She made you laugh and broke your heart as Nola, the drug-abusing, air conditioner-coveting, secretly resourceful hooker in the Oscar-winning film "Hustle & Flow."
Now, Taryn Manning is all about kicking butt and taking names in "Banshee," Oxygen's first foray into the action-suspense thriller genre. It premieres tonight.
The petite actress cuts a completely credible figure as Sage -- nicknamed the Banshee -- a street-wise car thief who loves to lead detectives on high-speed, white-knuckle chases any time they spot her. The game turns deadly one night, however, when Sage picks the wrong mark and steals the vintage car of a baby-faced but ruthless serial killer (Christian Campbell, "Trick") who doesn't care for the role of victim.
After the psycho butchers one of her male pals and kidnaps her best friend, Sage throws herself into a high-kicking and possibly deadly game of cat-and-mouse, abetted by Officer Fitz (Mike Lombardi, "Rescue Me"), a rookie policeman who can't help being attracted to this "good bad girl."
"It was very important to me that you like Sage," Manning, 27, says. "You may not agree with some things she does, and certainly she is pretty hardened by what she has gone through, but I kept looking for moments when you could see her compassion, like when she goes back to save the cop on the train track.
"It was like in 'Hustle & Flow.' It would have been easy for an audience not to care about Nola, this hooker on drugs, because let's face it, our society doesn't care a lot about people like her. Playing a raging bitch can be fun, but I worked hard to show that [Nola] was a girl who, very deep down, actually had a brain and had a plan for her life. The movie ends and you're thinking, 'Man, I wonder what she's going to wind up doing.'"
In addition to offering Manning her first leading role, "Banshee" also offered her a role she felt connected to on a personal level.
"I relate to Sage in many ways," she explains. "All the things she has been through, I've been through kind of similar things in my own life and found a way to come out on the good side. I lost my dad at a young age to suicide, and people who go through those kinds of things tend not to turn out so good.
"I also connected with Sage because she's kind of a soldier. Even though she isn't technically doing the right thing -- after all, she's stealing cars! -- but she's still a good person. She takes care of her one friend. She's always got people's backs. She's loyal. I can relate to that soldier thing, living and dealing with what life has given her."
The icing on the cake was a chance to play a full-throttle action babe, something Manning, a lifelong athlete, found impossible to resist.
"I did all my own stunts," she says proudly. "I got hurt one day during one of the chase scenes, where another car crashed into my car, but they got me some massages and it was OK. My car was an old Dodge, and it was like a tank -- the other car just folded! It was surreal. The stunt driver was actually driving the car from the back seat, and I'm in the front, pretending to be driving, but I had absolutely no control over the car. I could see we were about to run into this car, and there was nothing I could do to stop it because I wasn't the one driving."
The actress gives very high marks to director Kari Skogland, who gives "Banshee" the confident and kinetic visual flash of an independent theatrical film. It's easy to see why The Hollywood Reporter named her one of "10 directors to watch" a few years ago.
"There were a couple of other actresses the network was looking at because they were bigger names, but Kari fought for me because, I guess, it was more important to her to work with an actor instead of a celebrity," Manning says. "To me, that speaks volumes. When any director takes a chance on me, I respect that -- and it shows me that they're talented!" she adds with a laugh.
Now that she has proven she can carry a project, Manning is focused on making sure directors don't pigeonhole her as a gritty, rough-and-tumble actress who can't handle more feminine, mainstream roles. In the face of widespread skepticism, she landed a role opposite Freddie Prinze Jr. in the romantic comedy "Dick and Jane vs. the World," currently filming in Canada.
"Everyone said I couldn't play that kind of a role," she says. "But I put my mind to it, and I'm playing the sweetest girl next door you could imagine. I don't want people to see me one certain way. It's no fun, in fact, it's hurtful being typecast. There are certain people out there, though, who are willing to think outside of the box and give me a chance to prove myself as an actress, to play many different roles."
In the right situation, though, she'd be delighted to slip into Sage's skin again, in case buzz of a "Banshee" sequel or spinoff series turns into a reality.
"There's been some talk of making this a series, and maybe that's in my future somewhere because it seems to keep coming up," she says. "Oxygen isn't the biggest cable network right now, but it's growing and evolving with a lot of exciting stuff going on. I would definitely be up for talking about a series."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun