INTERVIEW - AMY ADAMS
What does it mean to say that an actor is "having a moment"?
In the case of Amy Adams--a young woman who, over the past decade, has worked her way up from dinner theater productions, through teen-oriented movies, to critical acclaim--it means starring in last November's Enchanted (one of 2007's biggest hits), appearing opposite Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in last December's Charlie Wilson's War, and having her name attached to some of the biggest projects of the year ahead.
BRAD GOLDFARB: With the kind of attention your recent and upcoming projects have gotten it seemed to us a great moment for the world to hear you speak for yourself, so let me start by asking you this: The acting business obviously carries with it all sorts of pressures. What is it about acting that makes all that worthwhile for you?
AMY ADAMS: Well, it's funny that you say "What is it about the business" because "What is it about the craft" is where it all started for me. I'd always been interested by human behavior and I think that acting has made me a more empathetic person. The other stuff that comes with it hasn't gotten in the way. I've managed to exist in this world for about nine years now without having any sort of negative side effects. What keeps me invested is the people that I meet, the work that I get to do, and the life that I'm getting to live, which is pretty exciting.
BG: In a number of your performances you manage to communicate yearning in a palpable way. That quality makes me wonder: What do you yearn for?
AA: A good night's sleep! [laughs] ... Seriously, though, it sounds so cliche but I'd have to say happiness--understanding what that means. When you get to a point where you've achieved things, it makes you say, "I think there's more to be done." You see a turn in the road and wonder, "What would happen if I took that left?" So I just yearn to know the truth about who I might become outside the path I set out on. And I think I share that with a lot of my characters.
BG: You've worked a long time to get where you are today. Are you ever afraid that it all might just go away?
AA: Well, it's not as though I just stepped off the bus into this, so I kind of feel that the only thing that I have to be scared of is going back to where I was, and it's okay there. I would hate for it all to go away tomorrow, but if it did, I would hope that I made the most of it while I was here. Look, I know there will come a time when people are going to be like, "Oh, what was she thinking?" And in an abstract way I look forward to that, to see what that brings, because I've done the not working thing, I've done the sort of working/sort of not working thing, and then I've done the get a big movie and everyone expects you to do well and then after that you don't work for a year thing. So I've had those experiences, and the one I'm having now is just a different one. It's all very interesting, and fun. It has its downsides, of course, and I do get a little scared, but more about things like not having the money to send my future kids to college.
BG: Tell me about Castle Rock, Colorado.
AA: It's very different now, but when I was growing up there it was a lot of land. I belonged to something called "humanities," which was a theater hot spot, and the kids there taught me how to smoke, which I no longer do but we would sit at the Village Inn and drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and try to be really cool. I never really belonged to any one group in high school, though. I wanted to but I sort of fell through the cracks. It's not that anyone was mean to me; I just think that for the most part people were indifferent, and sometimes that hurts worse. You know, "She's nice enough but ..." And I didn't have time to do much of anything outside of school because of ballet. I did that from about 12 to 17, and then I stopped and started training in musical theater and I ended up doing that until I moved to Los Angeles when I was 24.
BG: Why did you give up ballet?
AA: Ultimately I had to admit that I wasn't good enough and that I didn't have enough natural talent. I probably could've danced with a company, but I would have always had to work really hard just to keep a position.
BG: So prior to doing musical theater you hadn't really acted before?
AA: No, I was terrified to open my mouth! I was always jealous of those kids in high school who were so cocky and acted like they were going to take the world by storm. I loved to perform, but I just couldn't make that declaration; even when I got to Los Angeles I was like, "I may try to be an actor." It took me a long time to say, "I am an actor."
BG: I understand you got your first acting work in dinner theater. What's that world like?
AA: Well, there are different kinds--it's not all to be lumped into one variety, but the one where I started, we waited tables and then we would get up and do A Chorus Line. The problem was, of course, that the show is performed without intermission, so when are people going to get their dessert? This was always a big problem* I was a really bad waitress, but I had the time of my life there. That show lasted for three months, and then I went to another theater which has since closed. Eventually I ended up in Minnesota at a theater company where you did not have to wait tables.
BG: Okay, a step up.
