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'The Real Thing'
Amy Adams Enchants, Impresses in Nun's Role

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. Bounding out of a suite at the Four Seasons, just after lunch, she floods the hotel's 14th-floor hallway with radiance, red hair and Carole King lyrics.

"I feel the Earth. Move. Under my feet," she sings joyfully.

She shimmies, then makes jazz hands, as if life is but a musical.

Break into song for no apparent reason much?

"Yes!" Amy Adams chirps. "It's actually a pretty common occurrence to find me doing that." She giggles. "I'm getting over a cold, so I've got a gravel in my voice that I don't normally have. It's kind of fun to hear how your voice sounds, so I thought I'd sing a little."

Not that she needed an excuse. As a child in Castle Rock, Colo., she says, "everyone could be having a conversation, and I'd be off twirling in the corner, just singing and dancing in my own world." In high school, she was "the dork who sang 'The Little Mermaid' in the hall." Eventually, the dork became the belle of Disney's ball, starring last year in the studio's big feature "Enchanted" -- a role that called for Adams to break into song in Central Park. Nice work if you can get it: After beating out 300 other actresses at an audition, she found herself singing on the Academy Awards and hosting "Saturday Night Live" within a span of two weeks.

The Earth is still moving under her dainty little feet: Yesterday, Adams received a Golden Globe nomination for her supporting performance in "Doubt," which opens today.

She's a late-arriving It Girl who last month, at the age of 34 -- after doing dinner theater for eight years, then scuffling for several years in Hollywood -- found herself on the cover of Vanity Fair, looking all Rita Hayworth. The sexually charismatic come-hither look was an outlier, though, for the appeal of Amy Adams is about something much more innocent and pure.

If she is, in fact, America's beloved new sweetheart -- and she seems to have ascended to the position while Jennifer Aniston was off brooding about Brad, and Julia Roberts was off being semi-retired on some New Mexico ranch -- it's because Adams is probably the most incessantly and infectiously cheerful actress in the business. That, and she's beatific, like Ingrid Bergman, and has the endearing, goofy charm of Meg Ryan, both on- and off-screen. "I laugh a lot and tend to be really silly," Adams says.

She's a sunny delight, an open-hearted Good Girl who tends to play the part on-screen, whether it's Princess Giselle in "Enchanted," a ditsy, braces-wearing nurse in "Catch Me if You Can," a perky congressional aide in "Charlie Wilson's War," or an effervescent, super-pregnant chatterbox in the indie comedy "Junebug," a role for which Adams received an Oscar nomination. "I call them my lovely girls," she says.

Adams plays another lovely girl -- a lovely nun, actually -- in "Doubt," the adaptation of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play. Set in 1964, it's about a severe, cynical Catholic-school principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), who is convinced that the charismatic priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), has sexually abused the first black student to enroll at the Bronx school. As Sister James, Adams plays an ingenue who believes in the goodness of humanity but gets caught in the crossfire of Sister Aloysius's crusade against Father Flynn.

"Amy's inherently bright and cheerful, which makes her extremely right for the role," says "Doubt" writer-director Shanley. "Movie stars have a story that's larger than any story that they're in; it goes on. Amy's story is that she knows that the world is good, and the people around her don't, whether it's in 'Enchanted' or 'Junebug' or 'Doubt.' She brings that intelligent innocence to each of these parts and is able to gradually bring people into her worldview, through the power of her knowledge of goodness."

On "Doubt," Adams worked with acting greatness and lived to tell about it. Throwing herself between Streep and Hoffman, she easily could have been swallowed whole, or at least eaten alive by her own insecurities, which she said she "had to deal with" during a three-week rehearsal. In the film, she's a bright, powerful presence, with Streep calling her performance "masterful" -- a bit of hyperbole that actually means something coming from a 14-time Oscar nominee who knows from masterful.

"She presents as a virgin," Streep says, sounding delighted. "The complete goodness of the character -- that was the task of [playing] Sister James, who is like a virgin in the world." Streep worked with Adams again on "Julie & Julia," an upcoming movie about a young woman's quest to cook every recipe in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." She adds: "I very was impressed. She's the real thing."

Adams is a wisp of a thing, with a dainty ballet-dancer's body. Her eyes are blue-green marbles, which really pop off the screen in the somewhat monochromatic "Doubt." She's wearing a brilliant diamond engagement ring. (Sorry, boys, she's engaged to an actor, Darren Le Gallo.) She has silky, milky skin and rosy-pink cheeks. She sort of looks like a doll; "Enchanted" director Kevin Lima once said he was struck by how much "she looks like a Disney character." Snow White with red hair, maybe -- though she's not really a redhead. She dyed it for a role and never went back to blond. Good career move, as it turned out.

"Everyone's always like: 'You're so typecast,' " Adams says, referring to the recent roles on her CV. "But actually, when I came out to L.A., I was always the bitchy girl." What changed? "My hair!"

Adams started playing bad girls immediately after arriving in Hollywood in 1999: Her first part was as a vicious vixen on "Manchester Prep," a canceled Fox series that wound up going direct-to-video as a movie, "Cruel Intentions 2." "It's so funny because the series was dropped for being inappropriate," Adams says. "And I watch 'Gossip Girl' now and I'm like, WHAAAAAAAT? Our show was, like, classy and downright innocent compared to what's happening on TV now."

Still, fond memories for Adams, who did plenty of similar TV and film work during the first few years of her Hollywood existence. "Finding clever ways to be bitchy was fun. . . . I'm looking for another bad girl now."

Oh?

