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Amy Adams Plays a Grifter in ‘American Hustle’
By Robert Ito to NY Times
In “American Hustle,” the latest film by the director David O. Russell, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) plants a lipstick-smearing kiss on Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a grifter who is having an affair with a fellow con artist (Christian Bale), who just happens to be Rosalyn’s husband. The kiss caps off a scene of rage-filled accusations and not-so-veiled threats. The possibility that members of the Mafia might kill all three of them only ratchets up the heat.
The kiss, Ms. Adams admitted, was her idea. “Rosalyn’s crazy,” she said. “And I thought, ‘What’s the craziest thing she could do?’ ”
A suggestion was made to Mr. Russell; Ms. Lawrence, it turned out, was game. As sudden as it is sloppy, the kiss is equal parts threat and assault, akin, in both feeling and execution, to the one Michael Corleone shares with his brother Fredo.
If Ms. Lawrence stuck the landing on the kiss, Ms. Adams hits about a half-dozen different emotions — from shock to fear to rage — with her understandably stunned response. Her character has already had the lousy night to end all lousy nights, and now this?
Sydney “is the most miserable human being I’ve ever played,” Ms. Adams said. “She is not — happy. I’m used to playing people that, even if they’re survivors, there’s some sort of light in them. I don’t know that she has that, necessarily.”
With a laugh, she added, “I think I like playing happy people.”
Fans of Ms. Adams know the type. For many of them, Ms. Adams, 39, will always be the wide-eyed, would-be princess who fell to Earth in “Enchanted,” or the chatty, cheerful Southern wife in “Junebug,” for which she received the first of four Academy Award nominations.
But over the last several years, she has expanded her range of characters considerably, mixing plenty of light (“The Muppets,” “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” “Leap Year”) with ever-increasing doses of, if not complete darkness, something like it.
In “The Fighter,” she plays a bartender tough and salty enough to stand up to the greedy, shiftless family of her boxer boyfriend (Mark Wahlberg); in “The Master,” she is the domineering, largely unlikable wife of a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Her role in “American Hustle” may be her darkest to date. But then, in a couple of months, she’s off to play, well, Lois Lane for the second time.
Not many actresses are given the chance to make those sorts of jumps, and if things had gone differently, if she had been less ambitious or more risk-averse, Ms. Adams might have spent these last few years in one rom-com after the next. It’s been her willingness to experiment — and the trust of a growing line of admiring directors — that has kept her from that fate. If she’s not necessarily the most recognizable name among actresses of her generation — her lack of off-screen antics may contribute to that — or the biggest box office draw, she’s still in an enviable position: a woman who can work with Muppets one year and Clint Eastwood the next, all while quietly storing up awards and Oscar nods.
“American Hustle,” which opens on Dec. 13, is based loosely on the late-1970s Abscam scandal, an F.B.I. sting operation that resulted in the convictions of several members of Congress. In one scene, Irving Rosenfeld (Mr. Bale) and Sydney, a former stripper and Cosmopolitan magazine employee, discover each other at a party, their eyes locking from across the room. “He wasn’t in the best shape,” she recalls in a voice-over, referring to the 50 pounds or so Mr. Bale put on for his role in the film.
By contrast, Ms. Adams is as sexy and glamorous as she’s ever been, a ’70s-era vision in macramé and furs. Before long, the two are nabbed running a loan scam in which Sydney pretends to be Lady Edith Greensly, a classy expat with London banking connections. An F.B.I. agent (Bradley Cooper) enlists them in a small sting that spins out of control. Soon, the mob and Congressmen are involved, and one is never sure just who is conning whom, in life or love.
Over lunch in the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, Ms. Adams, her longish red hair pulled back in a neat ponytail, described the film. It was a struggle for her, because while the film is R-rated, her mouth is a solid G. “I want to say the f-word so much in this interview, because these characters are in such an f’ed-up situation,” she said.
So why won’t she? “I just think it’s rude,” she replied. “Mormon upbringing. I’ll say it in film. But that’s a character. I just won’t say it in print.”
The fourth of seven kids, Ms. Adams still has the air of a person who sang in her school choir and performed in a dinner theater in Minnesota without a thought about Hollywood. She won’t speak ill of anyone, even when prodded, and still has fond memories of the people who talked her out of quitting the business when she got fired from a few shows and her prospects looked dim.
