I wouldn’t say that meeting Ron Howard was an anti-climax, exactly. I did not, after all, expect the 52-year-old, Oscar-winning director and movie mogul to be like his friend Russell Crowe, an exciting mixture of bluntness and volatility. Nor did I imagine him to be like Don Simpson, the flamboyant Hollywood producer who could put away more proscribed chemicals than a laboratory full of beagles. But there was a big build up to my meeting with him and, with it, a certain anticipation; a tightening of the air.
I had been introduced to him in London, when he was on a flying visit, but his diary manager had been unable to pin him down for an hour-long interview. For this I had to fly to Los Angeles, and keep on my toes as the time and venue was changed several times. With the imminent release of his $125 million film version of Dan Brown’s novel Da Vinci Code, it should be explained, Ron is busy, busy, busy. It is only when I am finally alone with him in the Gene Autry Building, on the Sony Lot, that I realise why his minders guard his time so carefully. He is so solicitous, unassuming and guileless he would, if they let him, chat away all day.
He is a balding, slightly built man — 5ft 9in — with down-turned, close-together eyes set in a skull-like face. He has a ginger beard which he scratches occasionally and comfortable looking boots which he rests on the table as he talks. Behind him is a poster of Silas, the sinister, self-flagellating albino monk in the Da Vinci Code. The words above the picture read: ‘Silas says keep cutting.’ ‘That? The editors made it for me when the film was still over three hours long,’ Ron says with chewy, Mid-Western vowels. ‘We’ve got it down to 2 hours 20 now. I think we have achieved the page turner feel. It’s a design thing, how it’s staged and shot. I was always trying to build those moments into the shot list. It is a more cinematic movie than others I have done. Less naturalistic. More designed.’
On another wall is an Evening Standard billboard: ‘Da Vinci Code: London court drama.’ ‘I’ve learned not to bite my nails over things I have no control over,’ he says, ‘like that court case.’ So he’s not a worrier? He gives an unexpectedly loud laugh. ‘I didn’t say that. I lose sleep on every movie. I lose sleep on a big one like this and a smaller one like The Missing. A lot of people invest a great deal of their time and energy in a movie so it’s a big responsibility. You’re under pressure. There is added pressure with the Da Vinci Code because other people are whispering in your ear that you are dealing with a phenomenon. It truly is a phenomenon. The book never seems to stop selling. I hope people will go and experience the movie on its own terms. But perhaps that is asking too much.’
Howard met his wife, Cheryl, at High School when they were both 16, and they married five years later, in 1975. They have four children. It was Cheryl who first came across the Da Vinci Code at her book club. ‘She passed it on to me and I was gripped. I took it on as a film for the challenge of telling a story that would have a broad popular reach and would stimulate conversation as well. But every film I make represents an opportunity which is, not to be too corny about it, the kind of thing you dream of doing, you know, to have the resources to make a movie.’
He has made 27, nearly all of them box office hits, from Splash in 1984 to Apollo 13 — again starring Tom Hanks — in 1995, and A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe in 2001. That was the film for which he won an Academy Award for Best Director. I ask him if winning that made him feel less motivated. ‘I think because it took me a while to get one, it came as relief. I didn’t want to be the guy who never got one. It gave me a kind of freedom because I don’t feel I have as much to prove. But you didn’t see me weeping with joy on the way home…’ He pauses, rubs his chin. ‘This sounds like… I don’t want to give you the impression I don’t still find this business thrilling. I do. But it’s not quite the same as when I started. There was a time when I-I- I’d be completely giddy because I actually asked a key grip to put down some dolly track and requested that the actor move from the doorway to the car and suddenly all that was happening and I would look at the dailies later and think, Hey! I made a dolly shot! Nowadays I don’t get the same thrill about even the most complicated special effect shot, or crane shot, or stunt. But I do still get a kick from problem-solving, something unexpected emerges and you get round it. You get what you want on screen.’ In the case of the Da Vinci Code he was refused permission to film in Westminster Abbey so he went to Lincoln Cathedral — where there were protests from Christians. ‘Actually of the 200 protesters that were reported, 199 were Tom Hanks fans and one was an angry nun.’ Jacques Chirac personally intervened to allow him to film in the Louvre, though they weren’t allowed to film the Mona Lisa. Five replicas had to be made. ‘I kept one to take home.’
