Amy Adams is slightly embarrassed to admit the reason she demurred when first offered the role in Tim Burton’s Big Eyes of painter Margaret Keane – whose paintings of big-eyed waifs were a cultural phenomenon in Fifties and Sixties America, but whose husband, Walter, stole all the credit. "When I read the script, I saw her as more of a victim, as one-dimensional," says Adams. "That’s my fault and not the fault of the script or the writing. It was just where I was in my life. I was looking to play someone who I felt was more confident, more grounded."
She revisited the script after the 2010 birth of her daughter, Aviana, with her actor fiancé Darren Le Gallo. "When I came back around, I saw Margaret as a completely different entity – as a mother. I was able to identify with her as a woman in a way that I wasn’t before. [Margaret lived] in a time when we didn’t speak out publicly against 'our man'. And then I played a character in The Master, another really powerful woman from the era, who stood behind a man and didn’t come forward. After that, I felt I understood the era and the beginnings of feminism, so I saw Margaret from a very different perspective."
That perspective, Adams says, did not include contemplating award prospects for the role, despite her being one of the most frequently nominated actresses in recent years. She has five previous Academy Award nominations (for Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter, The Master and American Hustle), but she has uncharacteristically little to show from the early stages of 2015’s awards season – a Golden Globe nod for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical aside. "I can’t control the nominations so I don’t think about that," she says. "To me, how you connect with an audience is so much more important than a nomination."
Burton was thrilled when Adams eventually signed on. "Margaret is quite a strong character, but in the most quiet, under-the-radar way. I see that in Amy: she’s an amazing person and quite shy, but she’s got a real inner strength to her. And she saw that in Margaret."
She also saw some prior personal situations she might care to forget. "I have sometimes not stuck up for myself, and it plagues me that I can’t go back and right the wrong. It didn’t result in some lie or con, like it did for Margaret, but there were definitely situations where I should have stood up for myself and I didn’t. And then I kind of wanted to go back and do it differently."
The accomplished Adams was meanwhile unfazed by the prospect of playing an artist. She says she "handled some paint", to make sure she would "show up on set and be comfortable" (which sounds a tad luvvie-like, when Adams is anything but). "I studied the way Margaret painted and her relationship with her paintings. I wasn’t naive enough to think that I would paint like her in the amount of prep time that I had."
Her favourite aspect of finding a character is not necessarily the cerebral one: "I always enjoy getting into the physicality of the character, and coming from a dance background, the physical nature of the character has been something that’s very informative to me."
The fourth of seven children born to a US air-force serviceman and his wife in Italy, Adams says she was "always a very fearful child. My mother would put me in gymnastics, which is not a good match for my personality. I was like, 'Oooh, that’s a bad idea, to do a backhand swing on a beam, because you can’t see the beam.' My mum would say, 'Do it!' She also taught me visualisation – how to visualise yourself doing something – which I still use."
Adams took up ballet and continued with it through her teenage years, before diverting to musical theatre. She moved to Los Angeles in 1999 and struggled until she won a small but showy role as a nurse whom Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead character falls hard for, in 2002’s Catch Me If You Can, directed by Steven Spielberg. It did not prove career-changing, however. That was left to 2005’s Junebug, an indie film which won Adams award nominations almost across the board, including her first Academy Award nomination.
Big Eyes is about a strong mother-daughter dynamic [Margaret flees her first unhappy marriage with her young child in tow], and Adams insists that her own mother has been critical to her personal and professional success. "My mother felt that her choices were very limited. She was raised Mormon, and she and my father divorced [when Adams was 12], so she had to find the light for herself and the confidence to be. She became her own woman, and watching that was amazing. She became a bodybuilder and she rock-climbs and is such a go-getter. She has always pulled me outside of my comfort zone and I appreciate that. She made me rock-climb when I am fearful and a chicken. She would yell at me: 'You can do it!' and I’d be like, 'I’m going to scratch my face!' Without her influence, I would just be paralysed with fear."
Adams hopes to imbue that same fearlessness in her daughter. "I think she is tougher than me already. I am still fearful, so I walk into her room and am like, 'What are five ways you could hurt yourself in this room?' I am the worst!"
In 2016, Batman vs Superman, in which she reprises her role as Lois Lane from 2013’s Man of Steel, will have a high-profile release, and Adams will be front and centre in the media once again. But she is resolutely private. There are few paparazzi shots of her and her family together, presumably by design.
Does she have any of Margaret Keane’s paintings at home? "I do. She painted my eye. I have it in my house, and it’s very nice. I also have some others. Margaret’s original paintings were quite sad because she was painting what she saw in the world and how she felt. Now when she paints, her subjects smile, and they’re at peace."
Perhaps Keane also captured that peace in her portrait of Adams’ eye.
Big Eyes is on nationwide release