AA: Yes, absolutely. But it was always remarkable to me how talented the people in these theaters were. When I arrived at Chanhassen in Minnesota I was stunned--the dancers were awesome and all of them could sing. I ended up staying there for three years. There were times when I first arrived in Los Angeles where I would pine for that time when I knew exactly what was in front of me, and every day was the same. I really loved that security and schedule. The people I worked with there were also a great family to me. They spoiled me, and then I come out to Los Angeles and whew!
BG: Though you came out for a job, right?
AA: No, I did Drop Dead Gorgeous  in Minnesota, so I had a little bit of experience and knew that getting film work was a possibility. I think that's almost all you have to know.
BG: What was your family's response to your decision to become an actor?
AA: They knew I was serious so they were definitely supportive, though when I moved out to L.A., I think they were like, "Do you really understand what you're getting into?" Not that they necessarily understood what I was getting into, so it was a big mystery to all of us.
BG: Are there others in your family who are in the arts?
AA: My brother [Eddie Adams] came out to L.A. with me and started acting for a while. I hope he goes back to it because he's really good--he played the young Michael York character Basil [Exposition] in Austin Powers 3 [2002's Austin Powers in Goldmember].
BG: How many of you are there?
AA: There are seven of us.
BG: And you fall where?
AA: I'm in the middle.... Oh, you're giving me that look.
BG: [laughs] I'm just trying to recall everything I've ever heard about the psychology of the middle child.
AA: There's a lot of stuff about not getting enough attention, but the truth is, with seven kids, no one's getting enough of anything.
BG: Did being raised Mormon factor heavily in your childhood?
AA: Well, I was raised that way only until I was about 12, when my parents got divorced.
BG: So your family's faith didn't get in the way of your desire to be an actor?
AA: Are you kidding? Mormons are the most performing group of people you've ever met!
BG: When the kids you went to school with watch Enchanted--the story of this fairy-tale princess who gives up the orderly environment of Andalasia for all the noise and chaos and excitement of New York City--do you think they can see the Amy that they knew?
AA: Yeah, because that's kind of what I did--I left the safe world of Castle Rock and went to a bigger environment, and then left that to go to a still bigger, more perilous place. I think they'd also find plenty in common with the choir girl Amy who was always breaking into song.
BG: Were there periods after you moved to L.A. when you began asking yourself, "What have I done? or, "Is it time to get a real job?"
AA: Oh, yeah. There were times when I was going to have to get a real job, but I've been very fortunate to always get either a job or a residual check when I most needed them--residual checks can be so important to the struggling artist! But sure there were those times, and it wasn't just that I felt like it's not going to happen, but also feeling like my best wasn't enough and not really knowing what else to do.
BG: Was there someone along the way who really believed in you and encouraged you?
AA: I had so many people: My manager was a huge supporter. And my lawyer gave me huge support. I was fired from two shows my second year in L.A. One was because I was too young--I knew I was too young and I could feel it coming so that one wasn't too bad. But the second one was sort of terrifying because of the way that it happened. It was right after a table read and they were like, "We'll see you tomorrow!" and then 20 minutes later I get the call. It was just that betrayal that I couldn't overcome.
BG: Why was it terrifying?
AA: Because of the realization that someone could look me in the eye and have me believe something while executing something else. But after that experience my lawyer called and was very supportive and said, "Look, I know it sucks right now, but this happens and you've done such a great job in the year that you've been here, so just keep at it." And then I ended up working with his wife [Embeth Davidtz] in Junebug , so it was neat that when I did have a breakthrough, it tied back to him.
BG: Junebug was a real turning point for you. After that, people were sort of hailing you as an overnight sensation, even though you'd been at it awhile.
AA: Yeah. But that's okay--I mean, I'm overnight to them so I'm not going to complain.
BG: Do you recall a time when you felt like, "Hey, I'm actually a movie star. I made it."
AA: No. It's still so abstract. I mean what is a movie star? It implies this singular vision.
BG: A friend of mine loves to jokingly call certain actors "Hollywood royalty."
