Bryce Dallas Howard, the star of ''Lady in the Water,'' talks about her second time with Shyamalan, sidling up to Spider-Man, and splashing around with papa Ron

By Gary Susman
Updated July 21, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Bryce Dallas Howard has lived a charmed life. The daughter of Splash director Ron Howard, she collected mermaid figurines as a child, a fitting pastime for a girl who would grow up to star as a sea nymph, or narf, in Lady in the Water. Yet Howard says she doesn’t like the water, so it’s also apt that she managed to find a nymph role that didn’t actually require much swimming; she notes that costar Paul Giamatti spends much more time in the pool in the movie than she does.

More proof of her charmed life: Two years ago, she was an unknown stage actress, but since then, the 25-year-old has played the heroine in two M. Night Shyamalan movies (the first was The Village) and stepped into a lead role vacated by better-known redhead Nicole Kidman (in Lars von Trier’s Manderlay. Next summer, she’ll swing across the screen in Spider-Man 3 as Gwen Stacy, a rival to Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson for the superhero’s affections. While in New York last week, Howard spoke to about her fairy-tale existence, her famous father, and her future fantasy gigs.

What were your favorite bedtime stories as a child?
”The Little Mermaid.” When I was a kid, I would collect little glass mermaid figurines. I was a little sick, too. I loved the Grimms’ fairy tales.

How was it working with M. Night Shyamalan a second time?
It was so wonderful. By the end of shooting The Village we were getting to know each other’s processes. So when we shot Lady in the Water, we were able to start at that place. That’s a much more empowering place to start from, where there’s no BS between us. He knows my instrument. He knows when I’m in that place and when I’m not.

When you work with visionary, auteurist directors like Shyamalan or von Trier, can you set the experience aside when it’s over, or does it stay with you?
It stays with me, which is nice. I prefer that. I still have not gotten to a place, nor do I wish to get to such a place, where I can separate my work and my personal life. My work is my hobby. It’s the thing that I love to do most. So when I am working with such brilliant people, such visionaries, I hope to take these lessons from them and use that in my own life and in my own work. The experience from Lady in the Water was very powerful, and it absolutely did stay with me.

What have you learned from your father’s example about what makes a successful filmmaker?
Two things. Above all else, a great filmmaker has humility. They’re willing to listen, they’re willing to learn, they’re constantly pushing themselves. A great filmmaker is a humble person. And the second thing, which is equally important, is integrity. They speak the truth, they don’t manipulate, and what they promise to deliver, they do. My dad has those things, and so do all the directors I’ve worked with.

Does your dad have a good sense of humor?
I was just on a family trip. We were on a boat, 31 of my family members. I’m actually afraid of the water, especially open water. I’m just convinced I’ll be swallowed by a shark. They were like, ”Bryce, you have to conquer your fears.” So I went on a Jet Ski with my husband [Nip/Tuck regular Seth Gabel, whom Howard married just last month], and my dad and his brother were on a Jet Ski, and they were whizzing by really, really fast, and they kept threatening to come towards me. I kept screaming, ”Stop! Stop!” I thought I was going to fall into the water. Finally, they got really close, and I went, ”Dad! Don’t betray my f—ing trust!” And the next day, he made T-shirts, and he made everyone wear them, and they said, ”Don’t betray my f—ing trust.” So he does have a very good sense of humor.

What was it like working with Paul Giamatti?
I was upstairs watching Cinderella Man on television just now, and I turned to my best friend and said, ”I swear to you, when he is 88 years old, people are going to say, ‘That is the greatest actor who ever lived.’ ” He is the most unbelievably talented man. There is no neurosis there that comes with his talent. He’s just always available, always on point, and always self-deprecating and humble and willing to totally change his performance 180 degrees based on one suggestion. He’s also one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met.

Was it odd working with him after he’d just come from making Cinderella Man for your father?
It was a slightly inappropriate thing that he had just worked with my dad and then we come to the set on the first day and I’m wearing that little shirt [and nothing else], and I had to take off the shirt, and he was like, ”Hi…I, uh, know your dad.”

How was it playing Gwen Stacy in Spider-Man 3?
That’s a small role, but it’s such a great experience. It was awesome. There was a moment where I had to fly down five stories with Spider-Man, and it was right down the street from where I got my first theater job in New York. I actually walked over there and talked to all the ushers and said, ”Guys, I’m doing Spider-Man!”

What are you doing next?
There’s a short film that I’ve written that I’m directing in August in Los Angeles, with Alfred Molina. It’s through an organization, this charity called Film Aid, that’s about using the power of film to educate. Glamour magazine and Cartier are financing it.

Do you see yourself directing features one day?
I don’t know. I have a lot to learn.