she grew up along with her three siblings not in Beverly Hills or Bel Air but in Westchester County, New York and on a farm in Connecticut. Yes, their babysitter was sometimes a family friend called Tom Cruise, but still, this was no pampered, preening Hollywood home life. There was no TV allowed and encouraged activities were outdoorsy and wholesome.
Even now, Howard is a little different to the usual Hollywood movie star. For a kick off she might only be 34 but she’s already been married for nearly a decade (to actor Seth Gabel, they met at New York University) and she is the mother of two children, Theo, eight, and Beatrice, three-and-a-half. She was 25 when she got pregnant for the first time. There was a plan to have children, just not that soon. When she fell pregnant, she was in the middle of shooting Spider-Man 3, in which she played Gwen Stacey opposite Tobey Maguire. “We hadn’t planned to start our family that young,” she says. “We were thrilled, but it wasn’t planned.” Being just 25 was in California terms being pretty much “a teen mom” she says. “It was embarrassing.” She smiles. She is kidding, but there was a more serious side to the unexpected news. “I remember thinking, ‘oh OK, I’ve just started my career, I’m a couple of years into it and now I’m a parent. It was like I got this taste of a career, that I almost couldn’t believe I could have, and then I had real responsibilities and my priorities were front and centre. What a privilege to go through a career with that kind of context and perspective. I feel very grateful for that.” She pauses. “And I feel very grateful that I’m done with pregnancy.”
The most recent years of her career have been shaped by her life outside of movies, but even before that, Howard was making interesting choices. As well as directing and producing she had cut her teeth on stage in New York before being spotted by M Night Shyamalan on stage and offered the lead in his film, The Village. “I didn’t even audition for it,” she says. “In fact, when he said he wanted me to play the lead in his next film the first thing I said was ‘don’t you want me to audition for it?’” She shakes her head. “He said, ‘no, I saw it in the play’.”
She had been playing Rosalind in As You Like It. It was a role she reprised for Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic version, after making a film, Manderlay, with director Lars von Trier and before going on to work with M Night Shyamalan again. Perhaps the only consistency in a varied career is that Howard, for some reason, has often ended up playing the villain. In 50/50, she was the girlfriend who bailed on her terminally ill boyfriend (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), in Twilight she was the vampire who tried to mess up Rob Pattinson’s pretty face. Perhaps most villainously of all, Howard was irredeemably racist socialite Hilly Holbrook in The Help.
“A lot of film choices came out of timing – I’m not pregnant yet, I’m done with pregnancy, I’m finished breastfeeding, I’m available now,” she says. “Between The Help and Jurassic World is four years. I directed a lot during that time but I didn’t act and that amazes me because I love acting. It’s my primary career. Jurassic World was a total shock. It was just after my daughter was born and I looked like I’d just had a baby. I thought I was going to have to claw my way back in and then Colin [Trevorrow, the director of Jurassic World] gave me this extraordinary chance.”
Claire is a perfect Hollywood imagining of a woman who is ruthlessly focused on her job. She is as tightly wound as they come, a career obsessive, worried about the bottom line of the theme park as though it’s her personal bank account. Dressed all in white (icy rather than innocent) she monitors the park and, it’s implied, her life from the safety of a control booth. The dinosaurs are “assets”, she has no sense that they might need care beyond food and water. Her nephews, sent to visit the park for the weekend, are an irritation to her, palmed off on to a personal assistant who is a Claire mini me, with her phone glued to her ear at all times.
“She’s a senior level executive with an enormous amount of responsibility,” Howard says. “She’s a businesswoman. She’s there to run the park but really to protect the bottom line. There’s a facade she has at the beginning – steely, assertive, powerful but not yet an empowered woman. There was such a distinctive journey for her to go into the jungle, trying to find her family from whom she was previously so disconnected and learn to value her own humanity and the humanity of others. Ultimately she becomes entirely vulnerable and in that moment she is fully empowered. It felt like a very complete journey. At the beginning she is an anti-hero in that she is myopic and wrong-headed and she goes all the way to the other side.”
Without giving away the plot, the arc of Claire’s story is a redemptive one. She starts off aloof and cut throat and by way of some terrifying dinosaurs threatening to eat her for lunch, finds her humanity. And her chutzpah. And romance with the ever delightful Chris Pratt. According to Howard, on the day that director Trevorrow interviewed her for the job, she ended up asking him why he thought she was right for the role. His answer was, ‘because you’re Claire’. She smiles but I don’t quite get it because that is not necessarily a compliment.
