Bryce Dallas Howard on Fertility Struggles and How a New Zealand Healer Helped Her Conceive (Exclusive)
By Leena Tailor
Bryce Dallas Howard was just 5 when she awoke in Queenstown, New Zealand, and gazed out enormous windows into a stunning, awe-inspiring vista. Accompanying her father, director Ron Howard, while he filmed Willow, she was wowed by her first glimpse into a world outside her American homeland, and the powerful moment would stay with her for years to come. But little did the wide-eyed youngster realize that the nation would one day have a profound impact on her journey into motherhood.
In a revealing new interview with ET, the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom star is opening up about the health struggles she faced in her 20s and how the country helped her start a family, find solace and make a life-changing decision to leave Hollywood.
Born in Los Angeles to director Ron Howard and writer Cheryl Alley, Howard was educated on the East Coast, going to school in Connecticut and New York and later attending New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She eventually returned to Los Angeles after her film career took off following her debut in 2004’s The Village.
It was at New York University where she met actor Seth Gabel, whom she would date for five years before the two got married in 2006. Soon after getting engaged, the couple found themselves facing major hurdles with their family dreams. “I was really struggling and having some challenges,” Howard says. “I learned that I was going to need minor surgery in order to conceive. Then my friend had an appointment with a New Zealand man, Papa Joe, who would come over once a year and stay in this incredible house in Topanga Canyon, where he and his folks would heal people. I was sharing my woes with my friend and she said, ‘They’re leaving tomorrow, you should take my appointment!’”
The late Maori elder was a well-respected healer who traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe helping people and released a book in 2006 about his spiritual methods. Howard took the opportunity, but walked in with doubts about how much his practices could help her. Yet, within seconds of arriving, she recalls feeling the “powerful” nature of his practice.
“Instantly, without me saying anything, he saw what was going on and explained the situation,” Howard recalls. “He did very physical, rigorous body work, and there was a midwife there who helped me breathe through the experience.”
Howard and Gabel married on June 17, and seven days later, Howard learned she was pregnant. “We weren’t even trying! His session healed me completely,” she says.
Shortly afterward, Howard attended her first midwife appointment and noticed a photo of Papa Joe on the wall, only to find out that he had died six months earlier. “I was so grateful that I got to be a part of that last group of people who were treated by him. I’ve always felt a great amount of indebtedness and thankfulness,” Howard says, revealing that when she returned to New Zealand 30 years after her first visit to film Pete’s Dragon, “I kept thinking, ‘I would love to visit the group to say thank you, even though Papa Joe is gone.’”
While staying at the Treetops Lodge in Rotorua for her 34th birthday, Howard, now a mother of two, signed up to get a Romiromi massage, a holistic Maori body treatment. “I was telling the Maori gentleman my story, and as soon as I said, ‘Papa Joe,’ he just lit up and went, ‘My teacher!’” she recalls. It turned out that Papa Joe had trained him. “It’s funny how I was 24 when he treated me and this encounter was on my 34th birthday, 10 years later.”
While Howard is eternally grateful for the healing rituals of the country’s native Maori people, her joy was temporarily jolted to a halt with the unexpected turbulence that swept through her life after welcoming her son, Theo, in 2007. The Black Mirror star has openly discussed her battle with severe post-natal depression and, in a blog written for Goopin 2010, she shared how she “heaved uncontrollable sobs,” referred to her newborn as “it,” greeted Gabel with expletive-filled outbursts and frequently broke down in the shower during her first 18 months of motherhood.
Reflecting on the emotional roller coaster and irony of having struggled on her path to having a baby, only to plunge into depression once she did, Howard says she frequently felt like her mind was playing tricks on her. “It was the worst! You think the one thing you’re going to be able to control in life, to a certain extent, is your own feelings, especially when it’s so obvious what you should feel. But all of a sudden, I went through this experience, which was truly chemical. It absolutely changed everything, and it’s just horrifying. It’s like your heart, your body and your mind are ripped apart and it takes a while to piece it back together.”
Eventually, a homeopathic treatment plan, a mothers’ group and Brooke Shields’ memoir Down Came the Rain: My Journey Through Postpartum Depression helped her recover. “It’s been a journey, but I’m really lucky because I had a second pregnancy [with daughter, Beatrice] where I didn’t experience that, so that was also very healing for me,” Howard says.
The biggest lesson from the ordeal has been to give herself timeouts. “When I think back about what I would have done differently [while suffering with PND], I would have given myself time and space to be alone and process and have some perspective, whether that’s 10 minutes in the bathroom -- well, it shouldn’t just be 10 minutes in the bathroom, but that’s what it ends up being!” Howard says.
“In a way, that’s what New Zealand has felt like for me and for a lot of people I talk to,” continues the actress, who was named New Zealand Tourism Ambassador to the United States and Canada in 2017. “You get that moment to step out of the fray, good or bad, and be in a place where you’re nurtured, replenished and brought back to your center. Every single time I’ve gone there, I’ve felt totally restored. It’s a very healing part of the world and there’s just a lot of people who live there who are very happy -- and that’s infectious!”
It was while living in dreamy spots like Mount Maunganui, during filming of Pete’s Dragon, that Howard started noticing a shift in her children, which instigated her and Gabel’s recent decision to leave Hollywood. Theo was almost 7 and Beatrice was 3 when the family left behind a Californian winter to wake up to summer in the South Pacific. “Right off the bat, the kids were like, ‘What kind of magic is happening here?’”
Quickly becoming immersed in Kiwi life, the impact of their new environment became evident as the family settled into their new seaside home, where the children soaked up “tropical summer living,” and attended a local school. The family relocated to a farm in the South Island town of Tapanui, near Dunedin, where they reveled in country life and relished every inch of expansive open spaces.
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Having spent her childhood running around the woods of Connecticut, Howard was frequently sentimental about her own youth. “Both environments we lived in were very different, yet the similarity was that connection to nature and that sense of being in a sanctuary. They just became wild, happy, fulfilled kids, who were tired and dirty at the end of the day. It sounds overly simplistic, but I felt that they were safe -- so then they felt safe. And that feeling really empowered them as young people to explore, have adventures, walk a little further out of the yard than they normally would, climb a tree and follow through with curiosity.”
With her kids being closer to nature than they had ever been before, Howard encouraged them to be free. “It woke them up and made them excited to go outside,” she says. “That’s something they haven’t let go of, and seeing them in that environment hugely inspired us to move out into the country, because I saw how much they blossomed.” Now back in the United States, the family left Los Angeles for upstate New York, where they’re now living in the countryside.
Of course, it’s the dinosaurs stomping into theaters in June that many fans are most excited about, and having reprised her role as Claire in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Howard promises the film will wow in a way the franchise never has before. “There’s something happening on Isla Nublar putting all the dinosaurs’ lives in jeopardy and Claire and Owen go to save them. The story really goes in a direction where the franchise has never gone before -- ultimately, taking these dinosaurs off the island.”
While she's tight-lipped about plot details, Howard did admit that Claire is sporting more appropriate footwear in the new installment, which is even better for outrunning dinosaurs. But what really prepared the actress for all that intense filming and dino-chasing were extensive hikes in New Zealand. “My favorite active thing to do is to hike. It’s not just about keeping fit and preparing for the film; for me, it’s also about de-stressing. When I’m hiking, it gets me back to a very grounded, healthy, centered place,” Howard says.