Bryce Dallas Howard on Acting, Mothering, and Staying Healthy

With two highly anticipated movies and baby No. 2 on the way, the young actress claims her place in the A-list spotlight.

From the WebMD Archives

Bryce Dallas Howard may be starring as the villain in two current films, but she's merely acting the part. Off-screen she comes across as the friendly, easygoing mom you might meet at the playground, coffee in hand. With a 4-year-old named Theo at home and another baby on the way, this isn't much of a stretch.

But when it comes to her health, Howard is no stranger to taking a darkly dramatic turn. During her first pregnancy she gained 80 pounds (double her recommended amount), then battled a prolonged postnatal depression so severe she "felt like I was in a deep pit, and I couldn't get out of it." She credits her family with recognizing her stark emotional withdrawal during this painful period, then pushing her to seek professional help.

The rising star is, and always has been, tight with her parents. Her dad is the legendary Ron Howard, who was once known the world over as "Opie" and "Richie Cunningham" for his TV sitcom roles and went on to achieve Oscar greatness as the producer/director of such films as A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13. Young Bryce grew up in Greenwich, Conn., far removed from Tinseltown's trappings. She was aware of her father's fame, she says, but was never snared in its spotlight.

Instead, she paid her dues on Broadway and for years shined in quieter films such as M. Night Shyamalan's spooky Lady in the Water and Clint Eastwood's reflective Hereafter. (Supporting roles in Spider-Man 3 and Eclipse, the third installment in the Twilight saga, are mega-budget exceptions.) Her early work is impressive, if a bit low-key, much like Howard herself. But get ready, because the flame-haired actress, 30, is about to cause a stir.

Bryce Dallas Howard's New Roles

In addition to being named Kate Spade's latest muse for the designer's chic advertising campaign -- now in the pages of fashion magazines everywhere -- Howard's peaches-and-cream visage is also ubiquitous at the nation's cineplexes. First out is The Help, one of this summer's most anticipated movies. Based on Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel about racial tensions in the South, it opens in August. Come September, Howard supports the bittersweet comedic stylings of A-listers Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anna Kendrick, and Anjelica Huston in 50/50.

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Howard plays the bad guy in both movies. Or should we say, bad girl. "Honestly, for an actor it's fun," she tells WebMD the Magazine of taking on polarizing characters. "I was initially hesitant to do The Help, because while it's a wonderful book, it's also rooted in a lot of painful truths ... but I had the greatest time ever working with these women [co-stars Emma Stone and Viola Davis] and playing this character, even if she is a despicable human being."

The "despicable human being" is nasty Hilly Holbrook, the meanest creature of fiction to appear since race-baiting Bob Ewell ruined lives in To Kill a Mockingbird. Sweet-as-a-snake Hilly is a society princess and stalwart segregationist in 1960s Jackson, Miss. For her, the issue of civil rights isn't to be debated or advanced; it's to be halted altogether. And she's more than willing to do her part.

It's Howard's other new film, 50/50, that wrestles with 21st-century issues -- examining how dizzying it can be to navigate our at-times unwieldy health care system.

Powerful and authentic, the film was written by TV producer Will Reiser, who was diagnosed with a rare spinal cancer six years ago at age 25 and was given a 50/50 chance of surviving. Gordon-Levitt plays a character who finds himself in a similar situation, with Rogen going for laughs and getting them as the best friend who’s enraged by Howard’s character, the girlfriend who’s rather lukewarm about becoming the caretaker of a chemotherapy patient.

Asked what drew her to the part, Howard says: "First and foremost, I wanted to work with those boys [Rogen's team]. And I wanted the experience of being part of this incredible story."

Caretaking for Those With Serious Illness

The film explores how falling into the rabbit hole of illness redefines not just life expectancy, but relationships. Tough questions drive the plot: Who takes you to and from treatments when you're in no shape to do it yourself? Pushes for the best treatment? And is unquestionably there for you when the going gets tough?

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"I don't respect her choices, but I can empathize with her," says Howard of her character, who cheats on Gordon-Levitt's character, eventually dumping him to face his fate alone. "Can you imagine being in a relationship, dating casually, and suddenly something like this happens? It encapsulates how life-and-death circumstances leave a person so very vulnerable, not only to the illness, but also to the people all around him."

In real life, newly diagnosed patients need a team of supporters, says Karen Mercereau, RN, founder and executive director of RN Patient Advocates in Tucson, Ariz. This team should include family members, a social network, and top doctors -- and if possible an independent advocate who understands how hospitals work and where to find the most relevant information regarding insurance, support groups, and leading-edge research.