AA: Oh, I love that! [laughs] I wouldn't say that I'm Hollywood royalty but I feel like I'm now part of the court. I can go and watch the royalty, and that's fun. But at the same time, it can be a little like the zoo versus a safari--a safari can be a little overwhelming so sometimes it's better to see it from a safe distance.
BG: Many of your roles seem to demonstrate a belief in the power of love.
AA: The characters that I've had the opportunity to play thus far do tend to be seeking something, and as humans that's usually understanding and love. And love is such a strong force, especially in young women. Not to say that it's not in young men as well, but it's much more visceral in young women.
BG: You can really feel that in your character in Catch Me If You Can , and also, obviously, the role of Ashley Johnsten in Junebug.
AA: And in Miss Pettigrew it's ultimately the love of a woman that sees her through. That's the most important relationship in her life thus far--the kindness and patience of that woman she meets for a day. I think because each of these characters is so needy, they're picking up from the people around them. When you're needy, that leaves you very open and vulnerable! So yeah, I do believe in the power of love.
BG: In the space of a month you'll have come out on one end of the spectrum with Enchanted, which is total fantasy, and on the other with Charlie Wilson's War, which deals with the realities of war. Together the two seem to say something about where we are in America right now, both in terms of our desire to escape into fantasy and our instinct that the unpleasant realities facing the world right now are ones that must be addressed. Of course, Enchanted seems to be enchanting everyone who sees it, and while we don't yet know the fate of Charlie Wilson's War, there has clearly not been much of an appetite for the other war-related films that have been released recently.
AA: Well, I think Charlie Wilson's is a little different than those other war movies because it's more a story about characters and about what they did to affect the world than it is about Afghanistan. While it and Enchanted are obviously very different, they're both about people who have an ultimate belief that things are going to turn out great. Charlie Wilson [the character played by Tom Hanks] believed in what he was doing, just as Gust Avrakotos [played by Philip Seymour Hoffman] did, so there is that common denominator. And I think that is something we need in the world today--it's something we're lacking. We live in a world where cynicism is confused with intelligence, so people are looking for a way to escape, and Enchanted is total escapism.
BG: Isn't there even a Giselle doll?
AA: Oh, yeah. There's definitely going to be a big mailing to all my nieces. I keep saying to my boyfriend, Darren, "these have to be from you. It's just too weird for me to send dolls of myself, like 'Love you, love me.' Ewww.
BG: [laughs] Miss Pettigrew struck me as the kind of romantic comedy that they made so many of in the 1930s and '40s and that offered distraction from the Depression and the war. Did you watch a lot of old movies growing up?
AA: I did. I loved Vivien Leigh, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn.
BG: I thought I saw some Marilyn in your Delysia.
AA: Oh yeah, definitely. I won't give it all away, but there were three movies in particular that I watched in preparation because I wanted to make her an amalgam. I thought they were all girls that Delysia would have watched and tried to emulate in terms of their glamour--although Marilyn, of course, would have been a little later. I imagined Delysia grew up during the Depression and fled to England to get away from it, so that creates a certain desperation and a certain "I'11 run over whoever I need to in order to eat." She probably doesn't even want to be a star. She's a little self-centered but it's for the right purpose! And that was a quality I thought a lot of the women had in the movies I used to watch. Even with the women that oversexualized themselves, it never felt accidental. Back then, women in their twenties acted like they were in their forties--look at Greta Garbo: She was doing what she was doing when she was 22, and she comes across as such a self-possessed woman. It was just a completely different era of femininity.... [laughs] As you can see I love a good debate. I'd love it if people read this and went "she's so wrong!" I like it when somebody makes me see something from a new point of view, so I'll often say things with certainty, when really I'm just taking a side.
BG: Do you worry that as you become better known you'll have to curb that impulse?
AA: No, because even though, I'll always stand up for what I think is fair. I'm open to other people's points of view. And that's true artistically as well, because often it opens up a whole range of possibilities.
BG: As you know, this is a special issue on America, so while we're on the subject of expressing yourself: Do you see this as a hopeful time for this country?
AA: I think it's a time of transition. I'm hopeful. But I do think that we have to be mindful.
BG: What gives you hope?
