The morning I head off to meet Amy Adams something happens that is almost too common to be called ironic, so instead let’s call it a typical absurdity arising from being a woman in a world that has not entirely caught up with the 21st century. Adams is in town for the British premiere of Arrival, a lyrical sci-fi drama, directed by Denis Villeneuve. She plays a linguist, Louise, summoned by the US government to help them understand two aliens who have just landed in the country (the movie is far less silly than the plot sounds, with more political allegory than sci-fi schlock). She’s also the lead in Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford’s almost unbearably gripping new film, in which Adams plays an art gallery owner, Susan, stuck in a beautiful house and miserable marriage when her past comes back to unnerve her.
Goodness, how cheering, I thought, after seeing these stylish and smart films. Two movies for grownups in which a female character is celebrated for her intelligence instead of her cleavage: go feminism! But, of course, progress never moves in a straight line and, the morning after the premiere, the coverage in the British and American tabloids was all about, well, take a guess:
“Amy Adams risks wardrobe malfunction as she goes braless in risqué slashed gown at Arrival premiere in London”, “Amy Adams risks a nip slip in daring white dress” and “Amy Adams’ boobs won the Arrival premiere” were just a selection of the headlines the morning of our interview.
When we meet in a central London hotel, she is wearing a simple blue dress and oversized matching cardigan which she hugs around her protectively; only her blow-dried hair and full makeup, still fresh from a photo shoot, suggest a life that involves a little more maintenance than that of your average woman.
“Are you going to ask about my dress [from the premiere]?” she asks warily, and her shoulders hunch a little as she retreats a few inches back on the sofa.
I hope we can get to a point where a woman can wear a low-cut gown and still have some relevance
No, I was going to mention the gross reaction to it, I say.
“Oh right!” she says, moving forward, shoulders relaxing. “You know, this is something I struggle with because I’m not going to wear turtlenecks for ever. So I hope we can get to a point where a woman can wear a low-cut gown and still have some relevance. It’s disheartening, and having a daughter it’s doubly disheartening, that we’re still here. I was talking about this earlier with my husband: can you imagine a woman saying about a man, ‘Well, you saw how his pants fit – you could clearly see the curve of his bottom! And I’m not supposed to touch it? Come on!’” This subject means so much to her that, despite her wholesome Midwestern nature, she dares to say ‘bottom’ to a stranger – although she winces a little. Normally, her strongest expressions run the gamut from “gee” to “gosh”.
I say that in the current Hollywood climate the fact that the lead character in these two films is a woman clearly over 30 feels like something akin to a miracle.
“I mean, right? And both characters are allowed to be that age,” agrees Adams. “There’s also this really strong intellect with both of them, not in a brash way, but in the way that Louise, in particular, is sure of what she’s saying.”
Slavering coverage about Adams’ breasts feels only more inappropriate upon meeting her.
“You can kinda see me as a teacher, right?” she says, when we talk about what else she might have done if the acting hadn’t worked out, and she’s right, I can: she listens intently to each question and her careful, even prim way of responding makes it easy to picture her patiently teaching a room of teenagers about Pip’s great expectations.
This is not something you can say about most actors at Adams’ level. I have a theory that some actors go into the profession because they want to be looked at and some do it because they want to hide inside other characters; I tell Adams that she seems to me like an example of the latter.
“My husband and I are very quiet people. Whereas some people – Jennifer Lawrence, let’s say – she just has the kind of energy where she walks into a room and everybody notices. I don’t think that it’s a desire for attention, that’s just the nature of her being. I can disappear really, really quickly in a room,” she says.
Is that how you like it?
“Yeah! I do. Before I almost felt like it was a deficit, because I thought to be an actress you had to make people pay attention to you, and that’s just not my energy. It took a long time to be OK with that because you would see people receive a lot of opportunities based on something intangible, and it’s frustrating. But during my 20s and early 30s, when I wasn’t really working, I realised, OK, I’ll just focus on my work, I don’t have a thing,” she says, pronouncing “thing” with a capital “T”.
Adams’ suggestion that she lacks charisma says more about the expectations on Hollywood celebrities today than it does about her. She is extremely engaging, serious but with a hint of a straight-talking broad once she gets going. Moreover, her focus on her work is probably what has helped her maintain a near spotless acting career. She is a 42-year-old woman whose name can get a movie made – and pretty much any kind of movie. There have been actresses of this age before her who have hoovered up quality roles like Adams does now, in a way that made their age irrelevant: Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett. But in terms of sheer variety, to find her equal you’d have to look towards Meryl Streep, with whom Adams has co-starred three times.
Since seeming to come out of nowhere in 2005 when she was 31, with her performance as the wide-eyed, open-hearted Ashley in Junebug, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, she has starred in musicals, comedies and dramas. She has been nominated for a further four Oscars (for Doubt, The Fighter, The Master and American Hustle), and it seems a safe bet she will be again next year. Few actresses working today can slip between playing the brash, Boston girlfriend of a boxer (The Fighter) to a fearsome religious fanatic (The Master), as Adams did.
In American Hustle, she captured how her character, Sydney, uses her sexuality to cover her broken spirit, visibly quivering with fear in one scene when Jennifer Lawrence’s character outmanoeuvres her by kissing her on the mouth. In Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s film about the artist Margaret Keane, she took a character who could easily have been depicted as a passive victim of a controlling husband and instead gave a skilfully multi-layered performance, conveying Keane’s fear, strength and artistic passion.
Adams is certainly a star, but she is not really a celebrity. She has not exploited her personal life for her career, and gives away very little about herself. “I think the more people are concerned with me, the less they can invest in my characters,” she says, and she’s probably right. She and her husband, artist Darren Le Gallo, have been together for 15 years and have a six-year-old daughter, Aviana, or “Ahhv” as Adams calls her, who has already made it clear that she has no interest in being a cute accessory to her mother’s celebrity. “I tend to wear very little makeup at home because when my daughter was even younger she saw me putting on makeup and she said, ‘You look like Amy Adams when you do that – I just want you to be Mom.’ So I said, ‘You got it, honey,’” Adams says, with a “so that’s that” nod.
She sensed a distinction between your public and private personae?
David O Russell didn’t make me cry. The experience of playing that character struck me in a strange place
“She really did. When I was getting made up, she felt that was somehow attached to another part of my life and she just wanted me. But it got to the point where every time I’d take a shower she’d be like, ‘Mommy, are you going to work?’ I was like, ‘I guess I need to shower more often if she thinks I only shower when I’m going to work,’” she laughs.
Has becoming a mother changed how she accesses emotion on screen? “I definitely feel more raw and more open to empathy, and that helps. But what’s really changed is how I process work,” she says. “I used to have a dysfunctional relationship with my work, where I was bringing home all my insecurities and expectations, and if I felt a director didn’t love what I did, it would just plague me. That had to change.”
A big catalyst for that change was making American Hustle with the notoriously temperamental director David O Russell. The 2014 Sony hack exposed emails about the film; most of the media attention focused on the revelation that the film’s female leads – Adams and Lawrence – were paid less than the men. Less notice was given to the email from a journalist to Sony Entertainment’s CEO claiming that Russell “so abused Amy Adams that Christian Bale got in his face and told him to stop acting like an asshole”. Adams later said in an interview with GQ that she “cried” during the making of the movie.
“It’s interesting, that particular thing, and I don’t want to acknowledge or not acknowledge anything, because in no way do I feel victimised by my choices so it really was… [Russell] didn’t necessarily make me cry: I cried,” she says, sitting up a little straighter. “The experience of playing that character struck me in a strange place, and that’s heightened by David’s energy, yeah. So I couldn’t bring that home.”
So you’re saying it was playing the role of the damaged character that upset you, not Russell?
“Um, the character definitely, but I think in combination with the heightened environment. I remember looking at my husband and saying, ‘If I can’t figure this out, I can’t work any more, I’ll have to do something else. I don’t want to be that person, not for my daughter.’ So I figured it out.”
How to stop getting so emotionally caught up in your work?
“Yes. The first couple of years I couldn’t quite figure out the balance, and I didn’t have a clear separation between work and home. But I’m not living in this sort of obsessed space any more. It’s not that I don’t find my work important. It’s just that I now know, at the end of the day, I’ll be back home reading stories to my daughter,” she says.
One of seven children, Adams was born into an army family, and moved around the world until she was eight, when the family settled in Colorado. How does she think being one of seven affected her as a person?
