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Rachel McAdams: The face that made Terrence Malick's final cut

As a host of stars – including her boyfriend – disappeared from the auteur's latest film, Rachel McAdams survived. So how did she win him over?

An actor almost deserves a prize simply for surviving the brutal blunt edge of much vaunted director Terrence Malick's scissors. While Rachel McAdams got to sit through To The Wonder and see that her scenes playing the romanticised ex-girlfriend of Ben Affleck's lost protagonist survived the edit, several high-profile names, including Rachel Weisz, Barry Pepper and McAdams's boyfriend, Welsh actor Michael Sheen, could only talk about how the experience of working with Malick was justification in itself for the expended energy.

McAdams is full of praise for the director, who after a six-year hiatus between The Thin Red Line and his Palme d'Or-winning Tree of Life is now, by his standards at least, churning them out. She says of the much talked-about, reclusive, director: “I think Terry is like a sculptor and the story presents itself to him. He puts a lot of clay on the table and sees what comes out of it, which I appreciate. He's not stuck to something, if you're out and something is not working then it's fine and you just move onto something else.”

Generally McAdams is more or less a fan of this unorthodox process. Ever since the days of New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s, studios have rather boringly insisted on directors having and meeting deadlines. These restrictions could perhaps explain Malick making only three films in the last millennium. After all, it seems no coincidence that, as technology has allowed directors more leeway in what they shoot, and also editing time, Malick, who came to prominence in the early 1970s, has been more prolific.

He also expends as much energy preparing the actors as he does on the shoot: “Terry took me through my character's background, taking me around the neighbourhood where he believed my character would have grown up, saying, 'maybe you lived in that house or maybe you went to that high school',” she explains. “It was always 'maybe', it was really up to me to decide in the end, so I thought it was a really magical and liberating experience.”

There were also the down-sides. “Some days I was lost but I knew that something interesting would come out of that.

"That is the actor's nightmare, it's the gift and the curse, great things come out of being lost and that is what we rally against all the time, especially if you have a controlling side or a perfectionist side which many of us do."

She laughs at the final comment without expanding on how much being controlling or a perfectionist applied to her. McAdams seems to be in a good mood: unsurprising, perhaps, given that she's enjoying the kind of celebrated, auteur-heavy career that belies the fact that the Canadian star had her big break in Hollywood movies with titles that would warn off any self-respecting cineaste, The Hot Chick and Mean Girls. Soon after came the breakout hit that was The Notebook in 2004 and McAdams was Hollywood's No 1 starlet. She was part of a Canadian celebrity couple with her co-star to boot.

The romance that blossomed with Ryan Gosling made her a gossip columnist's dream. In a strange twist of fate, the two-year dalliance seems to have taken on an added importance now that he's become one of the biggest names in Hollywood. Their split coincided with McAdams taking a break from acting.

Yet it's proving hard to escape the past. At the Toronto premiere of her last film, The Vow, she was even asked on the red carpet if kissing Gosling on The Notebook was better than locking tongues with her co-star Channing Tatum. Everyone seems to have forgotten that between dating Gosling and the immensely talented Sheen, whom she met on the set of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, she stepped out with actor Josh Lucas for a few months.

To The Wonder is about the impact that love and relationships can have on your life. In it Ben Affleck plays Neil, who becomes fascinated by and marries European beauty Marina, played by former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko. When the relationship sours Neil seeks out (it's very Malick that he doesn't resort to using Facebook) his childhood sweetheart Jane.

Another story strand sees Javier Bardem play a priest in one of Malick's favourite themes: losing faith in God.

It's a topic that McAdams has given some thought to: “I mean I think it's the human condition to grapple with losing faith on a daily basis, and I'm maybe trying to think of one thing that has shaken my faith to the ground. I don't know if there is one thing, I think it's a day-to-day thing.”

McAdams started acting aged 13, despite not growing up in an acting household in Ontario. Her father was a truck driver and her mother was a nurse. An award-winning figure-skater in her youth, she chose to pursue a career in acting. In her teenage years she would work at McDonald's in her school vacations, and it's hard to imagine the beautiful, well-dressed 34-year-old flipping burgers.

Next up McAdams will be seen lining up in the Brian De Palma thriller Passion, De Palma being another director with a reputation for being maverick.

McAdams plays a ruthless advertising executive who takes her seemingly meek assistant (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Noomi Rapace) under her wing. But when McAdams takes one of her assistant's ideas as her own, there follows a revenge tale with more twists than at a casino's blackjack table.

“I found working with Brian creatively satisfying,” says McAdams. “I felt like he had a clear vision of what that film was going to be and I felt free to interpret my character, and he was very open to Noomi and I trying whatever we wanted. He shoots very fast and we had lots of time to try things. He allowed us to find our own way and be as experimental as we wanted to be, and the weirder we were, the funnier it seemed to him.”

After working with two of America's more inimitable auteurs, her next move is to work with a rather less forbidding name: Richard Curtis, on the time-travel romp About Time. It's a title that could also refer to the fact that, across the spectrum, the world's top directors are asking McAdams to perform in front of their cameras.

'To The Wonder' is released on 22 February

This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar magazine