A Beautiful Mind was partly about the rivalry between professors of mathematics. Howard says he can identify with their competitiveness and insecurity. ‘If you define yourself as someone doing good work and it’s in a narrow field which people don’t know that much about, or don’t quite understand, it does get to be competitive. It fuels ambition. That’s what keeps us going. As to the insecurity well, when you’ve just invested a year and a half in a film, you’re just too vulnerable to read the reviews straight away. It would be masochistic. I collect up the whole packet, the 100 or so, and read them a few months later. His one critical flop, Far and Away (1992) starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, left him feeling ‘miserable’, he says. ‘But you can never choose movies based on what critics want or what you think will win awards. You cannot let intellect rule over intuition. You have to go with your gut feeling. That’s what I always try and do.’
He wants to qualify what he said earlier. ‘I tell you when I get a rush, it’s when I first roll the camera. It is an addictive feeling. I had a dream one time, I‘ve never told this story and it will probably backfire but…’ He tells me about a dream in which he is at a party where there are silver salvers being carried around with mounds of cocaine, like in Scarface. ‘….And I’m saying, “No thank you”. I just happen to be a person who has never tried coke, though I know a bit about it from being in this business…’ Eventually he tries some and ‘I feel a rush and think, So that’s what it feels like. Then I realise I feel that way almost every time I roll the camera. It IS a high. Shooting is the period I enjoy most, for the exhilaration.’
It is a telling — and rather sweet — comment because it shows 1) He is boring enough to tell you about his dreams. 2) He even worries about taking drugs when he is dreaming. In some ways, he’s like the Ned Flanders of Hollywood, a goodie-goodie blessed by the Lord — although when he appeared on the Simpsons it was as himself. He was also referred to in an episode of South Park: when Cartman ‘turns ginger’ he asks a crowd of fellow ginger haired people to name great Americans with the hair colour. The first named is ‘Ron Howard’. When asked to name a second, after a short silence from the crowd, someone responds: ‘Ron Howard’.
He has been a household name in America since he was eight. That was when his parents, both theatre actors, moved from Oklahoma to Hollywood and Ron became a child star as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. Anxious that he should nevertheless have a normal childhood, his parents sent him to an ordinary state school. I ask if he was bullied at school for being on television. ‘Yes, I always was. Always.’ Did his red hair make him a target, too? ‘No, that wasn’t a thing for me, it was just being on the show. I was shy, but other kids took this as me being aloof. I would have to do the show then come back to school and stand up to them. It was maybe an important part of my development.’ They called him Dopey-Opie and Soapy-Opie, excluded him from their games and laid traps to humiliate him. He learned ploys to deal with them. For the most part, he simply behaved so pleasantly that the ‘regular kids’, as he calls them, began to see him as a diminishing target.
At 17 he became even more famous as Richie Cunningham the toothy, freckled boy next door in Happy Days. The show was about a group of wholesome, small-town American teenagers who hung out in a milk-bar listening to a jukebox and idolising The Fonz. He stayed on the show until he was 26. ‘That show was my day job, a way of supporting my ambitions to become a director,’ he says. Hardly a day goes by without someone bringing up Ritchie Cunningham, he adds. Does that role feel like a blight on his life? ‘Not any more. It’s odd. It’s odd. Since the Academy Award I get way, way more acknowledgement than I ever had. And I had made so many films before that. The picture of me holding the Oscar really cemented that transition from actor to director more than any of the films or talk shows or anything I had done before.’