“It definitely shapes you. It keeps you connected to your past, that’s for sure, at least for me. It’s easy to disappear if you’re one of seven and I liked being under the radar. You could get away with more, and you’d get left behind if you didn’t keep up so it was really easy to disappear,” she says, happily.
She was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although her parents left the Mormon church when Adams was a child, a move she describes now as like losing “a community”. Her parents divorced when Adams was 11, and her father became a professional singer, which partly inspired her own interest in singing. Her mother became a semi-professional bodybuilder.
“My mother has a really strong sense of self, which is probably more inspiring to me as a grownup than it was to me as a kid. Back then, I was like, ‘Mom, can you not show up in the cool jumpsuit and the spiky hair?’” she says.
Her father is retired now, and her mother works as a massage therapist and enjoys rock climbing.
She sounds like an amazing Colorado hippy, I say.
“Oh she’s not a hippy – she’s funky. She’s cool,” says Adams.
After school, Adams briefly considered a career as a professional dancer before going into musical theatre, and worked for several years in Minnesota, before a chance audition scored her a small role in Drop Dead Gorgeous as a dippy beauty pageant contestant. She moved to Los Angeles where for years she was, she says, filled with self-doubt while she hacked it out in projects like Cruel Intentions 2.
Adams and Le Gallo met in an acting class in 2001, and married last year. He is waiting upstairs while we talk; Aviana used to travel with them, but now she is at school, she stays at home in LA.
I tell her how striking it was, looking through past interviews, to see how often she’s been asked how Le Gallo “copes” with his wife’s success. She rolls her eyes so pointedly her whole head follows.
I’ve looked at my husband’s artwork and been like, ‘You could do better than that’
“Oh I know! We have a friend who said to him, ‘I couldn’t do what you do, I really couldn’t.’ What, show up for your wife? That’s really sad. But, you know, he has sacrificed a lot. But he travels with me and helps to keep the family together, and I really do appreciate that. But I don’t value it because he’s a man doing it, I value it because he’s my partner… My husband is an extremely competent caregiver.”
It’s amazing that the idea of a man being the caregiver is still seen as weird or even unattractive, I say.
“Which is funny because I never feel like my femininity is threatened by being powerful, or anything someone might say is a male attribute. So I find it so odd when men feel their masculinity is being threatened, I’m like, ‘Really? It shouldn’t be that delicate,’” she says.
Still, she says making Nocturnal Animals was a painful experience for her, given that one plotline involves her character berating her then husband for not having more ambition.
“My husband is very optimistic and I consider myself a lot more cynical and pragmatic. I told him, ‘Some of these arguments with Jake [Gyllenhaal] feel very real to me, and I’m going to be curious about how you feel about those.’ And he watched the movie and he was like, ‘They feel very real to me, too. This is every nightmare I have!’” she laughs. “I’m very honest and straightforward, and so I’ve looked at my husband’s artwork and been like, ‘You could do better than that’ [as her character does in the movie]. But I also learn a lot of lessons from my characters, and this one reminded me that staying the course has proven to be far more rewarding, because there have definitely been times over the course of a 15-year relationship where you’re just like, ‘I can’t…’ But then I’m like, ‘It’s OK, we’ll figure it out.’”
She repeats this point when we discuss Disenchanted, the long-awaited sequel to much-loved Disney film Enchanted, which has finally been given the go-ahead and will, according to news reports, feature her character “questioning her happily-ever-after life”.
“Relationships, especially, are not happily ever after,” she says. “But I think, you know, staying the course has been so rewarding. We’re in a relationship in Hollywood, and I think people have a perception of what the pitfalls of that can be… we’re not naive to that.”
To keep it simple, the couple tend to mix just with family and good friends in their downtime. Does she see her childhood friends from Colorado?
“Ummm, I’ll say ‘Yes’ and they’ll be like ‘Sure you do, Amy, when’s the last time you texted me back?’” she says in a sarcastic voice, and then sighs: “I don’t even know where my phone is, to be honest.”
Adams is, she says, feeling calmer, in both her work and her personal life, than she has in years, maybe ever. But just before she turned 40, people warned her that the end of her career was imminent. “Ooh you’re getting close, you’re getting close!” they told her doomily.
“But I feel more confident and have more to say, and am more confident in what I say than I ever was before,” she says, and she laughs at the idea that anyone could think it would be otherwise.