Amy Adams can, and does, play anything, with a depth and range epitomized by her roles in two new movies: her sultry, foulmouthed con artist in American Hustle and her kindhearted documentary-film maker in Her. If there’s a throughline to her life, on-screen and off, it’s musical theater. In Santa Monica, Nell Scovell gets Adams talking, and singing, about her mustached co-stars, the many identities she’s assumed, and who she really wants to be.
BY NELL SCOVELL
“When things are out of control, I’ll sing the ‘Golden Helmet’ song, from Man of La Mancha,” she revealed during a recent interview in Santa Monica. “I’ll just go … [sings] I can hear the cuckoo singing in the cuckooberry tree … And everyone in my life knows that means the situation is spiraling.”
Amy Adams, photographed at the Chateau Marmont, in West Hollywood
She still feels empowered by Wicked (who doesn’t?). She starts sobbing at “The Wizard and I” and keeps it going through “Defying Gravity.” The opening of Act II gets her, too. “You know that song … [sings] There’s a couple of things get lost / There are bridges you cross / You didn’t know you crossed / Until you crossssssssed … ” She catches herself. “I love that line. And I’m singing it for you, so now you know I’m a full nerd.”
On the set of Her with Joaquin Phoenix, Adams tried to lure him into her musical web. “I’d try to bait him into singing,” she says. “Annie is a good one to try to get him to sing.” Picturing the man who played Johnny Cash singing “Tomorrow” seems a bit tone-deaf, but Adams defends the choice. “He likes musicals,” she says, adding, “I want to do a musical with him.” Then reality sets in. “I don’t think it’s going to happen.” But if it did, who would she want to direct it? She responds without hesitation, “In my ideal world it’d be really, really fun to have Paul Thomas Anderson.” (Please, someone, start this Kickstarter campaign.)
Adams also tried to trick actress Idina Menzel into showing off her chops. “I’d go up to Idina in the hallways during Enchanted, and I’d say, ‘I hope you’re happy … I hope you’re happy now … ’ And she’d just go, ‘It’s not going to happen, Amy.’ ”
Musical theater (or “the-aay-ter,” as some of Adams’s family members still call it) is the root of her career and what she returns to continually. The middle of seven children in a working-class family, Adams did not get a lot of attention. So it stuck in her head when, as a child, she was singing a song and her mother suddenly took notice. “How do you know all the words?” her mother asked. “Because I know all the words,” five-year-old Amy replied.
Adams grew up loving Grease and A Chorus Line and everything by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber. “I was so entrenched in the high drama,” she confesses. Perhaps this explains why she earned all four of her Academy Award nominations for dramatic roles—Junebug (2005),Doubt (2008), The Fighter (2010), and The Master (2012).
Singing and dancing sneaks into most of her movies. In Doubt, Sister James is clapping to “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” when she witnesses Father Flynn stuffing an undershirt into a boy’s locker. In Trouble with the Curve, Adams does some clog dancing and sings “You Are My Sunshine” to co-star Justin Timberlake, who, oddly, does not join in.
In the just-released American Hustle, Adams’s and Christian Bale’s characters bond over Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues.” This moment was actually inspired by Adams and Bradley Cooper, who got caught dancing to Ellington in Russell’s office during pre-production.
“I watched it with my mouth hanging open,” said Russell, who directed both American Hustle and The Fighter. “She has this kind of thing in her.” He describes Adams as a fierce and musical person. “There’s an Ann-Margret in her,” he says.
Other movies place her musical talents front and center. In Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,Adams and Lee Pace share a tingly duet, “If I Didn’t Care.” The Muppets’ “Me Party” (feat. Miss Piggy) is a delight to all and a favorite of her three-and-a-half-year-old, Aviana. And nothing can top the grandeur of Enchanted’s live-action calypso showstopper, “That’s How You Know.” Listen closely—at the end of the song, there’s a little sigh. That’s the entire world falling in love with Adams.
Two summers ago, Adams went full theater nerd in the Public Theater’s Central Park production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. As the Baker’s Wife, she heads off to gather items for a spell to make herself pregnant and ends up having a quickie with a prince. Before leaving the woods, she takes a moment to reflect on the joys of surprise and stability, of a baker and a prince. She sings:
Must it all be either less or more,
Either plain or grand?
Is it always “or”?
Is it never “and”?
Adams seems to embrace a similar philosophy in her career, choosing a variety of roles—some “less,” some “more,” some “plain,” some “grand.” She’s been a nun and a princess and a bartender and a congressional aide and a blogger and Amelia Earhart and the wife of a cult leader and Lois Lane.
