Amy Adams reaches into her bum bag and fishes out a stick of sunscreen. “I’m such a mom nerd,” she apologises, as if sensing the pretence of Hollywood glamour melt with each dab to her flush, freckled cheeks. It is a late summer’s morning and the sun is high – there is nothing to apologise for. But she is congenitally polite and, as she stares up at the storied Art Deco observatory in Griffith Park near the summit of Mount Hollywood, maybe a tiny bit self-conscious.
The hike was her idea. A brisk climb punctuated by postcard views of Los Angeles landmarks: the Hollywood sign, the Santa Monica Mountains, the gauzy downtown skyline. Growing up in Colorado as one of seven children, hiking had been a family ritual – her parents’ way of getting her and her siblings to burn off energy without busting through the walls, or the budget.
But because of an unlikely chain of recent events that, she explains, began with a run-in with her childhood ballet teacher and ended with an overeager return to the horizontal bar, she has suffered an “old lady injury”. Which means she hasn’t exercised in a while. So even a few dozen yards into a hike with someone she has just met, she already feels herself running short of breath.
Between the panting and the bum bag, Adams, a five time Oscar-nominated actor at 43, has begun to wonder what she must look like.
“I feel like I always... I don’t know if disappoint is the right word,” she says, zipping away the sunscreen. She is wearing dark printed leggings, a black gift shop ball cap with her signature strawberry tresses pulled through it, and a black T-shirt that reads, in big cutesy letters: “Better in real life.”
“But whenever people meet me they’re always like, ‘Really? That’s who you are?’”
She stops for a moment, then deadpans the answer she always thinks but never says: “Yes. It is.”
She is featuring in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects (shown in the UK on Sky Atlantic from Monday), her first TV role since she began starring in features more than a decade ago. The eight episode arc, based on the controlled burn of a novel by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), marks a departure of another sort, too – Adams’ performance, as a hard-drinking, self-cutting journalist who returns to her provincial hometown to cover a series of mysterious murders is among the most desolate and disquieting of her career.
“It was a whole other level,” she says, comparing the part with other damaged characters she has played in the past. But she was attracted to the novel’s audacious reframing of the female detective archetype.
“I like when you can take genre and turn it into its own thing,” she says. “That’s something I’m always interested in – trying to defy expectations.”
Amy Adams was a supporting player in near-misses from the raunchy, post-Scream teen movie explosion: the bubbly, oversexed sidekick to Kirsten Dunst in Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) and a debauched social climber in the straight-to-DVD knockoff Cruel Intentions 2 (2000). She jokingly calls this her “naughty girl” phase – the awkward early years in two abundant decades of evolution in front of the camera.
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Another phase came in 2006 when she received an Oscar nomination for a big-hearted portrayal of a small-town expectant mother in Junebug. This is what she refers to as the “innocents” phase, the one seared into collective memory, in which she became one of the most famous and well-liked actors in America.
As Giselle in the subsequent Enchanted (2007), she breathed exuberant life into not only a high-concept revision of Disney princess dogma, but an entire new wave of live-action fairytale movies. A second Oscar nomination followed for Doubt in 2009, in which her credible innocence as the nun Sister James, opposite Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in scathing battle, ballasts a story about the thin line between human nature and the abyss.
Another actor might have settled there, staking out a comfortable living filling in one shade of disarming ingénue or another. But Adams has spent this decade evolving further still. She turned scrappy and raw in The Fighter (2010), chillingly zealous in The Master (2012) and cunning and carnal in American Hustle (2013).
Sharp Objects consummates a new phase. Like the bereaved linguist she played in Arrival (2016), the journalist in the story, Camille Preaker, is adrift and riven with unresolved family trauma, suggesting what the actor identifies as a “moody and introspective” period.
“I don’t have the same darkness and depth of internal anger, but that sort of sadness that drives you to be unkind to yourself? I think I have that,” she says of what she saw in the role.
To become Camille in Sharp Objects, she began, as she always does, by overpreparing – mapping the character’s existential and emotional biography until she believes in her bones that they might plausibly walk the Earth.
