By the time she was 8 years old, Taryn Manning had become the pint-size queen bee of Tucson’s Skate Country East, a local roller rink where the music was exciting, the boys were flirtatious, and the admission, for her, was often free. ”I remember going there, meeting boys, making out in the bathroom, and going outside to smoke and drink,” she recalls, her voice a raspy drawl. ”I was always the cool, young, sassy one. Rolling around on that floor was a major part of my childhood.”
And sometimes it seems as if Manning, 26, is still stuck spinning in an endless, unbroken loop. Four years after she earned her small but rabid following by playing Kirsten Dunst’s drug-addled best friend in the teen drama crazy/beautiful, Manning — an underrated talent whose small roles always leave big impressions — still hasn’t become a household name, despite the fact that you probably recognize her face. It’s a worn, freckled visage, perfect for registering the wounded rawness behind her striking turn as Nola, the gum-smacking hooker who attempts to keep her fame-hungry pimp, DJay, from losing his cool as he naively tries to score a recording deal in the hip-hop saga Hustle & Flow. ”Maybe my face is edgy,” says Manning, ”but that’s because it’s the face of somebody who’s seen life.”
Indeed, tumult has known Manning since she was in diapers. Her parents’ marriage hit an impasse when she was 2 months old, and her mother, Sharyn, took Manning and her brother, Kellin, to Arizona. ”My dad was a big drinker and he was cheating. My mom fled with us kids in the middle of the night.” Childhood in a trailer park was tough but happy, and Sharyn insisted on enrolling her daughter in dance, karate, and acting classes despite their limited income. When she was 14, her troubled musician father, Bill, committed suicide. It’s apparent that Manning — who says that the sight of keepsakes like her father’s duffel bag and football still elicit tears — has channeled her pain into roles that have become her trademark: a pregnant teen in Britney Spears’ Crossroads, Eminem’s ex-girlfriend in 8 Mile, and one of the whorish Sirens — are you sensing a pattern yet? — who attempt to seduce Jude Law in Cold Mountain.
Director Craig Brewer wasn’t familiar with her oeuvre when he began casting Hustle & Flow, but in one of those serendipitous, only-in-Hollywood moments, he spotted Manning in the pages of a photography book, and was convinced that the actress who played Nola should look just like her. Only later, when he showed his casting director the image, did he learn who she was. ”There are some people who put on trashy like a wardrobe, and Taryn can play those roles with dignity and earnestness,” he marvels. ”You look at her and it puts you in a very difficult place. You want to protect her and care for her…and then…” — a naughty inflection emerges — ”…you wanna f— her, too.”
Reactions like that present a conundrum for Manning, who, despite relishing her role as Nola — and her wild-child part in the upcoming Dandelion — is still desperate to prove that she can play more than just hussies. (Already she plans to class it up by removing the girlish tattoos — a unicorn, a Sanskrit symbol, and a cursive I (heart) BOYS — that adorn her left arm.) ”People won’t see me for particular roles, and it can be heartbreaking,” she says. ”So maybe [playing Nola] is not the best idea if I’m worried about being typecast, but I’ve never had the opportunity to sink my teeth into a role this big before.”