“She purposely keeps a little mystery about herself,” says Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played her husband in The Master. “It’s why you’re able to be surprised by her and taken in by her. She becomes the part she’s playing.”
Even within her range, she shows range. The child-like naïveté of Junebug’s Ashley is different from the giddy innocence of Enchanted’s Princess Giselle, which is wildly different from the ardent chastity of Doubt’s Sister James.
“Obviously, Amy kind of can do anything … and more and more every year,” says Spike Jonze, who directed Her.
Adams’s expansive talent is on full display this holiday season as she portrays a sultry 70s con artist in Russell’s edgy film and a kindhearted documentary-film maker in the far gentler Her. Both open in mid-December and share one other thing in common: all three male leads sport mustaches, which lets the audience know the events take place in either the past or the future. Adams was thrilled. “I love a mustache,” she says. “I love facial hair. I like my men like men.”
For Hustle, Adams cultivated a “hungry and tan” look, losing weight to attain a 70s-era svelteness that she shows off while dancing in a white swimsuit. “Yeah, that’s terrifying,” she says. “It’s amazing what a tan can do. Because I’m not tan, so that was fun to play with.”
As the title suggests, Adams’s character is in constant motion, and her slinky wardrobe—all plunging necklines, no bra—required two things: confidence and “sort of a laissez-faire attitude about what your breasts are doing.” In Her, Adams remains mostly stationary, so there’s no need to give her breasts a second thought—they are buried deep inside a pastel-peach sweater over a white shirt buttoned to the top.
As for Adams’s hair, Russell wanted long, loose curls and the natural color darkened. Jonze called for tighter curls and a blondish hue to contrast with Rooney Mara. Last spring, Laura Linney gave a speech at the Women in Film awards dinner and mused on the ceaseless discussions concerning her hair. “Producers, all male, would shake their heads in dismay and send me back to the colorist … with their very specific and helpful straight-man vocabulary of ‘more’ blond or ‘less’ blond,” she said.
Adams considers this and agrees: “I don’t think I’ve had a discussion of hair color with a female producer.” Then she remembers one exception—Julie & Julia. “[Director] Nora [Ephron] had some ideas. I basically had her hair in Julie & Julia, let’s be honest.”
The audience doesn’t need special glasses for Adams to make a character 3-D. Instead, she fleshes them out from the inside, using a technique she began studying at Warner Loughlin Studios in 1998. Loughlin instructs actors to create a character from the age of three to understand what drives them psychologically. The painstaking result is vibrant and precise. “I recently had a student who said, ‘I don’t know about being an actress—it’s just too much hard work,’ ” Loughlin says.
Adams does the hard work and, increasingly, is invited to be part of the character-development process early on. Hustle was sold as a project with Russell, Bale, and Cooper attached. The next priority was casting the female lead. Russell wanted Adams from the start and reached out to her while editing Silver Linings Playbook.
“David was thinking it would be nice for me to get to hang with the boys, to get to be a real player,” says Adams. “He said, ‘You know, I think you’re ready to be on that playing field.’ ” Adams pauses, then adds with feigned surprise, “I already thought I was.”
Russell has long admired her intensity and recalls with glee the reaction when he cast her inThe Fighter. “People were skeptical: ‘Is she going to play the princess or somebody tough wearing hot pants in a bar?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh, it’s going to happen, and she’s going to be amazing.’ ”
He was right. Adams and Bale both received Oscar nominations for their performances. Their two characters argue through much of the movie, hurling “fuck you” after “fuck you” at each other. In Hustle, they follow through on that suggestion.
Knowing the chemistry between Bale and Adams, Russell now needed to add Cooper to the experiment and see how Adams would react. The elements combined at a BAFTA party in London. Russell introduced the two actors, then went to find Alice Eve, who wanted to dance with Chris Tucker. When Russell returned, Adams and Cooper were already sweaty from dancing and the room was buzzing. “It was very chemical and electric,” says Russell, who knew he had a “fantastic all-star opportunity.”
Together, Adams and Russell crafted for her a complicated, steely, full-blooded, svelte-bodied, hyper-intelligent, glamorous “real player” who juggles two identities. “Sydney/Edith” drives the action and fully personifies the theme of the movie: how everyone plays roles—at home and at work—to survive.
Russell lavishes praise on Adams, calling her both “soulful” and “wildly sexy.” The admiration shows up on-screen as well. A sampling of Bale’s and Cooper’s dialogue includes:
“She’s different. She’s so smart. She’s different.”
