After 20 seconds of staring at a carnivore’s dream menu at an Argentinian restaurant on L.A.’s Melrose Avenue, Taryn Manning leans across the table and murmurs conspiratorially, “Do you wanna go somewhere else?” It’s 2pm on a Sunday, and Manning and I are on the same page: neither of us has eaten yet, and a plate of goat meat sounds about as appetizing as a bag of rocks, so we duck out quietly like we’re ditching study hall. Amidst the wayward scuzz of hungover Melrose, 26-year-old Manning is a bright specter of spunky fashion with her streaky party-girl blond hair, herringbone ballet flats paired with striped socks, and fleece sweatshirt adorned with what looks like a pastiche of doodles from a junior-high girl’s notebook— hearts, lightning bolts, and bursting stars.
On a quest for eggs, we set off towards a restaurant two blocks away, but doubt quickly sets in: Are they still serving breakfast? Is it even open? Hungry people often get a touch irrational, and Manning is no different. She decides to call information, though we’re mere yards away. “Los Angeles,” she says to the operator. Pause. “The Bungalow Room.” A second later, she sees a friend across the street, and promptly rips out an enthusiastic greeting: “Hey, you! What up?” She waves heartily with the entirety of her nearly 5’3’’ frame and shouts, “I’m gonna stop by later!” then bursts into giggles, squeaky and throaty at the same time. Without skipping a beat, she returns to speculating about our destination, her hand over the cell: “Do you think they serve breakfast? That’s all I want right now: eggs, eggs, eggs.”
By the time the operator gives her the number, Manning and I are standing in front of The Bungalow Room’s giant sign announcing that brunch is served until 4pm. “Oh, here we go,” she says, and snaps her phone shut. “Let’s eat!” And off she disappears into the depths.
The last five minutes, I quickly learn, were classic Manning. The cheery, warp-speed multi-tasking is par for the course. Not only does the scrappy beauty have an enviable Hollywood presence, with roles in everything from Cold Mountain and 8 Mile to a stint on TV’s Boston Public especially written for her, she also fronts the trip-hop-influenced band Boomkat with her older brother Kellin and runs her own fruity, Tokyo-inspired clothing line, Born Uniqorn, with long-time best friend Tara Jane (if fact, they designed her sweatshirt). Raised in Tucson and San Diego, the sweet-natured but sassy actress lives to juggle, and she does it with an appealing mixture of hip-hop-style self-promotion and saucy bravado, tempered by flashes of quiet vulnerability. One minute she’s thumping hew small freckled hands on her chest thug-style, pronouncing, “I rise to any challenge, I can do anything I want to”; the next minute, she’s pushing around her egg whites with a fork and admitting that the night before she shoots any film, she’s “nervous as hell” and can’t sleep a wink. The beguiling combination plays wonderfully into Nola, the character she portrays in the Sundance Audience Award winner Hustle & Flow, which she calls a “crunk” version of Rocky. “It’s an underdog story,” she says of the indie film that spurred a dramatic bidding war, resulting in Paramount/MTV Films acquiring the film (and two others from producer John Singleton) for a Sundance record of $16 million. Nola, a prostitute working for Terrence Howard’s Memphis smalltime pimp-wannabe-rapper, “has so much inside of her,” Mannning says. “She goes from being totally lost and vulnerable to being in charge, a stronger person.”
If you take Manning’s effervescent, funny-girl personality at only face value, there seems to be no limit to her confidence. At the prestigious Orange County High School of the Arts, she racked up awards in everything from karate to roller-skating, but dancing was her passion. “That’s all I used to do everyday after high school— go to dance class. I’m not saying I always went. Sometimes my mom would drop me off and I’d just get on the bus and go off somewhere else,” she says, smiling cheekily. But for the most part, dancing kept me out of trouble.” The hard work paid off: Her dance troupe won the National Championship, and by 16 she was a back-up dancer for Katalina, one of the many low-rent versions of DeeeLite that clogged the clubs of the mid-’90s. “Remember that song, ‘I’m with the DJ. Excuse me, Mr. Bouncer’? That was her.” Alas, the gig didn’t work out. “She hated me, dude. She used to turn down the radio whenever I would sing because she thought I was competing with her,” says Manning.
In addition to driving hours every morning from San Diego to attend Orange County, Manning also took an acting class in Burbank with a group of then unknowns, many of whom now comprise the ruling class of young Hollywood. “Kristin Dunst was doing stuff already, like Interview With The Vampire, but there was also Evan Rachel Wood, who’s blown up big-time, and Leelee Sobieski and Erika Christensen,” she says. “We were all friends, but we were there to act.” The experience was pivotal for Manning; she learned the range of her own talent and, maybe more importantly, how to convey it to others. “They can teach you how to act, technically speaking, but the main thing is confidence. I learned how to walk into a room and make it clear that I could do the job.”
