Bryce Dallas Howard: Happy days for the star of ‘The Help’

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Postnatal depression knocked her for six. But, having refound peace of mind and with three films to cement her standing – including smash hit 'The Help' – the daughter of Fonzie's best friend is riding high once more

The moment you glimpse Bryce Dallas Howard, you can see the family likeness. The daughter of Ron Howard, the Oscar-winning director of A Beautiful Mind, she has his red hair (albeit far more flowing), pale skin and freckles.

We first met six years ago, 12 months after she made her breakthrough in M Night Shyamalan's thriller The Village, playing the innocent blind girl. Back then, she was doing the promotional rounds for Lars von Trier's Manderlay – a provocative slavery story that saw her get fully naked. Word has it that her father – "America's son", as she calls him, because of his teen years spent on 1950s-set sitcom Happy Days – had his fingers over his eyes. Yet since then, despite roles in blockbusters such as Spider-Man 3, Terminator: Salvation and Twilight: Eclipse, Howard has been on a very different journey.

Already a mother to four-and-a-half-year-old son Theo, the 30-year-old and her husband, the actor Seth Gabel, are expecting their second child. Six months into her pregnancy, her bump is obvious – and no doubt she will be hoping for an easier time of it this time around. After discovering she was pregnant with Theo just seven days into her honeymoon, her first birth led to a brutal period of postnatal depression. Much of this she has chronicled in a commendably honest account of her first year of being a mother, posted on Gwyneth Paltrow's website Goop (Paltrow suffered from the same problem).

Moments after Theo was born, she felt "nothing", she says, a feeling that escalated as the trials of motherhood began to stack up. "Mortified" by gaining 80lb, "I felt I was failing at breastfeeding. My house was a mess. I believed I was a terrible dog owner. I was certain I was an awful actress; I dreaded a film I was scheduled to shoot only a few weeks after the birth because I could barely focus enough to read the script. And worst of all, I definitely felt I was a rotten mother – not a bad one, a rotten one. Because the truth was, every time I looked at my son, I wanted to disappear."

Eventually, her depression lifted – but Howard had no qualms about sharing her experiences. "The danger of being silent means only that others will suffer in silence," she wrote on Goop. Now, it's different. "I want to be a good example for my son," she tells me. "That's the best way to parent – to be the example of what you want to see in them. That's definitely how my parents parented and how my grandparents parented. And it works."

Raised in Connecticut with her two sisters and brother, her childhood was far removed from Hollywood. "I don't have any friends who are actors through my dad," she explains – though she wasn't in total isolation: stories abound that she and her siblings were baby-sat by Tom Cruise. Painting her upbringing as rather idyllic, sheltered even, she says it was important to be raised on the East Coast. "At that time in the 1980s, it was very intense in the business, a highly competitive time. For us to be raised [in Hollywood], at that time, didn't really work with our family sensibility. We're shy, introverted, farm people."

So much so that while growing up, Howard never even saw an episode of Happy Days. "I didn't really watch TV. My parents wouldn't have stopped me from watching it. I just didn't..." Her mother did, however, show them The Andy Griffith Show, which her father had starred in as a child. "I actually bought a box-set for my son, because I think it's a really wholesome, great show."

For a long time, Howard had wanted to study forensic anthropology (one of her sisters is a vet and her family "love science"). "I shouldn't have acted. I didn't exhibit any ability. I was one of the kids in the school play who was just mouthing words, and they weren't the actual words of the song. I was pretty lame!" But that didn't prevent her, when she was 11, from working as an assistant on her father's sets, "getting people's lunches and squeezing orange juice and doing very rudimentary things". Well, it beats a paper round.

Being employed at her father's work shouldn't be a surprise: the Howard family is remarkably tight-knit – Bryce even shared her honeymoon with her entire clan. "I have a heroic husband!" she remarks, though given that he scored a role in her father's film The Da Vinci Code, he was probably happy enough to see her kin tag along.

