Whereas most celebrities take pains to hide their personal relationships from the press, 34-year-old Amy Adams brings hers along to breakfast.
This morning, she has shown up for an interview at her local Sunset Boulevard eatery with her betrothed, actor Darren Le Gallo, in tow. “He was hungry,” she explains with a sunny smile. Adams made her name playing a character with a similar sense of cheerful openness in 2005’s indie hit Junebug. As the pregnant motormouth Ashley, the only member of a deeply Southern family to welcome a new sister-in-law into the fold, she won the hearts of audiences at Sundance and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She also established herself as the go-to girl in Hollywood to play a wide variety of persevering optimists, including Giselle, the fairytale beauty lost in New York in Disney’s 2007 musical comedy Enchanted.
At today’s breakfast, Adams has much to smile about, given her two starring roles alongside Meryl Streep, first in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt and next in Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia, due out this year. She also recently wrapped Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian, in which she plays Amelia Earhart. While Adams’ fiancé sketches an elaborate crowd scene on the paper tablecloth, the strawberry-haired ingénue quotes Gershwin, reflects on life in her 30s and sheds a few—mostly happy—tears.
Cristy Lytal (MM): You grew up in a big family. How did that affect your career choice?
Amy Adams (AA): I think the type of family I was raised in had more of an effect on my career choice. We were always encouraged to find something that we wished to do and then try and excel at it.
MM: How did you decide to become an actress?
AA: I always wanted to perform. I did musical theater until I was 24, as a dancer. Usually, it was the featured chorus role, but then I got the lead part at the dinner theater, and that was my launch pad!
MM: What was dinner theater like?
AA: It smelled… at least, occasionally. They should really remove the fish dishes, because that is not pleasant! (laughs) I actually loved it. I didn’t know anything else, so for me that was my Broadway. I took it very seriously and it’s a big part of why I was able to have the stamina to keep going out here in L.A. when things weren’t going well. I’m a worker bee.
MM: Do you want to do more musicals?
AA: I’d do exclusively musicals if they’d let me, because musicals are perfect in that every one of them has a comedic element, a dramatic element and singing and dancing. “Who could ask for anything more?” to quote Gershwin! Usually I don’t have Darren here, and now he’s just blushing for me.
MM: So what swayed you to come to L.A. 10 years ago as opposed to Broadway?
AA: I worked on a film, Drop Dead Gorgeous, and I had a really good time. It coincided with a pulled muscle, and I was tired from eight shows a week. So I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll go to L.A. for a little while and see how it goes.’
MM: It went well considering you soon found yourself in 2002’s Catch Me If You Can. Did being in a Steven Spielberg movie change your fortunes as an actor?
AA: It wasn’t like I had all these roles that were available to me, but the reason I was considered for Junebug is because the director saw me in Catch Me If You Can. For me, as an actress, my personal breakthrough was Junebug. It was the year when I learned that I wasn’t willing to be unhappy to be an actress. I was turning 30 that year, and I was thinking, ‘What do I want? This is my life.’
MM: So you were unhappy before that?
AA: I was too consumed with the ins and outs of my career as opposed to enjoying the work. Doing Junebug helped me really get back to enjoying the work and realizing that I do want to be an actress, and if that means nobody ever sees anything I do, that’s got to be okay. If that means I teach during the day and do a play at night, that’s got to be okay. I had to stop defining success by how society defines success.
MM: It’s ironic that as soon as you made your peace with relative obscurity, Junebug flung you into the spotlight.
AA: That was so bizarre. I remember being at Sundance the day after the awards ceremony. We were walking down the street at night and the snow started falling, and it was the most beautiful thing. I just thought… Oh no! You caught me on a weak day. It was just a… [crying]beautiful moment. Something changed. To see the way that character affected people just blew me away. People really opened up to me because of Ashley, and I was so honored by that. It is a very common thing, miscarriages and pre-term births. I just don’t think people allow women to grieve for children that were never born.
MM: That’s very true.
AA: At the time I was doing it, both of my sisters were pregnant with their first kids and one of them was having a hard pregnancy. She was having a lot of pre-term contractions and was on bed rest, so it was just a crazy year. I don’t know why I’m emotional, but that was probably the most impactful thing that’s ever happened in my career. It opened up a lot of opportunities for me to get to do all sorts of things. I got to do Enchanted! I read that, and I was like, ‘Sorry other girls, nobody else is going to play this.’ I felt like I had been in training my whole life to play Giselle.
