Jan 3, 2011

Taryn Manning- The Vulnerable Edge

John Sedlar

Taryn Manning – actress, model, and musician, all rolled up into one.

By Catherine Wagley

The actress known for her rough-and-tumble on-screen vulnerability is about to take her career in a new direction with a solo album full of grown-up pop

Just over a year ago, Taryn Manning pointed a gun at actor Michael Rady. They were on the set of campy-chic drama Melrose Place and Rady, one of the show's regulars, was playing tentative, up-and-coming director, Jonah. Manning, best known for her wrenching turn as an impish hooker in Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow (2005), was playing herself: Manning-the-actor in the role of Manning-the-musician. While her music had appeared on soundtracks of her films and she has sung on-screen, the dual strains of her career had never come together quite so explicitly.
The on-screen run-in between Rady and Manning went something like this:

Manning, opening her trailer door: Who the hell are you?

Rady: I'm your new director.

Manning, pulling and cocking a pistol she'd apparently been hiding: Says who?

Jonah, with hands raised: Whoa! Um. . . hold on.

Manning hollers for security then slams her door.

It's a power trip of a scene that, while far from profound, is catching, all the more so given that Manning most often acts the part of the down-and-out, tough-skinned, acid-tongued girl caught in the dregs of a man's world, not the woman who calls all the shots. Even now, she's moonlighting on Law & Order SVU, playing an ex-child prostitute who has to confront her past. "It's a past my character's been trying to forget her entire life," Manning explains.
"There's something that I've mastered," says Manning, who's speaking over the phone from a New York hotel room. "It's like a vulnerable edge, kind of a hard exterior but mushy in the middle." 
Because she is currently working on the set of Law & Order and I'm home in L.A., we've had to settle for a long-distance conversation. Shooting went late this morning, so we've pushed our call back and, when we finally catch each other, I half expect Manning to sound frazzled – she's said that the week-to-week nature of TV can make its sets more precarious than in film. But instead, Manning's tangy voice, buffed up with get-it-done professionalism, sounds more or less relaxed.

This is probably because shoots and interviews both happen to be normal parts of Manning's job, but maybe it also has to do with the confidence boost she received earlier, when she spoke to SVU's producer. "We just met for the first time. He was saying it's very hard to find a lot of actors who are willing to go to dark places and just thanked me for doing it," she says. "But I have to be honest with you. I've been typecast."
Manning can't be much taller than five feet two, and her sculpted, perpetually saucy features make her look like a punk reincarnation of Twiggy. If she wanted to, she could still pass as a teen (and will play a 19-year-old in an upcoming project). Since I haven't met her in person, I know this the same way anyone else would, from photos, films, and video clips. Her non-traditional, spunky beauty and youngish punk-waif image have a lot to do with the sort of niche roles she's ended up in.
In Crazy/Beautiful (2001), the film about angsty high school rebels in which she had her first major supporting role, Manning looks street-smart, tougher but just as needy as Kirsten Dunst, who plays the lead. Manning was 22 when she acted in Crazy/Beautiful. Born in Virginia in 1978, she moved to Tucson with her mom and brother after her parents split up and spent much of her childhood traveling back and forth between the East Coast and Southwest (she jokes it primed her for the constant travel she does now). She was 12 when she and her mom moved to Cardiff, California, and she began studying acting during high school, while a student at Orange County School of the Arts.
After a few television appearances and ensemble parts in 1999 and 2000, Manning landed a few key roles. Crazy/Beautiful, in which she was tart and memorable, was quickly followed by Britney Spears' Crossroads, a film that had cult status even before it hit theaters. ("There would be all these diehard fans," Manning remembers. "We had to beg them to shush down so we could hear and think.") In it, Manning's the pregnant teen who puts the film's girl-bonding, coming-of-age road trip in motion.
If you were to line up all the women Manning has played over the past decade, you'd end up with motley bunch of youngish, darkish characters, most of whom have one- to two-syllable names. There's Maddy from Crazy/Beatufiul and Mimi from Crossroads; then there's Niki, the juvenile delinquent from White Oleander; Janeane, a small town ex to Eminem's up-an-coming star in 8 Mile; Shyla, a temptress who can't sway Jude Law's devoted Southern soldier in Cold Mountain; Mattie, who ends up being a prop in two boys' flirtation with crime inWeirdsville; Joy, the waitress with big dreams in The Job; and Cherry, who escapes an abusive husband, the law, and then the country in the tribal FX dramaSons of Anarchy. In each role, she's vulnerable, but with "a hard exterior," a small-framed bombshell with a well-guarded heart.
Dandelion (2004) and then Hustle & Flow (2005) gave Manning her biggest chances to prove her on-screen mettle. In Dandelion, writer/director Mark Milgard's first and only feature, she plays Danny, a troubled girl next door who helps an even more troubled boy feel alive again before he dies and leaves her world more scarred up than it had been before. Hustle & Flow, a far tighter, stronger film, came out a year later. Manning is Nola, a tenacious but guarded hooker with plated braids and blue eye shadow. She's who Terrence Howard's Djay, a pimp with hip-hop ambition, hustles and she wants in on the future that Djay seems to be closing in on, so she sits in on the recording session he holds in a makeshift backroom studio.
Her job? To "kill the fan" before each take, less than fulfilling for someone who wants what Nola wants – a chance at a new vocation and a new life – and Manning's performance throbs with thwarted desire. "It was hard playing Nola," she says. "I mean, I'm not a prostitute. I had to do research. A lot of people think that Craig Brewer plucked me right off the streets of Memphis. They thought that I was this girl, through and through." In the year or so following Hustle & Flow, Manning appeared in a number of photo spreads, some in men's glossies. Often, write-ups would say something like what the one in Maxim did: "Though you probably recognize Taryn Manning as the hooker with a heart of bling . . . don't confuse her with her character."
The weird thing about typecasting is that it can be both painfully honest and totally effacing at the same time; certainly, Manning has something in common with these girls she's played. "There's a lot of us in our characters, you know," says Manning. "And I've gone through a lot in my life. As I've gotten older, I've learned to embrace and love that I get to play roles with depth. I'm actually pretty grateful for it." But she'd like to show the other sides of her as well; "vulnerable edge" isn't all there is.
As Manning has become more comfortable with the hard-knock girl she plays in films, she's also become more and more vested in the other half of her career. She and her brother Kellin have been making music as the duo Boomkat since 2003, and she has a solo album on the way. "Whatever you want to put out there and however you put it out there, you're kind of in control of it," Manning says of music. "That's why it's always been so important to me."
"What's funny is, people trip out on me because I say I would take a break from acting if it meant I could tour the world again," she continues. "Acting's my bread and butter, and I enjoy it, and I know most musicians want to act. But here I am, kind of a successful actor and I want to make music and have it heard. I want to be in that world, fully submerged in it."
The tracks from Boomkat's first album, Boomcatalogue, tended to take a more diaristic, let-it-all-hang-out approach than Manning's newer work. The single she debuted on Melrose Place, "You're So Talented," had a cleverly self-aware bite to it. Here was the actor playing the musician she wanted to be, singing: "I could never see the light within you" and "I hope they say about me, you're so talented, you're so talented, truly talented, you're so talented."
Another newly released single, called "Spotlight," is as ballad-like as a club tune could be. It has a relentless rhythm and gives just enough, but no more. It trusts its audience to read into its "vulnerable edge," something it definitely has. "I write songs that have meaning," says Manning. "They're not just throw-away songs." Then she adds, "It's kind of important to do this, you know."

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