AA: [long pause] I guess I'm still idealistic enough to believe that even if we all have different truths, it won't take something awful to get us all on the same page. Because the truth is that as much as we debate and fuss and pick at other people's ideas and viewpoints, really we all want the same thing. I guess I'd say I'm hopeful because I can't exist any other way. If I lose hope then what am I doing here? Why would I continue to live and work and be part of a country that I love if I didn't think that it was a place where hope could thrive?
BG: Earlier you mentioned Marilyn Monroe as an inspiration, and your performances seem to put you in the tradition of dramatic actresses with a flair for comedy, Has that comic piece always been there for you?
AA: I actually think the comedy came first-I've always felt more comfortable there because I was scared of drama. I didn't really know how to access my emotional side without wounding my own person. Once I learned how to do that it opened up all these doors to me and I realized, You know what? Real life contains moments of laughter followed by uncontrollable sobbing. I love movies that combine the dramatic with the romantic. Because truth is funny--it's the Ah-ha/moment.
BG: Let's talk about Doubt, which I know you just started shooting and which deals with issues of truth, as well as faith, lies, and the difficulty of telling the difference.
AA: Yeah, it's very much how the presence of doubt in one's life can take over.
BG: Is acting a way of trying to sort out some of those things for you?
AA: I find that every film I do becomes a deeply personal experience and my own life starts to manifest these weird realities. With this one we were in rehearsals for three weeks so that was really a fascinating process for me and one that confronted me with my own doubts, because I was in a room with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep. So it's interesting how that then comes into your character and your character comes into you and pretty soon it's a mind meld and the character comes out of your experiences of making the film, as well as what's been written. I'm very fortunate to have Meryl and Philip to work with.... I'm not sure that answered your question, though.
BG: [laughs] My question was whether taking on a role is an opportunity to explore how you feel about something.
AA: Absolutely. And I find that recently I've been playing characters who have questions of faith. It's been interesting to examine why that keeps popping up. And not just faith in God--faith in themselves, faith in somebody else.
BG: Faith in the world they're leaving behind or the one they just arrived in.
AA: Exactly. And sort of understanding that transition and growth. But I think tackling certain characters has definitely helped me in my life because I can't come to the truth about a character when I'm lying to myself. As a result it forces you too look at things and sometimes it is painful and you don't want to deal with it.
BG: Amy, people have been talking about you in the context of being the next big movie star, but you also have a quality that suggests something of the great, old-time stars as well. What are your thoughts?
AA: I think it would be great to be a new version of that but it's a different time today because of the media's pervasiveness. [laughs] It's harder today to have that mystery. Being a celebrity is about much more than having an image or a talent now, it's about being seen, and letting the world really get to know you. And I think at some point you have to make the choice whether to keep going in that direction or to hold back and start defining your own life. You know, Meryl is someone who has her own life and still has a mystery about her as an actress--you don't know what she ate for breakfast or where she went on Saturday night and that allows you to keep her separate from her characters. So I'm going to try to do that as much as I can. It's definitely harder but there are actresses that do it--who are warm and available but still have a piece for themselves. I, on the other hand, always feel like I need to leave a piece of myself behind.
BG: Yet you've managed to not be that person who's splashed all over the tabloids.
AA: Well, I think that helps me to be honest, because I'm not trying to protect something, I'm not trying to keep part of my life secret, I'm not hiding my face.
BG: Do people recognize you on the street?
AA: No. It's starting to happen a little but it's more just kind of curious double-takes. Several times people have said to me, "You look so much like Amy Adams--have you heard that before?" And I'm like, "I actually hear that a lot."
BG: One last big question for you: The images that Albert Watson took of you for this issue are a kind of homage to America--a love letter to Pop America. Other than your very American name, what makes Amy Adams American?
AA: [laughs] I think it's my sense of possibility, which is what this country was founded on--what's possible and what will happen if we try this? I think that that's a part of the American spirit that's still alive today: a sense of freedom. I'm so grateful to have that when you look at the rest of the world. Nothing's perfect now, nor was it ever, but we always have a choice and that is huge. It's like what Gandhi said: "Be the change you wish to see in the world." As Americans, each of us has that opportunity.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALBERT WATSON
Brad Goldfarb is the executive editor of Interview.