“I never met any man or woman in business who was so precise in detail.”
“Your fuckin’ skin is glowing!”
The attention to precise detail and glowing skin is a tip-off. Are they talking about the character or the actress? Is David O. Russell in love with Adams?
Adams laughs off the question. “No. David is not in love with me. I can guarantee that. I’m … [thinks] yes, pretty, 100 percent sure.”
She is wrong. “I’m definitely in love with the characters they’re playing so, of course, I end up falling in love with the person a little bit, and I have been [in love] since I first met Amy years ago,” says Russell.
“She is definitely a muse,” echoes Jonze. “She inspires but is also vocal.”
and Adams first crossed paths about seven years ago, at her audition for Where the Wild Things Are. She didn’t get the part, but Jonze always remembered the way she listened.He sent Adams an early draft, acknowledging that the part of “Amy” was under-written and needed help. They met for lunch.
“One of the things that was really funny,” says Jonze, “was she’d say something like, ‘I don’t want to have a sandwich. I think I’ll have a salad. Actually, I guess I like sandwiches. I don’t know. Do I like sandwiches? Sandwiches are good, right? I should like sandwiches.’ ” He pauses to laugh. A character making a bold statement only to backtrack and question herself struck him as both funny and appealing. “I just loved that in-the-moment trying to figure out who you are,” he says.
This dynamic does pop up often in conversation with Adams. At one point in the interview she declares, “I like people.” Then she backtracks. “Some people.” Then she figures it out. “I like most people.”
This questioning is part of both her personality and her process. Loughlin describes Adams as the student who “always had her hand up, was always inquisitive, always challenging … a thousand questions.”
Hoffman describes Adams as “a great actress” who will keep working until she gets it right. “She’s so vulnerable,” he observes. “She’s the person the director is either in love with or wants to kill.” He explains: “Lots of actors are protective of themselves, but she’s just kind of open,” which allows directors to “project every neurotic problem on her.” She takes it in stride, he adds.
Adams admits she had a rough time and almost went into “panic mode” during rehearsals for the scene in Doubt where her character witnesses Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) confronting Father Flynn (Hoffman). When asked about Adams’s anxiety, Hoffman answers, “What she’s admitting to is her humility. She wasn’t there yet, and she’s with a lot of important people and thinking, I’m not doing so well. You gotta get there, and she does. All the most gifted people I know do that.”
Also, he points out, he didn’t see her “stress a second” when shooting The Master. “At bottom, she’s generous and she shows up to work,” says Hoffman. In other words, there’s no one he’d rather have jerk him off in the sink? He laughs. “Basically,” he responds, then elaborates on the shooting of that memorable scene where his wife works quickly to relieve his stress. “We just showed up and did it,” he says. “She’s one of the people I trust. There’s only a handful of actresses I have that relationship with.”
Hoffman names Catherine Keener as another one of those actresses, and Jonze raises the similarity between Adams and Keener as well. A buddy movie with the two actresses should happen. (Please, someone, launch that Kickstarter campaign, too.) Neither of Adams’s two recent releases passes the Bechdel test (just look it up), although to be fair, the men in Her discuss relationships constantly, too. But even in Julie & Julia, the two female leads never meet—they live in different times, interacting only through recipes.
“I so rarely get to act with other women,” Adams laments. “I got to act with Jennifer [Lawrence, in Hustle], and I thought, This is the most fun I’ve had in so long. Not because I don’t like acting with men, but because there’s an energy created when two women go at each other or are able to create intimacy.”
Adams shows remarkable generosity toward other actresses, replacing common envy with refreshing appreciation. “I get excited for people when I know I should be competitive. I’d say in an audition, ‘I don’t think I’m right for this, but you know who you should get?’ ” she says, adding, “I used to do that when I was an unemployed actress.” She then mimics herself pitching in a meeting: “Has Zooey Deschanel come in? Because she’d be fantastic … Have you met Emily Blunt? Because she is really wonderful.”
Throughout the interview, the praise flows freely for colleagues she has worked with … and some she hasn’t.
Christian Bale: “I’m completely in love with him.”
Jessica Chastain: “One of the most amazing actresses.”
Mark Wahlberg: “He’s fun. And he’s smart. ‘Wicked smaht.’ ”
Laura Linney: “I just love her so much.”
Joaquin Phoenix: “I think he’s one of the most genuine and honest people.”
Jessie Mueller: “A startling talent.”
Jennifer Lawrence: “She’s such a powerhouse. I could learn from her. She’s for real.”