She still calls people “sir” and “ma’am”; the occasional reporter or busboy gets “sweetie.” When asked a question, she’ll sometimes pause for so long that it seems like she might have forgotten the topic. But then she’ll come back with an explanation for why the question gave her pause, followed by a thoughtful answer.
It’s a bit of that Amy Adams, perhaps the one still more familiar to audiences, on display in “Her,” the latest film from Spike Jonze, due out on Dec. 18. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a man pining for his ex-wife who falls in love with his computer’s operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Ms. Adams plays Theodore’s best friend, a gentle soul in spare makeup still hopeful about finding love, preferably human, but not necessarily.
“It’s a friendship love,” Ms. Adams said of her on-screen relationship with Mr. Phoenix. “Joaquin and I were able to create a male-female friendship on camera, and you don’t get to explore that very often without undertones and overtones. We’re friends, and you really believe that. Or, I believe that. I can’t speak for anyone else.”
Mr. Jonze said in a telephone interview that he had loved her since seeing her in “Junebug,” adding, “I think everybody did.” He started thinking about casting Ms. Adams the moment he finished the “Her” script and went back to take a look at her audition tapes for his 2009 film “Where the Wild Things Are.” Although she wasn’t cast in that film, something about her seemed right for “Her.”
“She just cracked me up,” he said, explaining later: “She listens so intently, with this very serious look on her face. That was the first key to seeing her in the character.”
“The thing I realized with Amy is, she can make any dialogue you write sound unwritten,” Mr. Jonze added. “She just has a way of internalizing it. She’s such a thinker, and you can see her thinking her way through all of that until it’s all coming from within her.”
For her role in “American Hustle,” Ms. Adams runs the gamut from feral to all business to heartbreakingly exposed. At one point, she’s getting Mr. Cooper to plead for sex, doglike, in a bathroom stall; at another, she’s comforting a badly beaten (emotionally and physically) Mr. Bale.
“I just really wanted to challenge her,” Mr. Russell said. “I wanted her to do a role that was as strong as the guy parts, and more cunning, in certain respects.”
Despite the darkness of much of the film’s themes and story, life on the set, Ms. Adams said, was filled with fun. She got to disco with Mr. Cooper, for one, and hang out with other actresses, Ms. Lawrence and Elisabeth Röhm, something of a rare treat. She said: “It was like, girls on set? With me? This is awesome.”
She also spent a lot of time with Mr. Bale, whose pot belly, impressive in both its size and near-perfect roundness, drew gasps at a recent screening at the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City, Calif. Ms. Adams describes running scenes with Mr. Bale as a “master class,” but she was equally impressed by his physical transformation.
“He ate these bacon sandwiches in the morning, and I was eating egg whites and trying to get into all those clothes I had to wear,” she said. “I was just looking at him and going, ‘Oh my gosh.’ ”
Following her promotional duties for “Her” and “American Hustle,” Ms. Adams will reprise her role as Lois Lane in “Batman vs. Superman,” the sequel to this year’s “Man of Steel,” which she’ll begin working on in February. She’s doing costume fittings for that now, but otherwise knows little about the story, other than the glimpses she gets from her fiancé, Darren Le Gallo, an artist, actor and father of their 3-year-old daughter, Aviana. He gets Facebook updates from a “Man of Steel” website.
Mammoth superhero franchises aside, if she had her choice of future projects, she’d collaborate with the actor Jessica Chastain, whom she said she adores.
“I want to find something where we can play sisters,” she said. “We can do a chain thing: You write one scene, I’ll write another, and we’ll send it back and forth while I’m doing ‘Superman.’ ”
Mr. Russell said he would love to work with Ms. Adams again, perhaps on something that would show off her skills as a singer and dancer, a bit of which he saw on the “American Hustle” set.
“I have a musical idea for her that I would like to discuss with her,” he said. Whatever the project turns out to be, he said, Ms. Adams will no doubt be up to the task: “Appetite has a lot to do with it. And she has an enormous appetite. It’s almost athletic. She rises to the challenge.”
A version of this article appears in print on December 8, 2013, on page AR1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Princess Finds Her Dark Side.