The physical transformation was equally demanding, requiring her to stand nearly naked for three to four hours of prosthetics – each morning of a 90 day shoot – in order to create Camille’s topography of cutting scars.
Flynn says that, between “action” and “cut”, Adams “completely immersed herself physically, bodily, mentally into Camille”. Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed all eight episodes of the series, says: “I noticed her voice dropped a few notes and her way of walking changed. Suddenly, it was more sloppy.’”
To create a believable performance, many actors jettison their own personality, hoping their character will seize the resulting void like a territorial spirit. During the making of Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis was so thoroughly consumed by his presidential portrayal that Sally Field, who played Mary Todd Lincoln in the film, later claimed she’d “never met him”.
Some have noted that most method actors, as those who use this approach are known, tend to be men, who may be socially incentivised to take pride in burying themselves in work. “I think men are often very showy about the incredible lengths they go to, ‘Oh my gosh, the demons they must take on!’” Flynn says.
If women are less heralded for going to such lengths, she argues, it’s not for lack of commitment. “Maybe women just do less bellyaching,” she adds.
Adams compares her own process to “catching a virus”, one that she can feel inside her body but suppresses at will. “I’m constantly aware of other people’s experiences on set,” she adds.
Adam McKay, director of a coming film about the life of vice president Dick Cheney, tentatively titled Cheney, says Adams and Christian Bale – a reputed method actor and her previous acting partner in The Fighter and American Hustle – showed similar devotion to their characters.
McKay says Adams’ fluid portrayal of the second lady, Lynne Cheney, which in the film covers five decades, resulted in a kind of uncanny hybrid that he and the rest of the crew took to calling “Amy Cheney”.
“She’s talking in that voice and emotionally leaning in that direction,” he says. “But you can still call her Amy and joke around and talk about other things.”
Adams recalls a few occasions while shooting Sharp Objects when she tried out versions of Camille – spiky, mulish – during phone calls with her unsuspecting husband, the actor and artist Darren Le Gallo. “He was not a fan,” she says with a laugh.
The two have been together for 16 years, and were engaged after six, but only got married in 2015. “I enjoy other people’s weddings, but I never had a wedding fantasy growing up,” Adams says.
The couple – who have an eight-year-old daughter, Aviana – are miraculously private and largely duck the tabloids. At home in the Hollywood Hills, it’s karaoke and ballet practice (for Aviana, at least; Adams has hung up her own point shoes for now) and raucous singalongs with their three howling rescue dogs.
The wedding might never have come had it not been for Aviana’s budding curiosity and Le Gallo’s sister, who picked a date and nudged Adams to capitalise on a two month break from work. “She was like, ‘It’s enough already, you guys are just being stupid’,” Adams says.
This summer the family will temporarily relocate to Brooklyn, where Adams will shoot a film adaptation of another mystery novel, The Woman in the Window. When Aviana was born, Adams took on a slew of projects believing she needed to “hoard work” to be a good provider, a decision she came to regret. Now she filters jobs through school schedules and family holidays.
Like Camille, Adams’ character in The Woman in the Window, a Hitchcockian psychological thriller that debuted at No 1 on The New York Times bestseller list this year, is another artefact of the “moody and introspective” era – she’ll play a mentally unstable and pathologically nosy recluse. “It must be my hormones,” she jokes of the pattern, reverting to her baseline of reflexive self-effacement.
After surviving her “Innocents” phase – the earnestness, the piety, those doe eyes – is there a part of her that’s running in the opposite direction, searching down dark alleys to see what she might find?
She pauses to think, toying compulsively with a beaded bracelet on her left wrist.
It’s not that she regrets any of her previous roles, but she is hungry for a different kind of challenge. “I don’t feel any sense of pride or accomplishment if I’m not being pushed, so I’m interested in anything that will push me,” she says.
“I may succeed, I may fail, but I’ll try anything.”
‘Sharp Objects’ is on Sky Atlantic in the UK from Monday
© The New York Times
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