"When a person is first diagnosed, he hears very little," explains Mercereau, a scene played out in 50/50 when Gordon-Levitt's character suddenly turns oblivious to all around him as his doctor's voice drones into gibberish the moment he utters the word cancer. "The patient is having his own internal dialogue and is fighting fear. That's why it's so important to have someone who can explain procedures not just once, but six times if necessary. New patients don't have that kind of head space to take it all in."

Howard's Postpartum Depression

Thankfully Howard has never faced such a diagnosis, although she has "lost two grandparents to cancer, and I've definitely had many people in my life who've dealt with it, including a close friend who's fighting a rare form of it now."

Instead, her greatest personal health challenge was her crippling bout with postpartum depression after her son was born in 2007. It lasted 18 long, distressing months.

"I was 25 years old, and I had this idea of the kind of mother I wanted to be," Howard tells WebMD the Magazine. "I held onto that vision and completely stopped checking in with myself. My feelings were the complete opposite of what I wanted or expected to feel, and that was so overwhelming. Circumstances around the birth were challenging. ... My husband [actor Seth Gabel] had to return to work just five days after Theo was born. I felt awful. But I didn't know to say: 'I have postpartum depression.' I didn't recognize I was in it. I just felt like I was a bad person or that I wasn't dealing well with everything."

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Causes of Postpartum Depression

"Postpartum depression is defined as a major depression that can develop after giving birth," says Dorothy Sit, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Women's Behavioral HealthCare of the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh. "Generally it's identified within 12 weeks of delivery and is accompanied by two or more consecutive weeks of low mood, loss of interest in daily activities, change in appetite and sleep patterns, weight loss or gain, a feeling of worthlessness, plus guilt over not being a 'good mom,' and sometimes hopelessness and suicidal thoughts."

"I was incredibly sleep-deprived for months," Howard continues. "My milk wasn't coming in, and Theo was jaundiced, and I was trying to feed constantly and not use formula ... when he slept I pumped. It felt like the most insane kind of torture. ... Now that I'm pregnant again, I'm going to do my best to anticipate those kinds of needs -- to reach out to friends and family and allow myself to fully recover [from labor]."

Research shows a connection between extended sleep deprivation and postpartum depression, says Sit. She also lists "other environmental factors, such as poor social support and financial stressors" -- conditions Howard did not face -- as possible catalysts. Postpartum depression "may also be related to hormonal shifts, when a woman loses a lot of estrogen after giving birth. In addition, having past episodes of depression before the pregnancy predicts an increased risk for experiencing it after."

Howard says she found her sense of alienation from her son most distressing. "We're doing great now," she says of Theo, whom she reportedly called "it" during her darkest days. "It's become the most miraculously balanced relationship in my life -- the total opposite of how it was in the beginning," she adds. "And I'm so grateful for that."

While she declines to elaborate on what specific combination of medications and/or therapy worked for her, she says, "It's so important to find the right doctor and have the right relationship with that person. ... I do feel like [my postpartum depression] was a chemical imbalance. Because when I did seek help, [my symptoms] just stopped. It was like night and day."

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Preventing Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression is much more than the "baby blues." Nearly 13% of pregnant women and new mothers develop depression after giving birth, and symptoms can range from mild to debilitating. At its most severe it can be dangerous to both mother and baby.

Sit offers advice for women who are either at risk for developing postpartum depression or may have it now:

  • Most ob-gyns and general practitioners offer postpartum depression screening four to six weeks after delivery. "There are good screenings now, including the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, which give doctors an indication of how a new mother is doing," advises Sit. Ask your doctor for information about the EPDS test, or download a copy at www.beyondtheblues.info/Docs/edinburgh%20english.pdf
  • Women with a history of depression need to be vigilant during their pregnancies, Sit insists. Make sure your doctor is aware of your medical history, including depression, so you can both be on the lookout for any symptoms.
  • Working out every day from 30 to 60 minutes can help boost mood, says Sit, and can help ease PPD symptoms. Aerobic exercise, such as jogging, biking or power walking, are good choices. But before beginning any fitness activity, check with your doctor first. Exercise is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.
  • Finally, if a PPD patient’s symptoms remain unchanged with treatment, this may suggest an underlying, unrelated health concern, such as a thyroid problem or other disorder. "Be certain to report to your doctor if your symptoms do not improve," advises Sit.