Marion Cotillard: “I mean … I want to be her.”
Meryl Streep: “She lives it.”
None of this friendliness and enthusiasm feels forced, but it does come across a tad …provincial. Adams is not in Colorado anymore. This is L.A., baby, where Bernie Brillstein subtitled his memoir, You’re No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead. The idea is raised that it might help Adams’s career if she started a feud with another actor.
She laughs. “I can’t imagine starting a feud—that’s the funniest thing!” Then she wonders, “With …?”
It should be someone famous, for impact. Hey, maybe she could start a feud with Tom Hanks!
“Oh my gosh, can you imagine how I’d look?” She drops her voice low and gives it a frosty edge: “Tom and I have worked together twice. We’re probably not going to work together again. He knows why.” She drops the act and shakes the thought out of her head. “That’s the most horrible thing. No, if I was going to start a feud I’d start a real one. With someone who deserved it.”
The way she says it, she’s thinking of someone. But she has the discipline to keep the name to herself. While honest and open, Adams is not transparent. “People have an idea of who Amy is in their minds. In reality, she’s hard to pin down,” says Hoffman. “She’s a mercurial person.”
Adams doesn’t pretend to be perfect. “I fluctuate from The Master to The Muppetsin my daily routine,” she says, copping to being human. Perhaps this self-knowledge allows Adams to deliver with equal aplomb lines like “I like Frosty the Snowman” (Doubt) and “I’m not fuckin’ fucking you” (Hustle). She also credits boyfriend/fiancé/“my guy” Darren Le Gallo with helping her to deal with her moods and to transition from the energy and conflicts of the set to being present at home. They’ve been together for eleven and a half years; their daughter, Aviana, was born in 2010. “I’m not pregnant. I’m not getting married anytime soon,” Adams declares for the record.
They met in acting class, but these days Le Gallo focuses his creativity on the visual arts, turning their Hollywood Hills garage into an art studio. Like Adams, he has the talent to move between diverse styles. His list of influences includes Yves Tanguy, Magritte, Bill Plympton, and Ralph Steadman’s pen-and-ink work.
Adams and Le Gallo’s partnership makes both their artistic lives possible. It feels natural to them but still raises cultural eyebrows. Adams recalls how she once took a business trip while Le Gallo stayed home with Aviana, prompting surprise. “You left your husband alone with a child?” exclaimed one woman. Adams responded, “Well, yeah.” She supports his choices; he supports hers. “I know he’s completely capable and lovely, and beautiful, and offers something I could never hope to offer just in the nature of his being,” she explains to a world that should not require an explanation.
When asked about comparing her daughter’s childhood with her own, Adams mimes a spit take. Although Adams has an exotic birthplace (Vicenza, Italy), her military father was soon transferred back to the States, where the family moved from base to base, landing in Castle Rock, Colorado, before Adams had turned 10. She didn’t set foot in New York City until she was 24.
“Everything was new to me as an adult,” she says. “Everything was mine. I owned everything that I did. Very few things were because of my upbringing … so I have a real strong sense of self and a sense of accomplishment, and I want my daughter to have that.”
Musicals connect the two. Adams took Aviana to her first show, Annie, a year ago, and when the two-and-a-half-year-old walked out, she burst into “The sun will come out tomorrow.” “I thought, ‘She will remember this in her cells,’ ” says Adams. Like her own mother, Adams is amazed that her daughter knows the words to “an impossible number of songs.” And to prove it, Adams shares a cell-phone video of Aviana cleaning up her room while singing “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” The cute meter goes to 11 before breaking entirely.
The family will accompany Adams when she travels to shoot the sequel to Man of Steel, this winter and spring. Meanwhile, Tim Burton is editing Big Eyes, based on the true story of artists Walter and Margaret Keane (played by Christoph Waltz and Adams). All the hard work has brought Adams to a place where she has more choice and greater control. She wants to produce and has optioned a Steve Martin novel. She’d also like to direct a play. “Just a one-act. Something simple,” she says.
Hoffman believes that Adams “knows she has to stretch to find out what she can do.” He was speaking of her as an actress, but it applies more broadly.
As Adams departs, she brings up one more song from Into the Woods. It’s among her favorites, but she blanks on the title, so she sings a little, racing through the lyrics to jog her memory:
*Mother cannot guide you
Now you’re on your own
Da da da da da
Still, you’re not alone …*
She stops on a high note. She got it: “ ‘No One Is Alone,’ ” she declares.
And with that, the curtain closes on the first act of Amy Adams: The Musical.