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Amy Adams talks to Hermione Hoby about her transformation from Disney princess to the smouldering, scheming star of American Hustle
Amy Adams has sparkly blue eyes, a cute, upturned nose and a reputation as one of the most polite actresses in Hollywood. Many of her more memorable performances, in films such as Junebug, Julie & Julia and Enchanted, have been steeped in sweetness. Indeed, she has seemed, at times, too good to be true; until now. Her performance in David O Russell’s new film, American Hustle – as Sydney, the hardened, hyper-intelligent and schemingly seductive partner to Christian Bale’s con-man – turns her reputation on its head in glorious style, and has already earned her a Golden Globe nomination.
It’s a film so good, and so distinctively itself, that people will be dressing up as its characters and quoting their lines for decades. Perhaps the most delicious of all its astonishments is the sight of Adams and Bradley Cooper grooving and smooching by the light of a mirrorball to Donna Summer’s I Feel Love.
Adams says that, after reading Russell’s script, she wanted to build a character “in which everything felt justified and it didn’t feel like she was just a sexy sociopath.” None the less, the internet is already teeming with screengrabs of her wiggling bottom and over-the-shoulder smoulders. I quote her a line from one American critic who, after seeing the film, asked: “How many youngsters will be jump-started into puberty by… Amy Adams in American Hustle?”
“Oh,” she says, shocked. “My, goodness.” And then she exhales an “Uh!”, takes a deep breath and says, “Well, I think if I was in my early twenties you’d expect it but, you know, I’m not in my twenties so for people to suddenly see me as a sexual being at this point in my career is very funny… It just shows the influence of the roles we take.
“I never fought for or against playing a sexual or sensual woman, it’s just there hadn’t been one offered to me that felt like it came from an authentic place and wasn’t there just to serve the male characters.”
Sydney, on the other hand, is, “doing it for her own reasons, to empower herself, that’s why I was drawn to her. So it’s funny for people to suddenly be like, ‘Hey, you’re hot.’ I never thought that would be the thing people found most interesting about my character – the cleavage! – I still have that naivety.”
Adams will turn 40 next year and claims to take a pragmatic approach to her appearance. She says: “I think every woman’s beautiful. Some people say, ‘Well, I’m just a sexual being’ – I think we all are! That’s kinda how we… y’know, keep everything moving. I think women can play sexy at any age. It’s about how you feel about yourself.”
This role demands playing violent too, though. One scene in which she whacks Cooper around the head, was, she says, even more intense in the shooting. “My shirt got ripped, I got scratched. It felt horrible. And I just… hit him… really hard… in his eye instead of on his cheek, because I don’t have a good aim, apparently. I saw it start to swell and David [O Russell] was like, ‘We got it!’ And I started crying. As soon as we finished shooting I cut my hair. That was sort of my exorcism of Sydney.
“A big life lesson I took from this was that I really did have to develop a way to become a different person at home. Because having a daughter, I just didn’t want to bring that energy from the set into my home.” (Adams and her fiancé, the artist and actor Darren Le Gallo, have a three-year-old daughter, Aviana.)
Just as charged as that fight scene is a confrontational kiss that Jennifer Lawrence’s character plants on the lips of Sydney, her husband’s mistress. It was, Adams proudly admits, her own idea.
“I thought, what’s the ultimate chess move here? What would throw Sydney? What would she not know how to respond to? I didn’t want it to feel sexy, because it’s not, it’s actually kind of gross. It’s weird. And it’s fantastic. And I’m so glad it ended up in the movie because she did such a great job.”
It took two takes, she explains. In the first, she heard Lawrence laughing outside the door after her exit, “so I look in the mirror and see what she’s laughing at. It looks like I’ve fallen asleep with a popsicle and it’s melted all over me; a lot of very wet lipgloss all over my face. So we toned that down and we got a hold of ourselves and did it again.”
Adams believes that, owing to her clean cut image, there is no way she would have been cast in a role like this 10 years ago. “It wasn’t even the sexuality or the sensuality of this role that scared me or that would have scared me then,” she says, “it’s the complex layers, and how you build them, hoping the audience follows you on this wild ride.
“But I’m a little more fearless now. I don’t think that 10 years ago I would have been ready to play a role like this. I look at Jennifer [Lawrence] at 23 and I’m like, oh my gosh, me at 23 was not… was not good.”
At that time, she was, she recalls, living in her native Minnesota, doing dinner theatre and hoping to get cast in a television commercial so that she could, “maybe buy a car”. It would take her another yet to land her first film role, in the beauty pageant mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous.
“I was happy,” she says. “But very naive and not very brave.”
Those qualities were particularly in evidence in her breakout film, Junebug (2005). Adams was a revelation as an unworldly, painfully vulnerable young housewife whose baby is stillborn. The performance earned her the first of four Oscar nominations. Two years later she played a wide-eyed and effusive Disney princess in Enchanted, admitting at the time that bursting into song was an off-screen habit of hers too. It’s the role that many people still seem to conflate with Adams herself; David O Russell is not, however, among them.
“You are so not a Disney princess,” he told her when he cast her alongside Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter, the boxing biopic in which she plays a steely and salty barmaid, tough enough to take on the terrifying clan of hard-faced, big-permed women that make up Micky Ward’s family. It yielded another Oscar nomination (her third, following a nod for Doubt, two years earlier). Soon after, she earned a fourth as the wife of a cult leader, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in last year’s The Master. But even that chilling performance didn’t quite dispel the Disney princess image.
Does that bother her?
“No,” she says mildly. “No, I mean, it beats the alternative. Being a ‘b-word’, y’know? There are some people that think of me like that too.”
I suggest that the fact she just used the phrase “b-word” undermines the credibility of that statement.
“Well I try to be a really polite person,” she says. “I was raised to treat people well. Everybody. And I never want that to go away.”
For the first 11 years of her life, Adams was raised in the Mormon church. “That whole thing about being polite and cheerful, these are qualities that are instilled in Mormon women,” she says. “I feel a real consequence when I hurt somebody. The horrible thing is, there are people that I would love to eviscerate and I just know I would get no joy out of it. In the moment it would feel really good and then I would just feel awful.”
She has said in the past that people who are sweet and polite are often mistaken for being a bit simple. Is that particularly true of women?
“Oh yeah. Well, when men are simple they put on a front and it just doesn’t stop.” She does a brief but hilarious impression of a dumb bloke, all gesticulation and swagger, before deftly switching back to seriousness.
“It’s a certain archetype of woman that’s easy for people to digest. So in a way, I think in my life I’ve embraced that because it felt safe, you know?”
She also thinks that she has, as she puts it, “a strange cloak of invisibility. I feel that I move through the world and through my career and I’m really proud of the work that I’ve done but… I’m not an explosive actress. It’s very low key, my life.”
So said the multiple Oscar-nominee… “No, no I know it sounds crazy,” she concedes. “I’m happy that I continue to get to do the films that I do.”
She talks briefly about Man of Steel, the £400million-grossing Superman blockbuster in which she played Lois Lane. She feels grateful, she says, that she gets to be in a film that is so successful “and then go to the farmers’ market and pretty much be left alone. Except for a couple of crazy paparazzi. I’m very boring, I do the same thing all the time. I hike, I exercise, I go to the grocery store and I work, a lot, and I take my kid to school. I’m always like, really, they’re still taking pictures? It’s just me in the grocery store again.”
She’s talked before about the great emphasis in the Mormon church on praying about your weaknesses so I ask her what she considers hers to be.
“I probably care too much about what other people think. I think that gets in my way. And trying too hard. But I’ve got better at that. But I do believe what goes around, comes around. And that’s also,” she says, brightening, “a very good Justin Timberlake song! — You see? — That’s when I would start singing!”
Please don’t hold back on my account, I say.
“Don’t wanna think about iiiit” she croons, doing an adorable little chair dance. And then she stops herself with a smile. “Yeah, well.”
American Hustle is out now in central London and released nationwide on Jan 1