Long-game Adams having her sundae and eating it
Amy Adams sang to diners before becoming an actress and it took her more than a decade to find success is sweet, writes Robbie Collins
Published 13/11/2016 | 02:30
The thing that Amy Adams found hardest about musical theatre was the teaspoons.
In her early 20s, she was a chorus girl in a chain of Minnesotan dinner theatres - a tough circuit, where the artistic value of any given production lies in direct proportion to its ability to distract the audience from their banana splits.
"Inevitably people ordered sundaes," she said, with a haunted look. "So every night you'd have this clink, clink, clink throughout the second act."
She evoked the sound by poking the air with her index fingers, in a way that suggested the diners might just as well have been tapping their spoons on the performers' foreheads.
"But that's the thing about dinner theatre," she continued. "It's a wonderful" - here, a tactful pause - "training ground for focus. You have to sing right on through the plate-scraping."
We were talking in a hotel in London, just off Trafalgar Square. It was 11am and, although Adams apologised effusively for being jet-lagged, she looked more alert than I did. Her make-up was immaculate, her floral dress fanned out on the chaise beside her. Adams is now 42, and her path from someone who dances while you eat pudding to five-time Academy Award nominee might be the single most exciting career arc in present-day Hollywood.
Name-brand fame arrived nine years ago via the role of Giselle in the Disney musical Enchanted - a part that embraced her show-business roots. She'll return to the role next year in a long-planned sequel, titled Disenchanted - in which a tied-down and de-fairy-taled Giselle will question whether her ever-after with Patrick Dempsey is really as happy as all that.
Adams revealed Disney had been pressing her to make the film for years, "and five years ago I was like, 'I just don't think it needs to happen'. But now, especially considering where the world's at, we need another one of those feel-good moments."
Meanwhile, she's had a lot on. Adams has been, among other things, a dormousey nun (in Doubt), the brains and backbone of Philip Seymour Hoffman's bewildering cult (in The Master), a tough-talking boxer's moll (in The Fighter), and a deep-cover con artist (in American Hustle) with the most perilous necklines since Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
That kind of career can't be pulled off without serious range and depth, and when Adams is granted space to work (that is, away from the smoggy muddle of the DC Comics films, in which she is Superman's squeeze Lois Lane), every performance feels exploratory, inquisitive and engaged.
This month, she's everywhere. Nocturnal Animals, a riddling, Russian doll-like thriller from the fashion designer Tom Ford, casts her as a gallery owner whose writer ex-husband sends her an enigmatic but unputdownable manuscript.
In Arrival, aliens turn up in the skies above Earth. Adams plays Dr Louise Banks, a linguist who's enlisted by the US military for the purpose of saying hello. Given the visitors' lack of anything that looks or sounds like human language, though, working out how will not be easy. It is proper, tricky sci-fi, based on Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Chiang's short story was in turn inspired by the Sapir-Whorf complex: a theory that holds that, since each language is a way of decoding the world, learning a different one might unlock new ways of perceiving reality.
Adams's character shows such a persuasive command of the theory on screen that it was a genuine jolt when she said her own "tiny little artist brain" never quite managed to make sense of it. (I know, I know: acting, but I still wondered if she was just being modest.)
"I know from years of struggling with mathematics that at some point you just have to accept who you are," she said, laughing. "But what I learn prepping for roles like this, when the character's mind works so differently from mine, is that I have to connect with the emotional truth of what they're doing, and the intellectual truth just kind of falls into line."
Despite the film's swirling anxiety, the shoot sounded pleasant and pain-free: director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) is a famously laid-back film-maker, "and I know this is a strange thing to say, but it was such a quiet set", Adams remembered. That's in contrast to The Fighter and American Hustle, both of which were directed by the bombastic David O Russell, whose tirades Adams admitted made her cry on set.
"That creates an anxious thing in a different way," she added. "But good anxious! Stuff comes of it." As a female lead in a science fiction film, Arrival's Louise is a scarce creature. And she might have been scarcer still: when Eric Heisserer's screenplay started circulating, one studio executive asked if her character could be rewritten as a man.
For Adams, that was missing the point. "I don't see Louise as a quote-unquote strong woman, but she uses female strengths, like her intellect and instinct, in order to stand up to the militarised world she's navigating," she said.
"And we made her vulnerable too, but you need that vulnerability to sell what comes later."
Adams is the fourth of seven children. She was born on an Italian army base and raised in Colorado by Mormon parents, who divorced when she was 12. She is someone for whom adapting comes naturally. After her father left the military, he became a club singer, and her mother was a gym instructor and amateur bodybuilder. Adams remembered waiting backstage at competitions with her siblings while her mum flexed on the other side of the curtain.
Her first ambition was to dance, and she more or less went straight from high school to the dinner-theatre gig. In-between were stints as a greeter at Gap and a hostess at Hooters, an American theme restaurant to which men go to drink beer and have their egos feather-dusted by pretty young women. (She quit after three weeks.)
After tearing a muscle in her knee, she auditioned for a film that was shooting locally - the beauty pageant comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous, with Kirstie Alley and Kirsten Dunst - to keep working while still convalescing.
When the cameras started rolling, she was smitten. "Beforehand I thought movie stars made movies, not girls from Minnesota in the chorus of a dinner-theatre," she said. "So when I realised I could use what I'd learnt to pursue film acting - and not just chase a dream, but make a living - I became completely obsessed."
She moved to Los Angeles aged 24, got an agent, and hit the audition circuit.
Three years on, she was convinced she'd found her big break: a major supporting role in Catch Me If You Can, the new Steven Spielberg film, in which she'd play opposite Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio. It was a good luck year: she also met her future husband, the artist Darren Le Gallo - they'd been in the same acting class for a year. (They got engaged in 2008, their daughter Aviana arrived in 2010, and they married in California last year.)
For Adams, Catch Me If You Can was a shot of the good stuff, but it didn't translate into steady work. For the next three years, she was a "disaster", without a "really strong sense of self" to guide her towards roles that fit.
Two films broke the drought. One was Enchanted, the other a 2005 indie comedy called Junebug, in which she plays the heavily pregnant small-town sister-in-law of a big-city art dealer, and for which she received her first Oscar nomination. The way the release dates fell, you might assume Enchanted was some kind of reward for Junebug. But in fact Adams auditioned for the former at a mass cattle call before the latter had reached the screen (she was princess 275 of 300).
She remembered "reading the script and thinking - and I'm not the kind of person who usually believes they're the only one for a role - 'Well, I don't know who else they're going to get to do this, to be quite honest'."
So it proved. When she left the room, Kevin Lima, Enchanted's director, turned to the casting director John Papsidera and said: "That's Giselle."
Disney's original plan had been to hire a voice double for Giselle's musical numbers, but Adams retrained her voice, which had grown rusty with disuse, and sold them on it.
Princess 275 turned out to be a better deal than anyone expected. Midnight struck long ago, but she's still having a ball.