He did not lack for self-confidence in his early career; had his parents always been pushing him to achieve? ‘Not really. I was a child actor but really handled in the kindest, most positive way. I was expected to be well prepared and have a good attitude but I wasn’t pressured, or prodded, or bludgeoned. My dad’s an actor so there was an element of him passing a craft on. But I enjoyed it. It’s probably why I enjoy being on a set now.’
I ask if he suffers from Michael Jackson syndrome in the sense that the singer, himself a child star, has said he only ever feels ‘normal’ when on stage. ‘I feel a bit like that on my own set. I have grown up with it. But I’m supposed to be going to visit my daughter Bryce on her set after this — she is in the new Spiderman — and I don’t really like going on other people’s sets. I feel like I’m a nuisance, or a distraction or, worse, inconsequential.’
That unexpected vulnerability again… Did he have any qualms about his daughter following him into acting? ‘I did yes, definitely. I didn’t mention them to her. I could see from early on though that what she loved was the film process, which I thought was a healthy thing. To her the rehearsal is as exciting as the performance. I felt the same. That sort of person has a chance to be happy working in this business, whereas if it’s all about the curtain call then it is fucking hard work. It makes you so insecure and frustrated. The curtain call is not enough…. I would never stop one of my kids from being in the business — not least because I love it. My father loved it too, even though he never became a huge success. He loves it to this day.’
Ron frequently casts his father in supporting roles. I ask if his father finds that a little humiliating, in a Freudian sense. ‘He’s always made it clear that he was just proud of me. He had no other feelings of … He’s never needed me to make a living. He’s always made his living in the business. He just doesn’t get lead roles, that’s all. In many ways growing up and seeing my dad struggle — but with dignity and real joy when he was working — meant that when I had success I really appreciated it. I never took it for granted. He’s an exceptional guy. Really remarkable. He has this Mid-Western Zen outlook, a calmness. He’s like kung fu man grooving through life.’
Is there an element of his father in some of the more phlegmatic, decent, honourable characters in Ron Howard’s films: the Tom Hanks character in Apollo 13, for example, or the Russell Crowe character in Cinderella Man? ‘I saw a lot of my dad in Braddock [the boxer played by Crowe in Cinderella Man], in terms of attitude about how to get through a problem. And like Braddock my dad had lived through the Depression, as a farmer’s son, so he knew about struggle at the most basic level. My folks never lost their farm but it was all subsistence living. Many farmers did, hence the whole Grapes of Wrath migration story where the Oakies had to go to California to pick fruit.’
I ask him if he has inherited any of his father’s values. ‘I’m not a moralist but I certainly respect those kinds of characters. Do I think I’m a good person? Yes, not a wonderful person, but a good person. Not as good as Jim Braddock.’
Does that make him unusual in Hollywood terms? ‘Not really. There are lots of decent people in Hollywood who get what they want without compromising their integrity. I am competitive but I’m not ruthless. I can lose my temper but not very often as it’s not a very comfortable state of mind for me. People who know me know when I am being serious and when something is important. I don’t have to be loud. It’s more a matter of my becoming emphatic.’
When I suggest that he might be passive aggressive he says earnestly: ‘Maybe, maybe. My wife would say that I am.’
He is one of the most prolific film-makers in the industry; does he feel guilty when he’s not working? ‘No, not guilty. Useless. I don’t know quite what to do with myself. My wife likes me around for a while but then… well, I’m not going to do a better job fixing that broken lock or painting the stairs than some guy we can hire. I like being a father but my kids are grown up now and don’t need me as much. I used to do the school run and I kinda miss that. I don’t really have any hobbies.’
There is an extraordinarily graphic self-flagellation scene in The Da Vinci Code movie. Perhaps he could take that up as a hobby? He must, after all, have become an expert on it while making the film. He laughs toothily. ‘What can I say? I cram for these tests. There was almost a time when I could have explained how they get to the moon.’