BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD on
'THE LOSS OF A TEARDROP DIAMOND'
Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for RadioFree.com
December 16, 2009
Written in 1957, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is, by all accounts, the first screenplay penned by iconic playwright Tennessee Williams. Although the Pulitzer Prize winner's stageplays had been successfully adapted to film over the decades (A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie), Diamond inexplicably found itself in limbo for nearly fifty years, until it was resurrected with Lindsay Lohan attached to star. Eventually, the long-lost Williams work found a new leading lady in Bryce Dallas Howard, who heads up a cast that includes Chris Evans, Ann-Margret, Ellen Burstyn, and Will Patton. Acclaimed short filmmaker and actress Jodie Markell makes her feature debut as director.
Set in Memphis in the Roaring Twenties, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is the story of Fisher Willow (Howard), a wealthy heiress who struggles with the trappings of Southern high society. Rebelling against conformity and convention, she hires a young man (Evans) to escort her to a variety of public events. But their tenuous relationship that begins as a business arrangement is quickly complicated when Fisher develops a genuine attraction to him, further twisted and tangled by the harsh social restraints thrust upon them. Howard turns in a seamlessly transformational performance--something that is not often the case when an actress is asked to assume the affectations of a bygone era.
In this interview, Bryce Dallas Howard talks about her experience of working on this rare Tennessee Williams story written specifically for the screen.
MEDIA: Your hair looks great dark like that...
BRYCE: Oh, thank you!
And yet you've still kept it reddish...
Yeah, I can't not be a redhead.
You've been a part of film franchises like Spider-Man and Terminator, you've recently joined the Twilight cast, and now you're the lead in this long-lost Tennessee Williams screenplay. How's life?
I just feel really lucky. To get to work on a role like this, to originate a Tennessee Williams heroine...I mean, it's not anything that I ever thought to even go for, you know what I mean? [laughs] Like you don't think that those kinds of roles would ever be available. So it was extraordinary. And for me, whether or not a film has some kind of massive budget, or if it's an independent film--whatever way in which it's getting made--it's always about the filmmaker and hopefully being a vessel for the filmmaker's vision. And so that's what really attracts me to projects. And with this, it was really Tennessee Williams and Jodie, and just her deeply profound understanding of what Williams intended for this piece, and then her own perspective and interpretation of that. It was so exciting to me. So yeah, I just feel really lucky to get to do this.
Being a Tennessee Williams heroine almost seems like a genre unto itself. But considering that this was his first work made specifically for the big screen, did you try to clear your mind of all the past performances from actresses who have been leads in other Williams stories?
No. I really valued going through his canon of work and studying the great performances that had already been captured on celluloid, and reading about the great theatrical performances. Because in my opinion, he was a very singular writer, and he had particular themes that it seems he was consistently fascinated by. There's kind of an iconic Williams female character that you sort of see elements [of] over and over and over again, which is a woman ahead of her time, a woman who's being suffocated by the world, a woman who's too bright, too clever, or too sensitive to really survive and feel grounded. So to go through and watch Blanche DuBois and Maggie the Cat--these really iconic characters that he had created--and steal (to be honest) was something that was helpful to me. [laughs]
Because this screenplay is from another era and set in another era, it has a different sensibility than most of today's films, and the dialogue is relatively verbose. Do you have to adapt your acting style much to fit that approach?
I come from a little bit of a theatrical background. I mean, I just started that way--I don't have like a tremendous body of work or anything. And I went to drama school. And so to get to do a piece where the characters get to talk a lot--[where it] isn't just about the spectacle or the set piece, or is simply visual or movement-based--was really wonderful for me, and juicy and exciting. So I didn't feel like there needed to be an adaptation to a different kind of style. It's just that the characters are speaking their mind--as opposed to it just being an expression, they're actually saying what's on their mind. And that's obviously something that Tennessee Williams is really famous for. And I feel like Shakespeare does that, and Tennessee Williams does that. And you crave that when you're an actor, for sure.
Your performance seems to be grounded in a reality that makes it more accessible to modern audiences. How did that characterization of Fisher come about?
Oh, that's so cool! I didn't even like consciously clock that or anything. I should probably ask Jodie, because I was always on set being like, [politely begs] "Line readings, please!" [laughs] It's just because Jodie's lived with this character for such a long time.
What was your experience of working opposite Chris Evans like?
My goodness, we rehearsed. Chris comes from a theatre background as well, and he really values rehearsal. And it was such a relief to work with him because usually I feel like I'm the one harassing people to "Do it again, do it again, do it again!" And he was right there. And so we had rehearsed pretty consistently till like four in the morning. [laughs] Because it's a very nuanced relationship. There's kind of this shift in dominant/submissive that keeps happening throughout the film. And you know, this is Tennessee Williams. We wanted to do our best and give it our best go. And I just felt really lucky to work with him for that reason. I remember looking on the monitor one day, and I was like, "Oh, my God, he looks like Paul Newman!" I mean, there's something classic about him--he has this classic, strong, leading man presence, and is just such a wonderful person as well.
Your director Jodie Markell is also an actress. Is there a certain comfort zone or ease of communication when a director has that background of being a performer?
Well, I couldn't answer that just because I'm not a director. But I've certainly noticed--working with directors [whose] history is in performance, or that's how it started--there's a different kind of focus, [versus] directors who are more prone to being really technically proficient or really visual. You know, I feel like there's two schools of thought, and a director needs to have both. Jodie has both, for sure. But for me, I felt really, really supported in terms of my performance in that when I had questions or when she was directing me, there was an approach that was coming from a psychological place because she's an actor, and so she knows how to speak that language. Kenneth Branagh was the same way, M. Night Shyamalan is the same way. And that's highly effective for a number of reasons. [laughs]
Your father Ron Howard obviously has had success as both an actor and a director. What is the best advice he has given you about show business, on either side of the camera?
The best advice he gave me is if there was anything else that I could do, to do that. Because you need to really not be able to do anything else to do this business. [laughs] If you have other options, those other options will take precedent. But from a directorial standpoint...I don't know. I mean, I think it's really Freudian, actually, the amount of trust that I have in filmmakers, because I have such a trusting relationship with my dad and he's such a mentor to me. He has never let me down as a person. I mean, he just hasn't. And so that's kind of translated for me with filmmakers. And I guess the best piece of advice that he's given me has just been in his nature--like I have an association that director means total authority; director means they will never let you down; director means just trust them and fulfill their vision, and the story will be told in its best incarnation. I've always felt really lucky to get to work with really great filmmakers. And for me, the whole objective is just to be like, "What is it that you want to hopefully be of service to that?" And I think just in his persona, that's been the advice that he hasn't directly said, but I've understood.