Bryce Dallas Howard's Body After Baby

Despite her battle with depression, Howard refused to get down about her excessive weight gain during her first pregnancy or her inability to squeeze into tiny sample sizes within months -- or even a year -- after Theo's birth.

After finally losing that stubborn 80 pounds, is Howard daunted by the prospect of having to shed unwanted baby weight all over again? Howard is blithe about it: "I will never again be depressed about being 5, 10, or 15 pounds overweight," she insists. "Gaining the amount of weight I did during [my first] pregnancy -- and I got up to 210 pounds -- you just learn to relax about it. It took me so long to lose the baby weight, I got adjusted [to being heavier], and I said: 'I refuse to associate who I am with the shape of my body.' I was able to be generous with myself. I had a baby. I'm not some reckless human being ... and when I finally lost it all I felt like I had really achieved something."

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Bryce Dallas Howard's Prenatal Health

Howard is making sleep, nutrition, and prenatal exercise a priority: "I was in much better condition overall when I got pregnant this time around. When the morning sickness started and all I could stomach was bagels, I felt a little bummed since I'd been so mindful about my nutrition previously. But I'm promising myself that the moment I can tolerate healthier foods I'll shift gears back to a well-rounded nutrition plan."

She's also more disciplined about getting the rest she needs and maintains her exercise routine from before she was pregnant. (However, women should talk to their doctor about exercise; some women should not exercise the same way or at the same level when they are pregnant.)

"It feels wonderful to get outside as often as possible, especially with my family. Ultimately I hope these efforts will add up to make for a strong labor and healthy recovery."

So make that three major projects in the works for Howard. And while The Help and 50/50 may already be causing advance box-office buzz, Theo's new sibling (who's due later this year) is the production Howard is most excited about. And the only reviews she cares about come from her firstborn.

"He's been an incredible help and very understanding!" she says of his reaction to her pregnancy. Will his positive attitude carry on after the birth? "I'm crossing my fingers!" she says, laughing.

Bryce Dallas Howard's Prenatal Health

Howard is making sleep, nutrition, and prenatal exercise a priority: "I was in much better condition overall when I got pregnant this time around. When the morning sickness started and all I could stomach was bagels, I felt a little bummed since I'd been so mindful about my nutrition previously. But I'm promising myself that the moment I can tolerate healthier foods I'll shift gears back to a well-rounded nutrition plan."

She's also more disciplined about getting the rest she needs and maintains her exercise routine from before she was pregnant. (However, women should talk to their doctor about exercise; some women should not exercise the same way or at the same level when they are pregnant.)

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"It feels wonderful to get outside as often as possible, especially with my family. Ultimately I hope these efforts will add up to make for a strong labor and healthy recovery."

So make that three major projects in the works for Howard. And while The Help and 50/50 may already be causing advance box-office buzz, Theo's new sibling (who's due later this year) is the production Howard is most excited about. And the only reviews she cares about come from her firstborn.

"He's been an incredible help and very understanding!" she says of his reaction to her pregnancy. Will his positive attitude carry on after the birth? "I'm crossing my fingers!" she says, laughing.

Howard: Taking It 'Day by Day'

Bryce Dallas Howard juggles motherhood, professional life, and body image much like any American woman: "I take it day by day. And I'm always questioning if what I'm doing is right, being a working mom," the busy actor admits. Below, what works for this rising star:

Expect the unexpected. Howard admits to a preconceived notion of what motherhood would bring. Instead, she had a rough delivery, refused all pain medications after it, had difficulty breastfeeding, and stayed silent when she needed help -- a recipe for a health crisis. Now, she says: "I know I'll be the first one to ask my family or friends if I need a hand."

Don't forget you. Going back to work was part of her return to health. "I stopped checking in with myself," she tells WebMD the Magazine, referring to her own needs and wants. "I am so fortunate to have really great child care now," she adds, so she can take on the occasional juicy role.

Be kind to your body. "I will never wear a bikini again," Howard says. "But I say that with a twinkle in the eye, because I feel really proud! My body expanded to that degree to carry a life. And, you know, bikini or no bikini, I feel pretty good about it."

WebMD Magazine - Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 05, 2011

Sources

SOURCES:

Bryce Dallas Howard.

RN Patient Advocates.

Karen  Mercereau, RN, founder and executive director, RN Patient Advocates, Tucson, Ariz.

Dorothy Sit, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry, Women's Behavioral HealthCare of the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, Pittsburgh.

© 2011 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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