MM: What extra work goes into a musical?
AA: I trained for three or four months to do the recording; I was determined not to have to bring in someone else to sing for her. The musical numbers, they can take about two weeks, and it’s so tedious. The big white dress had steel hoops, because it was so big that anything else would collapse.
MM: Do you think the animated version of Giselle looks like you?
AA: She looks like a Disney version; they bring out the best in you. If Darren were to do a drawing of me, it probably wouldn’t be quite as flattering. But it was really cool to see how they captured my movements, how I informed the animation and how they informed me.
MM: How did you create that sense of profound dislocation when Giselle crawls out of the manhole into New York City?
AA: I was listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I wanted something that had that really dreamy, druggy, crazy quality, where you just felt so out of your element and that you’ve been on some strange journey.
MM: Have you used music to help you get into character lately?
AA: Well, oddly enough [Night at the Museum 2 director] Shawn Levy does it. He’ll play music during scenes that don’t involve dialogue, like when Amelia Earhart sees the entire Air and Space Museum and rockets and what happened after her and she is so inspired. It made so much sense to me, because I’m such a musical person.
MM: So were you filming in the actual National Air and Space Museum?
AA: We shot exteriors at the Smithsonian in Washington and at the Lincoln Memorial; they built the interiors of the Smithsonian. The sets were enormous… It was so beautiful, and all of these paintings are going to come to life. I love special effects movies.
MM: It must be more fun to watch them than to act in them, though.
AA: It’s challenging, but I was doing it with Ben Stiller. If you have someone there with you, it makes it a little easier; you don’t feel quite as silly. There’s a lot of talking to nothing—talking to Xs—and jumping over things that aren’t there. But Ben has such a sense of play about him that you’d forget things weren’t there.
MM: Is there room for play and improvisation on a movie that big and effects-driven?
AA: Ben Stiller and Robin Williams together? That is something to be seen. I was trying so hard and the more that I tried to be really stoic, the harder Robin laughed. I would be trying to carry on with the scene. Robin’s like, “And the girl! The girl keeps going! Ahahahaha…” I still get completely weirded out working with these people I saw in movies growing up. I’m like, ‘I need to be so professional.’ I turn into a bit of a try-hard, you know.
MM: Let’s talk about Doubt, which John Patrick Shanley adapted and directed based on his own 2005 Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play. How did you get involved?
AA: I was working on Sunshine Cleaning with Emily Blunt and, oddly enough, she brought it to me. I flew myself to New York and fibbed to John Patrick Shanley that I was already there and met him. I think they had someone else in mind, but I just stayed on it. I’m not like that about every role, but I needed to do this. I’m so attracted to stories of faith—I always have been—and this was such a smart film and such a beautiful play. John Patrick Shanley’s words are so powerful and amazing and I just hadn’t read anything like it. I knew it was an amazing opportunity to really learn something about myself as an actor—and as a person. Of course, the opportunity to work with Meryl and with Philip [Seymour Hoffman] again in that way, that was just terrifying and challenging.
[My character], Sister James, is such a voyeur. Even though she’s a catalyst for what happens, she’s almost like the audience. She’s watching this happen and trying to make a decision about what she believes, on what side she falls, and to sit in that room and get to be a voyeur in the scenes with Philip and Meryl—it doesn’t get any better than that. It was an amazing opportunity to learn something about myself. It was something I knew I would be really proud to be a part of. Without sounding too self-aggrandizing, I think it’s an important film. It’s timeless.
MM: You were raised Mormon?
AA: For a while, yeah. I think that had more of an impact on my values than my beliefs. When you’re raised in that sort of environment, with the “golden rule,” that always carries over. Religious guilt carries over, too. You can’t really misbehave without feeling badly about it—at least I can’t.
MM: Was it shocking to leave the church after your parents divorced?
AA: It was and it wasn’t. When you’re young, you don’t necessarily understand religion. It just seems like it’s more of a community feeling. Being one of seven children, there was always a community. But I missed Sunday school and the arts and crafts. I don’t think a child’s brain can really grasp religious concepts without being indoctrinated a little bit. I remember being really upset because my grandfather drank coffee. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, Grandpa’s going to hell for drinking coffee!’ I cried in Sunday school. But religion can be a positive thing in people’s lives. It provides an amazing support system if you embrace it. There’s always that part of me that wishes that would have been enough, that I could have been happy with that.