“In some ways I am chillingly close to Claire,” she says. “The line where Owen (Chris Pratt) says, ‘who writes an itinerary for a date?’ I remember reading that for the first time and thinking what’s the joke? How else would you know what to do? Follow your instincts? I don’t think so. You plan these things in advance – you plan and then you improvise. I related to that sense of responsibility and control and organisation.”
The first time Howard met Trevorrow was, in proper Hollywood-style, over skype. Howard was, she says, begging for the opportunity to audition. “A while later he called me from the top of a mountain in Hawaii – at least that’s where he said he was. He said when I spoke with you on skype you felt like family and I’ve spoken with everyone at the studio and everyone involved – Steven [Spielberg] and Frank [Marshall, Spielberg’s longtime producing partner] – and we’d like you to join.”
She accepted the part without having read the script. In fact, it took a few months for her to get her hands on that as it was still being written.
“He came over, handed it to me, then we went out for something to eat and our families met and then we went for a walk around the neighbourhood. I kept asking him, what is Claire like? If there was a real person who would she be like? And he said, ‘she’d be like you’. I thought how does he know what I’m like, we hardly know each other.” They ended up going to look at a house which was close by as Trevorrow was considering relocating to Los Angeles. When they got inside, Howard’s inner Claire took over. “I walked right up to the real estate agent and was like, ‘Hi. So there’s this house and I see there’s a house in the back. I’m assuming you have R2 zoning here?’ They were like you can’t use it as income property. And I was like no, they’re zoning in this area. That’s the law for Santa Monica, what do you mean? Have you got any paperwork? When we left Colin was like, ‘That’s Claire’.” She blasts a laugh.
Talking about film crews and sets as ‘family’ might seem a bit schmaltzy, but it makes perfect sense when you consider Howard’s very particular upbringing. There might have been a rule in the family that no one was allowed to attempt to become a professional actor before the age of 18, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t spend time on sets, running errands and hanging out and sometimes being an extra as long as they were over the age of seven. Being on movie sets was, she says, “a treat to be earned”, but it was also just ordinary life for the Howards.
“I’d go to my father’s work almost every single day to be with people whom I’d known since I was a really little girl. So, yes, it is a business, that’s a reality, but when I think of Hollywood and movie-making I get a warm, fuzzy feeling. I understand that is not typical and I’m grateful for that. My parents have given me such a gift with the way that they parented, they’ve been so supportive. It’s priceless. For me to have that kind of relationship to my job and my industry because of the way that I’ve been raised, and the unique circumstances in which I was raised is something that I’m enormously grateful for.”
You might’ve thought that growing up with Richie Cunningham for a dad (and Henry Winkler for a godfather, naturally) would make you feel a bit resentful about how the public tends to imagine they own a bit of people who appear on the large or small screen. But for Howard, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“My dad and my mom have been together since they were 16 years old,” she says. “Most of the people that my dad works with on his crew – the writers and editors – they worked on Happy Days. I am third generation – my grandmother and grandfather were actors. I was raised with this experience that being on a set feels like family. Outside of the set, I had this other experience. Most people who come up to me, if they know Ron Howard is my father, say the same thing. It’s wild. They say, ‘I feel like I grew up with your father’. That is something I’ve been hearing since I was a little girl. To walk through life with strangers saying that they felt that makes you feel instantly connected with them. It’s a good way to go through life.”
Howard is totally convincing. She seems supremely well adjusted to her rather unusual childhood and upbringing. And it’s not that she doesn’t accept that it was unusual, just that it was, for her, also completely ordinary. “When I was grounded I wasn’t allowed to go to the set. It was a privilege I had to earn. So it kept me in line because boy did I want to be on set.”
And it seems Howard’s own kids are no different. Her daughter Beatrice might be too young at three to be making her screen debut but her son, Theo, was an extra in Jurassic World. He was one of the kids in the theme park’s petting zoo. It makes sense. Who wouldn’t want their offspring sitting astride a mini stegosaurus if it was an option? He was also an extra in the Disney film she’s just finished, Pete’s Dragon, alongside Robert Redford. “He’s so lucky. He’s got dragons, he’s got dinosaurs. Amazing.” She smiles. Just your average Hollywood movie star mom.
• Jurassic World is on general release from Friday