"I've never played super-dark in a film. I think I'd be curious to do it. If a character comes along that I find really compelling and it works out that the director wants to go that direction with me, I'm totally willing to try. I've actually auditioned, but I think people have a hard time making the leap from -- I don't want to use this as a cop-out, but my energy is not dark, my being is not dark."

For all of the effervescence that she projects publicly and professionally, though, Adams insists that she does have moments of private, personal gloom. She'd just rather keep them private, is all.

"Oh, gosh -- I can be very dark," she says. "Of course I can. . . . Light can't exist without dark. It just can't. But if my darkness comes out in public, people are going to be so confused, like, 'Who's this girl?' I become very Eeyore." She sighs, just like the mopey Winnie-the-Pooh sidekick, and suddenly you can envision her curled up on the couch at home, watching Dr. Phil in her pajamas.

"Yes!" she says. "That is exactly it! I can't return any phone calls because I just can't bear the world today. Shut the drapes." She pretends to cry. "I'm having a day. I can't talk to anybody. I'm so sad!"

Wouldn't be very princess-like to parade that dark side in public, says Adams, who also manages to keep herself out of tabloid trouble. "I don't want the kids to see me like that," she says. "I take that very seriously. I don't even want parents to introduce me as Giselle when they recognize me and I'm having an ugly day. Like when I'm in the elevator in the hotel, coming up from the gym. 'Honey, look who it is!' I'm like: 'Oh, don't. Please don't. It's not gonna be nice. She's gonna stop believing in princesses.' "

The things you have to think about when you've Arrived.

Adams did not necessarily follow a well-trod path to cover girl-dom. She was an Army brat, born in Italy, raised mostly in Colorado, after a brief stop at Fort Belvoir. "That was kind of before my memory kicked in. But I've seen pictures; looks like a lovely place," she jokes.

She was the middle child among seven; her parents divorced when she was 11, leaving the Mormon church at the same time. Adams didn't have any particular aptitude for academics, but she loved to sing and dance, so she decided to try to make a career out of it, taking a job at a dinner theater in Boulder, Colo.

"It was better than working at the Gap," she says. Also better than Hooters, where Adams was employed ever-briefly -- just long enough to buy a used car. "I started performing, of course, out of a love for it, but also out of necessity. It's been a long journey to find my true path as an artist, because there was so much necessity for so long. I'm still on that journey."

For eight years, across three states, Adams worked in dinner theater, a world that she describes as tough, both for the competitive cattiness among the performers and the physical demands of the performances. "I had a lot of recurring injuries -- bursitis in my knees, pulled muscles in my groin, my adductor and abductor. My body was wearing out." While working in Minnesota, Adams landed a role in the beauty-pageant sendup "Drop Dead Gorgeous," which was shooting locally. She became friendly with the actress Kirstie Alley, who persuaded Adams to move to Hollywood.

So she did, arriving in January 1999. "I thought maybe I could get on a soap opera, maybe get to do some commercials. When I moved out here, I must have, somewhere in my heart, believed in abundance -- meaning that the work of acting in film and television is not meant for special people. There's not an exclusive amount of it that only goes to the most beautiful, the most talented, the most special people in the world."

Adams got work -- small roles here ("Psycho Beach Party") and there ("That '70s Show") -- and also got schooled, learning how to perform in front of a camera, which, she discovered, wasn't the same as stage acting. "I had trouble being open when I first started acting on film," she says. "I felt extremely vulnerable. Maybe it was the nature of the work, the microscope that's on you on a set. I never went to a conservatory and didn't study anywhere; I went straight into doing musical theater and dinner theater, so I'd come up with what worked for me. But it didn't work for every situation, so I had to study with a coach who helped me get over myself, essentially, and not worry about feeling exposed."

The breakthrough appeared imminent six years ago, when Adams played Leonardo DiCaprio's fiancee in "Catch Me if You Can." But the bigger roles didn't come. "Amy got tons of attention for [the role], and she deserved every bit of it," the movie's director, Steven Spielberg, told Elle magazine. "What surprised me was how little she worked after our film came out. . . . That was the part that should have launched her career."

Adams thought about giving up -- or, at least, going to New York "to get back into musicals and put my dancing shoes back on. When I was shooting 'Junebug,' I was like, 'I don't know if I want to keep doing this. I don't know if I'm going to be artistically satisfied by this in the long run.' " But the indie comedy wound up earning Adams her first Oscar nod in 2006, and then came "Enchanted" and all that has followed.

Not that she's ready to revel in her success. The whole thing feels far too tenuous, she says. "I think I spent so much time kind of on the road to getting work that I don't know that I'll ever feel comfortable. Do you know what I mean? I guess I'll have to work on it, but the struggle is such a part of my being and part of my makeup that I can never being complacent and not work hard."

She says that when she hosted "Saturday Night Live" in March, she was "so super-focused on the task at hand, like a ninja," that the cast and crew seemed to worry that she wasn't enjoying herself. "They kept saying, 'Are you having fun?' I was like" -- and here, she clenches her teeth -- "Yes, a really. Good. Time." She laughs. "I've met several of them since then, and I said, 'I'm so glad we got to meet again. You know, I'm actually a lot of fun! I'm a hoot!' "

Oh, right. We heard something about that. It was the director Shanley who said that Adams had saved the "Doubt" wrap party. Following the somber and intense shoot, everybody got together at a karaoke bar in Queens, and it was not going well. "It was kind of dismal," Shanley says. "And then she grabbed that microphone and put on the Amy Adams show. She got my friend to sing 'You Don't Bring Me Flowers,' and they brought down the house. Amy really wants life to work, she wants community to work. She's a real people-pleaser. It's a lovely thing to see."

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