'Right now the world needs more feelgood moments'
Nominated for five Academy Awards with no win, and garnering buzz this year already, is Amy Adams the new Leonardo DiCaprio? Robbie Collin meets the actress
The thing Amy Adams found hardest about musical theatre was the teaspoons. In her early 20s, Adams was a chorus girl in a chain of Minnesota 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 says, with a haunted look. "So every night you'd have this clink, clink, clink throughout the second act." She evokes the sound by poking the air with her index fingers, in a way that suggests the eaters might as well have been tapping their spoons on the cast's foreheads.
"But that's the thing about dinner theatre," she continues. "It's a wonderful" - here a tactful pause - "training ground for focus. You have to sing right on through the plate-scraping."
Adams is now 42, and her journey 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 Princess Giselle in the Disney musical 'Enchanted' - a part that embraced, or perhaps healthily sent up, her concrete-grinned show-business roots.
She'll return to the role next year in a long-planned sequel, titled 'Disenchanted', in which Giselle, tied down and de-fairy-taled, will question whether her ever-after with Patrick Dempsey is really as happy as all that.
She reveals Disney have been pressing her to make the film for five 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."
Also, in the interim, she's had a lot on. Adams has been, among other things, a demure, dormouse-y 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').
At the moment you basically can't move for her. In 'Nocturnal Animals', a riddling, Russian doll-constructed thriller from the fashion designer Tom Ford, she plays a gallery owner whose writer ex blows back into her life via an enigmatic but un-put-downable manuscript. And in 'Arrival', she plays another woman absorbed in words - though here, her obsession has reality-bending consequences.
'Arrival' is science-fiction. There are even aliens in it, who turn up in the skies above earth one day for reasons that aren't immediately clear. 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 writing or speech, though, working out how will not be easy.
Adams sat down with linguists to at least understand what the job comprised ("I had this idea that it was like being an interpreter, but there's so much more to it"), though it was her co-star Jeremy Renner, who plays a theoretical physicist, who "really did" become fanatical about getting the abstract stuff straight in his head.
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's 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 says. "And we made her vulnerable too, but you need that vulnerability to sell what comes later."
To that end, Adams has taken on her first active producing role on 'Sharp Objects', a forthcoming HBO miniseries based on the same-named novel by Gillian 'Gone Girl' Flynn. "Anyone who's read the book will know this girl I'm playing has a lot of issues," she says. "But if you give voice to that, women can see themselves represented on screen in a different way."
As the fourth of seven children, born on an Italian army base and raised in suburban Colorado by Mormon parents who divorced when she was 12, Adams is someone for whom adapting comes naturally.
After her father left the army he became a club singer; her mother was a gym instructor and amateur bodybuilder: Adams remembers 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 came stints as a greeter at Gap and a hostess at Hooters, an American theme restaurant where men go to drink beer and have their egos feather-dusted by pretty 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 giving herself time to heal. When the cameras started rolling, she was bitten.
"Beforehand I thought movie stars made movies, not girls from Minnesota in the chorus of a dinner theatre," she says. "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 just became completely obsessed."
She moved to Los Angeles at 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 then husband, the artist Darren Le Gallo - they'd been in the same acting class for a year.
In the film, she's a nurse who falls for DiCaprio's master con-artist Frank Abagnale during the latter's short spell winging it as a doctor. For Adams, it was a shot of the good stuff, but it didn't translate into steady work. For the next three years, she was a self-declared "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.
Adams auditioned for the former at a mass cattle call before the latter had been released (she was princess 275 of 300). She remembers "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'."
When she left the room, Kevin Lima, 'Enchanted''s director, turned to the casting director and said: "That's Giselle." Disney's plan had been to hire a voice double for Giselle's musical numbers, but Adams retrained her voice, which had grown rusty with disuse - her dinner theatre days were almost 10 years ago - and sold them on it. Princess 275 turned out to be a better deal than anyone expected. Midnight struck long ago, and she's going nowhere.
'Arrival' and 'Nocturnal Animals' are out now. Read Paul Whitington's review of 'Arrival' on page 38