Bryce Dallas Howard: Happy Days are here again for Gold actress
It's a trip of 30 minutes and many, many income brackets from where I've been living, on New York's Bushwick/Bed Stuy border in not-yet-completely gentrified Brooklyn, to the mid-town Manhattan edifice of the Waldorf Astoria hotel.
It's a truly, bitterly freezing cold day to make the trip too. A hard frost is riming the sidewalks and I'm thankful for the Swanndri bush shirt I'm wearing and the cheap pair of polypropylene gloves I've taken to keeping in my bag at all times.
Freezing, but spectacularly beautiful. Seen from the M train, racketing over the Williamsburg Bridge, the East River is a millpond, only disturbed by the bustle of ferries, garbage barges and – god alone knows why – one lone jet-skier carving some noise out of the frigid, steely water and the low winter sunlight.
From Times Square Station, it's a few minutes walk to Park Avenue and the hotel, and then only a succession of wrong elevators – where are the ones that go to the 25th floor, dammit – to the staging room of my very first ever stint at a press junket.
And, of course, like I wasn't a bit nervous about stepping out of my usual role as a mere reviewer already, it's an interview with absolute weapon's grade Hollywood royalty and someone I've had a movie-goer's crush on since I first saw her in M Night Shyamalan's adorably daft The Village.
I manage to get through the 20 minutes of our chat without admitting that. But it's a close run thing. Especially when the first thing Bryce Dallas Howard says when I walk into the room is, "Wow! Great shirt!"
At which point, I sincerely blushed like a teenager on a date.
Howard appeared to burst fully formed into stardom. One moment she wasn't there and the next she was headlining the new film from M Night Shyamalan, who was, lest we forget, one of the absolute hottest film-makers on the planet in 2004.
Howard had appeared in only couple of uncredited, or little-seen film roles. For her to be cast as the female lead in a major project from Shyamalan was at least the cause of a few elevated eyebrows.
"Night (yes, she calls him 'Night') was casting the film. And a friend of his had seen me in a play. He told Night that I might be right for the role. Night came to the show and...that was it. I didn't have to audition or screen test at all. I had the role, working opposite Joaquin Phoenix. Damn right, I was nervous. But, I could act. I'd been acting all my life. And Night was just a fantastic introduction to film-making."
Of course, Howard was born to this. But, as she has said many times and re-iterates to me, even though she is the daughter of Ron Howard – once Happy Days' Richie Cunningham, and now a very respected and utterly A-list director – that she herself would become an actor, or even work in the film industry, was never taken for granted.
Growing up, her parents were staunch in keeping Bryce and her siblings away from TV and movies. Until she was seven years old, she had barely seen a TV show or watched a movie.
But, apparently you can't fight fate and geneaology. Howard was allowed on to her Dad's film sets as a child and I guess the spell was cast. She dropped out of college to go to theatre school and pursue this career.
Thirteen years after The Village and many – mostly very good – films later and here she is, plonked on a hotel couch like she was no one special, apologetically inhaling a doughnut – "I didn't get breakfast!" – drop dead pretty, startlingly bright of eye, grinning like a clown.
After I tell her that a Swanndri shirt is more or less the national costume of New Zealand, she tells me how much she loves our country.
Which is exactly the response you might expect of any celebrity at the moment they learn that you hail from a country they once worked in. "Oh, I adore Belgium!"
But in Howard's case, I'm inclined to believe her. Her enthusiasm seems unfakeable to me. Then again, she is also a very, very good actor.
It was Pete's Dragon that brought her to New Zealand.
Back in 2014, the makers of the film were looking for the perfect leading woman for a subtly updated version of that family movie staple; the kindly local cop.
For Pete's Dragon, the role had been slightly recast as the warm hearted forest ranger who finds orphaned Pete.
Traditionally, this role is written for a man, with a requisite kindly wife at home to provide the surrogate mothering. But writer/director David Lowery eliminated the middle man and made Howard's character into both people at once. I asked Howard how unusual it was – in her experience – for the primary uniformed authority-figure role in a family movie to be taken by a woman. She laughed,
"I think we did it well enough that no one even noticed!"
Which is true enough, but it does lead to some larger questions – and it's a sign of how America feels this week, with every day bringing a new outrage and protest – that our conversation turned to politics, fast.
It's been noticeable, how quickly the pseudonymous trolls of the so-called "alt right" have tried to demean and shut down any actor, writer or film-maker who dares to use a public platform to discuss politics and human rights.
"Stick to acting snowflake," is a typical comment. As though someone's job excluded them from holding an opinion.
Howard pauses. Her happy animation of a few moments before turns to something far darker and more urgent.
"I think it's so important, more than ever now, that what we do, we do it conscious of the world we live in. We are aware now. We need to be focused, and we need to make decisions that are in best interests of the art and storytelling, and humanity.
"We must take up the fight. The idea that we are just entertainers is ridiculous. Theatre, films and TV are only performances of a writer's words, that's all. And writing has always been political. Politics always provides the context for a script. Often, it's the actual purpose."
Which brings us to Gold, Howard's current release. A film about over-bearing but fraudulent ambition – loosely based on the truth – feels like an ironic bullseye on the zeitgeist right now.
Gold sees Howard starring opposite Matthew McConaughey, playing the wife of a prospector and dreamer who might just have made the biggest gold find of the 20th century, in the Indonesian highlands.
Howard is genuinely enthusiastic. About director Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) and also about working with McConaughey.
"They both had an absolute dedication to getting to the truth in the scene. For Stephen, that meant giving us the freedom to change things, to go off the script, to really explore the people we were portraying. And with Matt, that's exactly how he wants to work too.
"So we got to go to some places together. Places where you're out of the film and right inside the person you're being. It's intoxicating when it happens. As an actor, it's what you always hope a film set is going to be like. The only other times I've had that – from any other actors – was with Matt Damon and with Ellen Burstyn (Damon and Howard worked together on the Clint Eastwood directed Hereafter. She worked with Burstyn on an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' The Loss of the Teardrop Diamond)."
It's refreshing to hear that. Production costs and tight schedules mean the luxury of dozens of takes to "explore the scene" are pretty much the preserve of labours-of-love only these days.
But I'd say Gold is a film the actors and director have conspired to make as good as it could possibly be. Howard is saying as much.
In the week before the interview, I'd scoured Netflix and Amazon for whatever Bryce Dallas Howard films I might not have seen.
I tell Howard that with few exceptions – her hissingly villainous turn in The Help is one – it seems to me that she has played a succession of women who, at first look vulnerable and in need of protecting, but who we soon realise are actually the toughest people on the screen, usually far stronger and more resilient than the men around them.
Is that a quality she looks for in scripts, or is it something she brings to the film herself?
Howard positively beams at me and then hoots with laughter, literally – I can hear it on my recording – slapping her knee.
"Oh, that's so great! No one's ever said that before! And you're right. I mean – forgetting false modesty for a minute – that is me. That's exactly what I am like."
I believe her.
Gold (M) opens in New Zealand cinemas on February 9.