Bryce Dallas Howard is stepping out of the shadows -- With M. Night Shyamalan's latest, ''Lady in the Water,'' and a plum role in ''Spider-Man 3,'' the third-generation actor is set to shine

She was named for a canyon with very red rocks. And when her tresses haven’t been altered by chemical additives, Bryce Dallas Howard, the 25-year-old daughter of director Ron Howard, has gorgeous, flowing, naturally red hair. It was pretty unavoidable genetically, since both her parents have that coloring too. But right now, her silky-redhead look is history. Bryce’s locks are a sort of silvery-white approximation of blond, and the texture? Let’s just say it’s not ready for hair-product endorsements.

”It’s like straw,” says Howard of her mop, pulled back in a ponytail. ”Like dead straw that’s been trodden on by animals. It’s going to start falling out and breaking off if I’m not careful.” She fingers it gingerly, sipping unsugared green tea at a little Melrose Avenue joint in L.A. called Elixir. ”My friend Creighton is an amazing hairdresser. I’ve known him since I was, like, 16 years old. He was emotional when he was dyeing my hair. He was like, ‘Why would you ever do this?”’

As Creighton and a whole team of hair-care professionals well know, Howard is doing it for a very good reason. In January, she scored a part in Spider-Man 3, pretty much the holiest of holies among currently filming comic-book adaptations. When the movie opens in May 2007 — okay, so call this a next-summer preview — she’ll be unavoidable as Gwen Stacy, a buxom new love interest for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). ”They gave me some heavy-duty push-up bras, so I have a nice rack as well,” boasts Howard. Cast only days before she had to start shooting — though she says she had no indication that she was a replacement or an also-ran — Howard had no time to test wigs. Since Gwen has always been blond in the comics, a dye job was deemed essential. ”I think, with this movie,” Howard says sunnily, ”a lot of things have been last-minute because they worked so, so much on the story.” Spoken like a positive-spin trouper.

Of course, the Spidey gig isn’t Howard’s first brush with a big-deal movie project. It’s just the capper to a flurry of high-profile movie roles that have showcased her acting of late. She clicked in a starmaking leading-lady debut as a blind girl in M. Night Shyamalan’s late-summer thriller The Village in 2004. She appeared as a plantation mistress with a thing for interracial sex in last year’s Danish art flick Manderlay, from the ever-provocative Lars von Trier. And this July, she’ll be on screens as a weird mermaid-type creature in another Shyamalan mood piece, Lady in the Water. ”My problem in life right now is figuring out boundaries between how many hours a day I’m going to be working, and how many I’m going to spend with my friends and family,” Howard says of her busy streak. ”I blur those lines a lot.” She leans forward conspiratorially. ”My friends call me Baby Showbiz.”

It’s an ironic sobriquet, considering how hard her parents worked to keep Howard from being overwhelmed by the Hollywood world. ”We didn’t want our kids to feel indoctrinated into the business,” says Bryce’s dad, Ron, who was a child actor practically from infancy along with his brother, Clint. ”I don’t have anything against the business, I love the work I’ve done in it…[but] I didn’t want them to feel compelled. I wanted them to be exposed to another range of possibilities…. It’s the kind of thing my father used to say.” (Ron’s dad is character actor Rance Howard.) ”He always told me, ‘I don’t want you to think that just ’cause I’m an actor, it’s a foregone conclusion that this should be your life.”’