MM: In Doubt, religion doesn’t give people much peace of mind or certainty at all. You and Meryl Streep play nuns who begin to suspect the parish priest of pedophilia.
AA: I don’t have the answer of whether he did it or didn’t do it. John Patrick Shanley never told us. We’ll never know the truth.
I think each person’s going to take his or her own experience away from the film… The film kind of represents what’s going on in the country right now: Are we looking for someone to move us forward or are we looking for someone who believes in the old way of doing things? So I’m curious to see what people think.
MM: You followed up Doubt with another project co-starring Streep. Did you learn anything from working with her?
AA: I don’t appear on screen with Meryl in Julie & Julia, so I’m happy that I had the experience of Doubt to learn about her as an actress. Her skill level is just… it’s Meryl Streep! It’s not a fluke, it is 100 percent genuine talent and dedication and work ethic. It’s good for young artists to remember the work ethic of the actor. So much celebrity is “celebrated” without an acknowledgment of the work that goes into it. What I find in common with Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep and so many of these established actors that I’ve worked with is that you can see why they’re there. They’re professionals. We’ve lost so much of that in celebrating fame.
I don’t want to speak for everybody, but I think a lot of young actors need to step it up! I don’t want to read any more stories about people not coming to the set or showing up late. It’s so disheartening and it puts a bad light on all actors. It makes it seem as though the profession is kind of a lark and it’s demoralizing to hear that. On the other side of it there are people like Meryl and Philip, who are examples of true professionals.
MM: In Julie & Julia, you’re playing a real-life woman who decided to cook every single one of Julia Child’s recipes. Why did she do this?
AA: She was turning 30. It was something to do to give her a reason to wake up in the morning. It was after 9/11, when everybody was really looking for a sense of purpose.
MM: Did you have to brush up on your cooking skills to portray her in action?
AA: I took cooking lessons. I cooked through all the recipes that I had to cook for the film. I made bruschetta, I boned a duck, I trussed a chicken, I made hollandaise sauce and mayonnaise and poached eggs. I learned how to cut properly. Doing that film really did change my attitude about cooking. I see it now as a creative pursuit and something so relaxing—a wonderful thing to do at the end of the day instead of a burden.
MM: What initially attracted you to the role?
AA: It was that whole thing of turning 30 that I so identified with. You know, she’s already married, she’s got a life, she’s got a job, but she still doesn’t really feel a true sense of purpose or worth. So that was something I identified with and a story that I don’t think women get to see a lot.
MM: Turning 30 is a difficult milestone.
AA: Twenty-seven to 30 is weird. It’s been the weirdest time in my life as far as self-evaluation.
MM: So do you have any dream roles you’d like to play?
AA: Galinda from Wicked. I’d love to play Elphaba, I just don’t think it’s suited for me. I’m always attracted to roles that are just wrong for me, like Aldonza in Man of La Mancha. It’s like, ‘Let’s see: The odds of you playing a Spanish whore are not very good.’ So at some point you have to go with your strengths and not lament the person you will never be.
MM: You’ve certainly become a bit of a specialist in playing optimists.
AA: There’s something about the destruction of innocence that I find fascinating. I feel like I’ve played other types of roles, though. I did Sunshine Cleaning, where I’m not optimistic at all. Or maybe I am. Maybe it’s just my face.
MM: Well, in Sunshine Cleaning, you do play someone who keeps on going despite tough circumstances, namely having to clean up crime scenes.
AA: I’m definitely attracted to people who try to make the best of it. That’s what I’m attracted to in life, as well. I tend not to like people who wallow.
MM: Is that a bit Mormon?
AA: It could be.
MM: Cheerfulness is a virtue?
AA: Yes, I would say so. That’s in my genes.
MM: It’s not in Catholicism. You don’t have to be cheerful. You can wallow and still be considered virtuous, like Meryl’s character.
AA: That’s true. I look forward to playing those characters as I evolve as a person and as an actress. I think I have certain physical limitations that it’ll take some age to get over.
MM: Where to next?
AA: Right now I’m on a bit of a hiatus getting ready to open Doubt. I’m excited about that, to see people’s reaction to it. I hope it sparks conversation and debate; it’s fun when a film can do that.
MM: Long-term plans?
AA: Maybe New York. I would like to go away and get all craggy out of the public eye. I’m looking forward to aging out of the ingénue. I’m looking forward to my Helen Mirren and Judi Dench years. MM
This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Fall 2008 issue.
Featured image photograph by Michael Yada, courtesy of AMPAS.