Thursday, March 6, 2008

Amy Adams' 'Enchanted' journey to 'Miss Pettigrew'

The word "focus" comes up a lot in conversation with Amy Adams, mostly at her end. And when she's in conversation, you understand why. She shares with the more successful contemporary politicians the ability to aim her bright blue eyes directly at your dimmer, darker pair and make you feel as though you're the only one in the universe she's noticing.

Of course, that's easier to pull off in one-on-one hotel-room colloquies like the ones the 33-year-old star of "Enchanted" had been having all day recently to help promote her newest film, "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day," which opens today. But you do get the feeling that she'd behave the exact same way toward you in a crowded room, to the exclusion of everyone else.

Such focus has barely given Adams the time to notice how much more recognizable she's become since "Enchanted," the blockbuster Disney musical fairy tale that opened last Thanksgiving to reviews that all-but-unilaterally praised her magnetic performance as a fairy princess marooned in Manhattan.

"The first day of this junket," she says, referring to the "Miss Pettigrew" campaign, "I'm out with my brother and sister-in-law, who are in town. And they're the ones who are looking around and noticing how people are responding to me in a different way. I honestly have no sense of this whatsoever and I don't know if it's because I have blinders on or not."

A state of busyness

Even when "Enchanted" opened to shimmering acclaim, Adams says she was so embedded in rehearsals for "Doubt," the forthcoming film version of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, in which she co-stars with Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, that she barely noticed the reaction.

"The only way I was able to sort of get any kind of an honest reaction to 'Enchanted' was with this class of kids I was working with in 'Doubt.' [Adams plays a nun teaching in a mid-1960s New York parochial school.] And most of them knew me from playing Giselle in 'Enchanted,' and I was picking up their excitement and enthusiasm, which is so much more valid than, you know, all the celebrity hype."

Adams seems to have kept her head down in a perpetual state of busyness since she was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar two years ago for playing a winsome Carolina naif in "Junebug." She's since taken on roles of all sizes in such disparate projects as "Talladega Nights," "Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny," "Underdog" (that's her voice speaking for Polly Purebred) and " Charlie Wilson's War."

The script for "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" came to Adams while she was working on "Enchanted" and she immediately went to England to work on this brightly colored farce, set in pre-World War II London, in which she plays a flighty-but-ambitious actress named Delysia Lafosse, who befriends the dowdy ex-governess ( Frances McDormand) she's unwittingly taken on as a social secretary.

"I'd met Frances when we'd been nominated together that same year for the same Oscar," Adams says. "I always knew she was a fantastic actress. But working with her, I got so much out of her work ethic, generosity and her sense of play. She spends most of the movie, especially the first part, reacting to all this wild stuff Delysia does. But she's got such an ... active sense of reacting that I never felt I was doing everything in isolation. I learned so much from her."

Delysia is the latest in what would seem to be a series of roles for Adams requiring her to project a sense of wonder so luminous that it almost explodes. Granted, she's somewhat more grasping than "Enchanted's" Giselle, but both share a beguiling effervescence concealing a dark streak of vulnerability and, in Delysia's case, desperation.

"I tend to be attracted to pretty larger-than-life characters," says Adams, whose carries her 5-foot-5-inch stature with the poise of the ballet dancer she was originally trained to be. "But I always try to find what's underneath. So here's this woman from America on her own in London and she's probably a much better actress in her own life than she would be on the stage. But it turns out her social background isn't what it seems to be and there's urgency in her to use everything she can, not to get ahead so much as to keep from starving, from being homeless. It's not dwelt upon too much in the movie, but that's what I kept in the back of my mind to keep her reality in focus."

"Too much pressure"

Adams, an Army brat born in Italy, but raised mostly in Colorado, has apparently been too focused on developing her craft to share Delysia's lurking anxieties. But before her "Junebug" breakthrough, she concedes to feeling in, at best, a professional holding pattern.

"I had so many ... I don't want to say 'false starts' exactly. But before 'Junebug,' I'd done 'Catch Me If You Can' [the 2002 biopic of a con man played by Leonardo DiCaprio] and maybe I allowed myself to think that after working with Steven Spielberg things would get better. And they didn't. I don't know why. Maybe I was too nervous, too much pressure." After a succession of TV appearances, she even considered relocating from Los Angeles to New York "and do more stage work and find other ways to fulfill myself and accomplish my goals because I realized I wasn't happy going to so many auditions."

Adams now feels differently about that gray-sky time in her life. "I have to say that all that auditioning made me a better actress. I learned the kind of dedication it takes to prepare an entire character three different times each week. It's great practice for being busy. And, God knows," she says with a grin, "I've been pretty busy lately."

By Gene Seymour for Newsday

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