PARK CITY, Utah — She’s been on the scene as a fashion “It” girl for years, but finally, after several blink-and-you-might-miss-them roles in studio-financed films (“Crossroads,” “Crazy/Beautiful,” “8 Mile,” “Cold Mountain”), Taryn Manning has found her dramatic raison d’être in the Sundance Cinderella story, “Hustle and Flow.” Or rather, it found her.
When first-time filmmaker (turned Hollywood’s hottest commodity) Craig Brewer was struggling to get the pimp-and-ho drama made, he tore out a page from photographer Lauren Greenfield’s book, “Girl Culture.” He took one look at the scrappy waif with short blonde hair and huge sunglasses and saw Nola, the lost hooker who helps her pimp-friend D Jay realize his hip-hop dreams. When he received the short list of lead actresses from producers (including his backer, John Singleton), Manning’s name was on it. When he met her, Brewer yelled, “It’s you! You’re in the photo.”
“After that, he was just after me,” recalls Manning, sitting in a lounge filled with agents and reporters waiting to pay their dues during Sundance. “But that was two years ago and I wasn’t available. I was in Japan promoting Boomkat,” she says, referring to her own pop-rap band whose debut, “Boomkatalog One,” came out in 2003. As luck would have it, the movie’s production got pushed back. Brewer was close to casting actress Rachael Leigh Cook for the lead, but she was getting married at the time. “So I just slid right in there,” beams Manning.
The 26-year-old actress knows she was lucky to score such a plum part: “I haven’t had a cool movie come out in a while, and it’s really hard trying to get the snowball going again.” Of course, she took time off from acting to pursue other creative ventures — her album and a clothing line, Born Uniqorn, both of which have kept her in the spotlight. But Manning says her latest role may surprise those who typecast her as the rough-around-the-edges sidekick.
“Everyone’s like, ‘Oh Taryn, playin’ a hooker, how typical,’” she sing-songs. “But I love how fragile and strong Nola is. You could tell she was taking it all in. She wasn’t a dumb, trashy girl.”
And while Nola’s wardrobe consisted of authentic hooker gear (Brewer sought out the same stores where actual working girls shop), Manning couldn’t resist bringing her signature style to the film. “I brought a bunch of my own things — a bathing suit top, a Miss Sixty skirt, a Born Uniqorn tube top — to the set,” she says. “Maybe people will pick up on the look. Trends hit so fast, but I always try to find the next thing because they get so old and tired. Like boots over jeans here [at Sundance]. That is just taking over the world,” she says, rolling her eyes.
Manning is dressed in white Miss Sixty jeans, a Born Uniqorn fleece hoodie and white vintage Tecnica nylon booties bought off eBay. She had better look cool. Now that the Paramount/MTV-funded “Hustle and Flow” marketing machine has kicked into gear, Manning is ready to put herself on the line again. “I’m looking for a Born Uniqorn backer, and a new record deal for my second album,” she says (the single “Don’t Be So Shy” is already on the soundtrack of her next film, “A Lot Like Love” co-starring Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet). And, like any good actress-singer, she’s developing a reality special about how she made it big.
“I’m going to be pitching MTV. Look what it did for Ashlee Simpson. I want to get in on that game.”