But talk to the actress who plays her in this Friday's period comedy "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" -- and somehow makes this duplicitous person adorable -- and you get a very different view.
"I always try to find what's happening underneath these characters," says Amy Adams, 33, looking elegant in a cowl-neck sweater and black velvet pants. "And it was all there, in the script, about where she'd come from, and what little she had. I thought it was so human, you know, and so identifiable. I understood why she was misbehaving."
For Adams -- a petite, polite performer who quit her teenage job at Hooters when they insisted she wear the standard tight shorts and T-shirt -- forgivingly dubbing all this as mere "misbehaving" is pretty typical.
But even more typical of the actress is how she's able to take a character who, in other hands, might seem annoyingly naive or even slightly batty, and turn her into someone real and deeply sympathetic.
"Amy's not this Machiavellian manipulator," says "Pettigrew" director Bharat Nalluri. "She's very simple with the way she deals with things, very direct. She's a very normal, natural human being, and I think people respond to that onscreen. You see that she really is the girl next door and you just instantly like her."
It happened in 2002 in "Catch Me If You Can," when Adams played the terminally innocent Brenda. It happened in last year's "Enchanted," in which she played a -- quite literally -- cartoon princess come to live in Manhattan. And it happened in 2005's "Junebug," where she played an enormously pregnant, prattling country girl, and made her seem like the wisest woman in the world.
Adams finds the humor in these slightly dippy characters. But she finds the humanity, too, and never lets their sweetness slip into the saccharine.
"I think I just respond to those kinds of characters," she admits. "They're so layered, and I love the fact that they've made this choice to be joyful ... I really identify with that sense of hope."
Adams grew up in the middle of a big Mormon family in Colorado, where life was conservative (her father is an ex-Army man) if not always conventional (her mother is a semi-professional bodybuilder.) So when a teenage Adams told her folks that she was going to act after high school, there were no fierce lectures.
"I think there were signs all along that this was what I wanted," she says now. "I never, never enjoyed school -- there was all this emphasis on math and chemistry and I was just useless. But getting on stage -- it just felt like the closest thing to flying. There's just this bond between you and humanity, with people throwing this energy out to you and you throwing it back -- it's such a gift."
Adams landed in Minnesota dinner theater, where she found a world of little money, eight shows a week, and constant interruptions of And-who-gets-the-chicken-Francese? And discovered she absolutely loved it.
"I'm too lazy to go back now," she says. "I've gotten a little soft. But I love hard work, and starting out doing theater -- you view the work differently. You show up on time, prepared, knowing your lines -- I used to show up for (film) auditions in full costume. It's a theater thing and I had that mentality for a really long time."
She got her first break in "Drop Dead Gorgeous," a mediocre "Heathers" wannabe from 1999. A move to Los Angeles afterward brought a few more teen movies -- "I was always the bitchy girl," she admits with a laugh -- but then, for awhile, nothing.
It was hard to take at the time. Now, Adams is almost glad her career stalled.
"If everything had happened for me right away it would have been horrible," she said. "I would have been tabloid fodder. It wasn't that I misbehaved -- I worked -- but my first couple of years in LA, I was not prepared. I knew the value of hard work -- eight shows a week teaches you that -- but being a struggling actor in Los Angeles? It's very different. You have to have tough skin, and a soft heart."
A good part in Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can" as Leonardo DiCaprio's naive girlfriend led to interviews and a spike in interest -- but then the buzz faded again. It had been a nice part in a big movie but Adams soon drifted back into supporting roles in straight-to-video films and guest shots on quick-cancelled TV shows.
"('Catch Me') was the part that should have launched her career," a puzzled Spielberg recently told Elle magazine. "But after the movie was released, she was no better off than before."
"I started to think, OK, maybe L.A. and I aren't a good match, maybe film and I aren't a good match, maybe TV and I aren't a good match," Adams says. "I thought, I've always had fun on stage. Maybe I should move to New York, and find some repertory work. And that's when 'Junebug' hit Sundance and took off. And I thought, I don't know, maybe it's not until you're ready to finally give something up that you find out what you truly want?"
And then she laughs at herself.
"Oh, I don't know," she backtracks immediately. "I'm really not that profound!"
What "Junebug" meant for Adams was, rather startlingly, an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. She lost to Rachel Weisz, for "The Constant Gardener," but for once, the cliche was true, and just being nominated was enough, leading to Disney's "Enchanted," which firmly established her as a star -- albeit the kind who sports tiaras and chats with woodland creatures.
It's been enough to help break her out of the big Gen X pool -- Adams will next play the trusting nun in "Doubt," and a would-be gourmet in "Julie & Julia," starring opposite Meryl Streep in each. But with one sunny optimist giving way to another, the roles haven't shown that much of her range. Adams knows that, too. So while she's not actively looking for a dramatic part playing, say, an overweight, one-legged pogo-stick champion ...
"Is there a script?" she blurts in mock enthusiasm. "That sounds great! No, honestly, I do want to do different things but it's funny because at the same time I don't want to step off my path just for the sake of it. I want the time to be right, the role to be right. And, not to sound so self-aware, but I am working within certain physical constraints. The way that I photograph, even when I'm crying ..."
"She may think she's being pigeonholed because she's cute, but her emotional range is amazing," says Nalluri. "And looks change with age, people change with age -- I know she's going to have fantastic opportunities and just work forever. She's too good not to."
She just has to grow out of that perkiness a little bit first.
"I would love to play someone with a dark heart," she says. "I hope that I'll have time to play those roles as I age and mature as a person and develop more gravitas as a person. But I'm not looking to do something like that just to prove I can do something like that."
Not that "Proof" -- the bigscreen adaptation of the play about a possibly abusive priest -- is exactly Disney fare. Or that Adams' last Sundance movie -- "Sunshine Cleaning," a dark comedy about a crime-scene cleaner -- was another "Junebug." Adams -- whose one constant is a long-time relationship with actor Darren Le Gallo -- is trying new things.
But she wants to try them slowly, so that audiences can have the time to discover those different sides of herself -- sides she's still exploring and beginning to understand, too.
"I can be a bit of a firecracker, you know," she says. "People don't see that because I save it up, but when I blow, I blow big. Back when I was doing theater -- most of the people were lovely, and are still my best friends, but believe me, there were a couple of girls... This one girl pushed me on stage. Pushed me. I thought, oh no, don't make me get into a fistfight with you in front of this audience because I will do it. I will. I mean, we had to do this duet and ..."
She catches herself.
"Oh my gosh, I can't believe I'm saying this all these years later," she says with a laugh. "Well, in the end, you know, I said Amy, be the bigger person, don't hit this girl. And I didn't. But I am a fairness fighter and I don't like people who misbehave. I get a little testy with them ... I won't say who she was. She knows who she is. Everyone who knows us knows. Of course, I'm sure she'd say I wasn't the nicest person either."
"But," she adds with a smile, "that would be a lie."
Source: Stephen Whitty /The Star-Ledger