Amy Adams: Not so innocent abroad

Oscar-nominated actress Amy Adams tells Lesley O'Toole that although she's genetically happy, she is nothing like the wide-eyed naif of her roles

Art does not often imitate life, except in the case of double Academy Award nominee Amy Adams. Her biggest film yet, 2007's latterday fairy-tale blockbuster Enchanted, saw its singing-dancing heroine find herself and her prince. In real life, Adams – who earned her first nomination for teeny indie Junebug in 2006 and her second this year for a film its polar opposite in every regard, Doubt – has enjoyed much the same trajectory. Last year she became engaged to her boyfriend of six years, actor and painter Darren Le Gallo. This year she has a serious shot at winning her first Academy Award in the unpredictable Best Supporting Actress category.

If she does, she will have many people to thank: her large family for starters (she has six siblings) and not least Emily Blunt. The pair play screen sisters in the upcoming Sunshine Cleaning but it was Blunt who first got her hands on the script for Doubt, the heavyweight film version of John Patrick Shanley's Tony Award-winning play. She recognised that Sister James, a pivotal, wide-eyed character in the tale of a priest in Sixties New York accused of abusing one of his young male charges, was tailor-made for Adams and encouraged her friend to pursue it.

In her short but meteoric rise to fame, Adams has become synonymous with the role of the innocent (Junebug, Enchanted, Charlie Wilson's War ) and she admits it is a character trait she relishes.

"But even more so, the ruin of innocence is really fascinating to me. What I really love about Sister James is that at the end of the film, although she is changed, her spirit of compassion and her faith is intact. She will move forward smarter, maybe a little bit more untrusting of people, but her trust of God and her trust in herself is stronger because of the situation."

In many ways, Adams, 34, might be talking, albeit unintentionally, about her own personal and professional path. Coming hot on the heels of that enchanting blockbuster ($339m worldwide), Doubt has changed Adams' life. She can thank her own tenacity for that. Having wholeheartedly endorsed Blunt's exhortation that she should play the role, Adams flew to New York and phoned Shanley, also the film's director, to say she happened to be in town and could they meet (this after she had been told another actress was already attached in the role). It is not, she says, that she is wildly ambitious, rather that she was simply doing what she has always done.

"This is my profession and I have been paying my bills from it since I was 17, along with Hooters (an American food chain famed for its waitresses' scanty outfits), The Gap and temping. Even when I was acting I was sometimes going on 13 auditions a week and I did work, I always paid my bills. The necessity of that has always kept me in it somehow. If I'd had another option or if I'd had parents who were in a position to help me, I might not have been so resilient."

Born in Italy, where her army father was based, Adams is "in the middle" of the seven children he and her former bodybuilding mother raised before splitting when she was 12.

Prior to that the entire family was actively involved in the Mormon church which she says colours her personality to this day. "It's a valuable trait to be cheerful in the Mormon church," she laughs, cascades of auburn curls moving with her. "Being happy, kind and obedient is valued almost above anything else."

But Adams is not simply another attractive, perky actress, according to one who should know, her Doubt co-star Meryl Streep. "You've been seduced by a performance that's just masterful. And playing good is probably less fun in general. That's what Amy did. And she was so prepared. Trust me when I say it's not that usual in younger actors."

No wonder then that Streep wholeheartedly gave her blessing to Adams' starring opposite her once more in the upcoming Julie and Julia about a woman (Adams) who resolves to create every dish from book by famed American cook Julia Child (Streep).

And of course Adams returns the complimentary favour. "Meryl is just the coolest lady ever although watching her in the last scene of Doubt was when I kind of realised I would never be her. Of course she's funny and witty and smart and has a great vocab but she's also really generous and accepting. Plus she taught me to knit."

Insisting that she was never academically inclined at school, Adams did excel at sport, particularly athletics and gymnastics and later announced that she was planning on studying dance. Before she could, she found herself a job in musical theatre, first in Colorado where she and her siblings were living with their mother after their parents separated and then in Minnesota where she also won her first tiny film role in Drop Dead Gorgeous.

It was her co-star Kirstie Alley who encouraged Adams's move to Hollywood and, when she won a role in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can, she thought she was set. Oddly, all she effectively gained from the film was a signed photo of DiCaprio for her dinner theatre friends who had demanded one should she "ever work with Leo".

No wonder then that even before filming Junebug, a film with a budget of less than $1m and, on paper anyway, not much chance of being seen by anyone, Adams had resolved she was done with Hollywood and would move to New York.

"It wasn't necessarily that I was going to leave the business but I was thinking, 'Maybe it's not a good match – me and TV, me and film – maybe I need to go back to stage'. I was always happy there. It was more about a search for happiness because I'd put so much importance on my career and getting the job and getting people's approval.

"It had become very unsatisfying because that's never guaranteed: the job, or approval or being liked. Even if you're working all the time that's not guaranteed. So I was just looking to find a new way to identify myself."

The change she was looking for happened, randomly as these things so often do, before her surprise Oscar nod for Junebug. "Even before Junebug hit Sundance. I was already in a new place. I would have been okay if I'd moved to New York and pursued stage. I'd already made the decision that it wasn't the be-all and end-all that I had to be a successful film and TV actress." So what did happen?

"Something just snapped," she announces – in Hollywood, where else – with an endearing, disbelieving laugh. "We just don't know how it happens but one day you wake up and you're like, 'No, I'm not going to do it like that any more. I'm done'. It's that thing where you wish you could figure out how you got there but one day you're just somewhere different."

The fairy tale, though, was still far from its joyous culmination. Certainly Adams revelled in her first Academy Award nomination though it did not lead to a clutch of offers she could not refuse. Instead, she filmed three episodes of The Office, played the "gorgeous woman" in the film starring Jack Black's band, Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny, had a small role in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky and Bobby and then filmed a short film directed by her old acting teacher, Pennies, which also included Darren Le Gallo. Though she had recently ended a relationship and announced she was unready for another, Adams' prospective beau would not take no for an answer. Last year he proposed on a horse-drawn carriage in New York's Central Park.

She jokes now that she doesn't remember the proposal itself because she was so focused on lines for her next day's filming. She is clearly not being euphemistic then when she describes her fiancé as "so patient and understanding. So generous and lovable. Trust me, in our relationship, I'm not the good girl, I'm definitely the problem. He's so kind. He's like, 'I would never say that to you' and I'll say, 'That's because you're much nicer than me'."

Their wedding plans are progressing slowly. "We're both not in a hurry after six and a half years of being together, so we are obviously not moving fast . But we're going to try to do it this year. I got the wedding magazines and I panicked. According to the To Do List, I should have my location, the dress and the florist reserved. So I was just, like, forget it."

But for now, marriage is not her most pressing concern, which is reconciling burgeoning fame with everyday life. "I'll pick up my allergy medication and the pharmacist will say, 'I love you'. I'll be like, 'I'm just glad I'm not picking up something embarrassing.' Suddenly you realise you're not a private person any more. It's okay, just jarring, to realise that everything you do can be scrutinised or evaluated. But don't get me wrong, I'm so grateful for where I'm at."

'Doubt' is released on 6 February