After nearly an hour of talking and sipping mimosas, Manning begins to open up about some of her struggles. Her father, a musician who turned her on to legends like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes, died when she was 13. After that, she became very protective of her mother. “I wouldn’t say I became, like, obsessive or weird, but I would follow her around and think about her constantly,” she says, her hazel eyes darting around nervously. “I still worry about her just being out in the world.” It also brought Manning and Kellin closer, a relationship that was recently tested when her brother got deep into drugs. “For a while, I couldn’t trust him. He wouldn’t show up for interviews; he was late for Jay Leno,” she sighs and shakes her head. “But he got himself into rehab and overcame a serious addiction, and now he’s like a different person.”
Despite the success of their single “The Wreckoning” in 2003, Boomkat experienced another setback when they lost label representation soon after releasing their first album, Boomkatalog One to-less-than-rave reviews. Instead of letting the hardships sink the bank, Manning turned them into incentives to work even harder. “When my brother had to go away and deal with his problems, I was just like, ‘Screw this. I’m going to make it happen.’” Now, she says, every free moment goes towards writing and recording a batch of new songs that “reflect he growth of both me and my brother.” Kellin plays bass and helps write some of the songs, but it will be Taryn— with the tart voice and sharply spirited lyrics— who’ll present the new work to record labels, in hopes of finding someone “who cares enough to see this through. It doesn’t have to be a small label, but it might help if they think like one.”
Manning’s perseverance isn’t a fluke but the hallmark of her character. Every time she crashes, she simply gets back up and throws herself into a new project. When she was fired from a movie— it was years ago and the producer wanted a “bigger name”— she started Boomkat. When her music career “decided to be evil,” she launched Born Uniqorn. She claims to love all of her projects equally and brings up Madonna’s multi-faceted empire as the gold standard, but when she lets it slip that “movies allow me to do all the other fun stuff,” you can’t help but suspect that singing might edge out acting, even if just by a hair. In conversation, music visibly excites her: Her eyes sparkle and her hands cut through the air as she describes how much she loves a whole vast landscape, from Coldplay to dancehall. She puts her hand on her heart and closes her eyes when we talk about Portishead’s beautifully liquid Dummy. “It’s my all-time favorite,” she breathes. “I never get sick of that album.”
When Manning first read the script for Hustle & Flow— a powerful, layered movie that is less about crunk than the irrevocable bonds people make in the most squalid of circumstances— she was floored by the writing but worried about playing a prostitute. Troubled, edgy characters seem to be Manning’s mien, both her saving grace and her cross to bear in Hollywood. When I ask if she’s ever tired of playing the self-destructive, wild-eyed girl, she answers in the best way possible. “I never get tired of acting, but I do get tired of people who think that these parts are all that I can play,” she says, her voice rising passionately. “I hate it when directors can’t see you as something. I can play anyone I want. Look at someone like Charlize Theron. She transformed herself from a beautiful woman to one of the ugliest things I’ve ever laid my eyes on.”
Manning eventually agreed to Hustle & Flow, because in the end, “a good movie is a good movie. What am I going to do? Pass on a role I can finally sink my teeth into because people will just call me edgy again? Or they’ll write, ‘Taryn Manning, prostitute?’ In fact, they already have, but that’s OK because I know that [my character] is so much more than that.” Ultimately, it’s this sense of empathy that makes her performance so gently moving. Of all the leads in Hustle & Flow, Manning’s role is the most thankless; her character is neither the love interest nor a latent superstar. Yet, when Nola rakes her fingers through her cornrows, or snorts crank, or sizes up a potential trick, the viewer senses her potent, restless disaffection, a disguise for the fear she feels every time she looks her life in the eye.
Manning’s other upcoming features do their part to chip away at her image as Hollywood’s favorite messed-up girl. Take, for instance, A Lot Like Love, a romantic comedy starring Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet. Manning says it was a blast to play Kutcher’s younger sister, “a total geek. I was even excited to wear braces.” But after years of movies fizzling and movies hitting big, Manning doesn’t expect A Lot Like Love, or Unbeatable Harold (another upcoming comedy), or Breed (“Cujo on an island”), or even Hustle & Flow to rescue her. “I don’t get my hopes up,” she says without wistfulness. “I never bank on one thing. I just keep it all going.” Besides, unlike some of the characters she’s played, Manning doesn’t need anyone or anything to save her— she knows how to save herself.