Speak to her father about her, and his chest puffs out with pride. "She's pretty much her own woman and she's quite capable," he says. "She's driven by her own artistic appetite and desire to work with great people. She's not a careerist. I worry about my kids fulfilling their dreams. But she wouldn't be able to live with herself if she didn't take risks."

After easing her way back into acting in a small role in Clint Eastwood's Hereafter earlier this year, Howard now has two new films: The Help, already a huge hit in the US, and comedy 50/50. But before either comes Restless, which marks her first outing as producer. It stars Mia Wasikowska as a girl with a terminal illness who develops a relationship with a young, death-obsessed man. Helmed by Gus Van Sant, the acclaimed director behind Good Will Hunting, it's scripted by close friend Jason Lew, who was her husband's roommate when they were all attending New York University.

Entranced by the script, Howard decided to take it to Imagine Entertainment, the company her father co-founded in 1986. "I've always been, with acting, very hesitant to get myself into situations where I would be accused of nepotism," she says. "Yet when it came to a script I cared so deeply about, and knowing I had my own limitations and shortcomings, I was very quick to appreciate the support."

While her father is best known as a director, he has numerous producing credits – including this year's blockbuster Cowboys & Aliens – and Howard admits his experience was invaluable. So, given her move beyond acting, does she feel she is taking after him? She shakes her head. "My husband actually said, 'Everything you know, you learn from your mother,' because she runs everything. My parents have been together since they were 16, and I don't know if my dad could function without her." But is she calm like her old man? "I don't know – you'd have to ask my friends," she giggles. "The things you think inside your head seem crazy sometimes. I definitely don't feel like I'm totally calm."

Curiously, 50/50 circulates around the same subject as Restless – "a young person dealing with the possibility of their own death", as Howard puts it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen play buddies whose lives fall apart when they discover the former has a tumour. Loosely based on the experiences of the film's screenwriter Will Reiser, Rogen's real-life best friend, a cancer comedy is a risky proposition – though as Howard argues, it's impossible to be offended. "It's a true story. And you can't say to someone, 'I'm offended by your life story.'"

She plays Levitt's "wretched girlfriend", making it her second despicable character in a row, after The Help. "I'm totally on a mean streak this year," she laughs. Based on the novel by Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestseller, The Help became the sleeper hit of the summer in the US, taking $160m. Set in Mississippi during the 1960s Civil Rights era, it follows an idealistic writer (Emma Stone) who sets out to pen a book based on the experiences of the "help" – the black maids who spend their lives looking after their employees' white children.

Howard plays Hilly Holbrook, a stuck-up socialite who even proposes a Bill to provide separate bathrooms for the "help". "She's just a nightmare," grins Howard. "She's totally the villain. It's not often that a part like that comes along." And it's true. Howard gets all the juicy lines (and a stomach-churning comeuppance) in a way she rarely has. Never mind the vampire villain she played in her Twilight outing, this is one role she truly sinks her teeth into. "I really wanted to be a part of it," she admits. "I auditioned, got chosen and then in the aftermath I was like, 'I would've chosen [to make] this movie a million times over.'"

Right now, with the second baby on the way, Howard is taking some well-needed time off but, she insists, "I love to act. It's something I'd love to do forever, as long as they allow me to." She doesn't even seem to mind that Emma Stone, her co-star from The Help, has replaced her in the upcoming Spider-Man movie as Gwen Stacey. "I have a four-year-old, and my family time has defined my focus more than anything else. Because that time becomes so precious, you really don't want to be spending your energy [on things] that ultimately aren't going to be meaningful."

Already, she's planning to further follow her father, having penned a script called The Originals, which she calls "a Breakfast Club for my generation". Planning to direct it, she co-wrote it with Dane Charbeneau – who, in true Howard fashion, was welcomed into the family after she set him up with her 26-year-old sister Jocelyn (they have since married). "Everyone in Hollywood has a screenplay," she shrugs. But not everyone has Ron Howard as their father.

'Restless' opens on Friday. 'The Help' is released on 26 October. '50/50' on 25 November

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