Adams, a bright and perceptive redhead (she is naturally blonde but kept Ashley’s hair colour after the film), was deservedly rewarded with an Oscar nomination for her part in Junebug. She argues that Ashley is not such an anomaly for American indie movies — after all, just because she’s nice, it doesn’t mean that she’s not deeply messed up on another level. “Being that joyful and that good is its own type of dysfunction. It’s just not usually illustrated in film, which is generally more concerned with people’s ulterior motives.”
Adams is coming to the end of a long journey with a character she originally feared would “drive people crazy”. And the story of the film itself, the pet project of the director Phil Morrison and the writer Angus MacLachlan, is longer still. “They have been working on it since 1992,” says Adams. “I think that there were a lot of actresses who were going to be Ashley before me. But for whatever reason it didn’t happen — thankfully for me.”
When the script for Junebug arrived, Adams was in the process of parting company with a TV series. “I was essentially fired. They were trying to change my contract and I said no to the compromise, so I was let go.” What was the TV show? “It was called Dr Vegas.” She laughs at my blank expression. “Exactly. Junebug was an important film.
“I think for women, it takes a while to take control of decisions. You think that everything is fate or destiny, you don’t really make your choices. I think that summer was the first time I was able to say that I didn’t want to follow through with it and deal with the consequences. It was really empowering. At the end of the summer I was unemployed but I was happy and I was proud. I was like, you know what, I’m done with being pushed around.”
Adams says she had no idea how significant this supporting role in a domestic drama set in North Carolina would be to her career. “I knew that it was important that I did it. I try to look at my projects as more than just what they’re going to do for my career because ultimately you never know whether it’s going to be successful or whether it’s going to be the last thing you ever work on.”
The first hint of the acclaim to follow came at the Sundance Film Festival, where Adams was presented with a Special Jury Award. She has since won eight more prizes and notched up a further four nominations, including the all-important Oscar nomination (she lost out to Rachel Weisz, but says that she is still coming to terms with being nominated at all).
Despite all the praise, Adams is completely unstarry and unaffected. She mocks herself for forgetting how to order coffee in London (“I’m so used to Starbucks where you add everything yourself”), and over lunch she is charm itself, involving everyone at the extended table in conversation, determined that nobody should feel left out. She bristles with indignation at the memory of people slighting her boyfriend, Darren Le Gallo, also an actor (“He’s the one who deserves an award”). While a touchier actress might get huffy that so many interviewers haven’t noticed the seven years of smaller roles that led to this point in her career, and that they persist in calling her a “newcomer”, Adams thinks it’s funny. “I love it when somebody says: ‘You basically came out of nowhere!’ And I’m like: ‘Actually, not really.’”
Adams was raised in Colorado as the middle child of seven. For the first 12 years of her life, she had a strict Mormon upbringing (the family left the church when her parents’ marriage broke down). “They got us all into sports really early, and tried to make us competitive. But it never worked for me. I never cared about winning. It used to really frustrate them because I’d say, it’s all about the doing,” says Adams, who is not unaware of the irony that her chosen career is one of the most competitive.
Instead of sport, Adams got into dancing, “not against my parents’ wishes exactly, but they didn’t think it was practical — they thought I should focus on something that would get me a scholarship to go to university. But I had no desire to go to college, I just wasn’t interested.”
The American press seem to delight in mentioning Adams’s stint working in a tacky restaurant chain called Hooters, but the next significant career move was to Minnesota to work in dinner theatre in light musicals such as Brigadoon. There she sustained a dancing injury just as casting scouts arrived in town for a pitch-black satire of the beauty pageant business. It was called Drop Dead Gorgeous and it was the beginning of Adams’s acting career. “
Hollywood seemed so far away and impossible, I wasn’t a movie star. I thought, maybe I’ll go out there and try to get work. And seven years later . . .”
Before Junebug, the most important job for Adams was as Leonardo DiCaprio’s naive girlfriend in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, another unusually sweet and innocent character. “I don’t know if that’s how people see me, but I know that I approach characters, even those who are deviant, from a place of innocence. Then I find the event that happened to them that shaped them into what they are.”
But doesn’t she long to play somebody evil, just once? “I would love to. But at the same time I don’t like evil for evil’s sake. I had an opportunity to play a woman who had killed these two men. But I couldn’t find anything redeeming about her. I didn’t like her. I kind of didn’t want to be her.”
Adams’s evil incarnation will not be revealed for a while — her two last projects are Will Ferrell’s Nascar comedy Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby; and then as a “sort-of princess” in a partially animated Disney film called Enchanted.
She is hesitant to rush into anything else. Ashley, after all, is a tough act to follow. “It’s a lot of pressure. I’m never going to play Ashley again. I think, ultimately, people loved Ashley. Whether they love me as an actress remains to be seen. So it is a lot of pressure, but not something I can’t handle. It’s a good challenge.”