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Amy Adams Interview: Esquire Meets The Star Of 'American Hustle'

Earlier this year, Esquire’s editor flew to Boston to meet Hollywood’s most versatile actress who was then hard at work on the new must-see movie, American Hustle

Amy Adams Interview: Esquire Meets The Star Of 'American Hustle'

Amy Adams arrives promptly for our Sunday brunch appointment, wonders whether I’m really all that hungry (I’m not, really), apologises for turning up at a restaurant with no appetite of her own to speak of, and suggests a walk instead. So we leave behind the linen tablecloths and the silverware of the place that has been booked for us, and step out into the sunshine of a spring day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the leafy university town just across the water from Boston.

We don’t go far but still, it’s striking to me that this prominent Hollywood movie star can walk the bustling streets of an American city not only unmolested but apparently unnoticed. Admittedly, she’s not exactly in red carpet mode – she’s wearing jeans and lace-up leather boots and a fishtail parka over a simple shift blouse – and granted we’re not in Beverly Hills or the West Village, or wherever one might be alert for prominent celebrity sightings. Still, I would think that the cascading red hair, at least, might be a giveaway. And yet in the hours I spend with her not a single person approaches or even, so far as I notice, stares.

“I guess I’m small,” she says, by way of explanation for this easy anonymity, as we squeeze into a busy café on Harvard Square, and take our coffees upstairs to talk. Amy is small, that’s true. She’s also extremely pretty, though again, not distractingly so: she’s real-world beautiful, rather than otherworldy glamazon. Her most distinctive features, auburn tresses apart, are her daintily retroussé nose, her big grey-blue eyes and her delicate pale skin. (English skin, she calls it. “The first time I went to London I was like, ‘These are my people!’”)

As anyone who has seen the trailer or the posters for her new movie, American Hustle, can confirm, Amy can do megawatt knockout when the occasion requires it, but she can also do dialed down civilian, which is, after all, what she feels she is. In fact, that ability to be both glamorous movie star and relatable normal person is key to her success: Amy Adams disappears into her roles in a way that few actresses in her league are able to, in part because her own character is a less well known quantity than that of, say, to pick two of her contemporaries, Angelina Jolie or Gwyneth Paltrow.

If it’s possible to be an under-the-radar A-lister then that’s what Amy is. A four-time Oscar nominee, she is the star of all-singing, all-dancing blockbuster family entertainments (Enchanted, The Muppets), critically acclaimed prestige projects (Doubt, The Fighter, The Master), kooky indies (Junebug, Sunshine Cleaning), mainstream melodramas (Julie & Julia, Trouble with the Curve) and broad comedies (Talledega Nights, the second Night at the Museum). This year she was Lois Lane in the latest Superman reboot, Man of Steel, and she’ll be Lois again before too long, in Batman vs. Superman. Before that comes Spike Jonze’s futurist romance, Her, as Joaquin Phoenix’s video-game developer best friend. And she’s already finished Tim Burton’s next film, Big Eyes, in which she plays the real-life artist Margaret Keane, celebrated for her haunting paintings of children. In other words, the girl has range.

And yet, despite all this, she has somehow managed to avoid the total surrender of privacy that major movie stardom often seems to require.

“We’re pretty low key,” she says, by way of explanation, of her life in LA with her fiancé Darren Le Gallo, an actor and painter, and their three-year-old daughter, Aviana. “We’re not too VIP, you know what I mean?”

The home life she describes sounds entirely conventional: together since 2001, she and Darren go to work, they take Aviana to the park, they try their best to fit in a date night once a week. What makes her life different from yours and mine is that Amy’s job involves working with Hollywood’s most decorated directors and brightest stars. The reason we’re in Cambridge today is that she is here shooting American Hustle. It’s a Boston-set crime movie, and a typical Amy Adams film in that it has an acclaimed writer-director (David O Russell, most recently of The Silver Linings Playbook), a dynamite ensemble cast (Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence) and chances are it’ll be critically adored and nominated for trophy-cabinets full of awards, as was The Fighter, the last film Amy worked on with Russell and Bale.

It’s not, then, that Amy’s life is entirely without the perks and pitfalls of celebrity, just that she makes a conscious effort to keep her feet on the ground: “I feel like if I lose touch with humanity by only surrounding myself with privilege then I won’t be able to play my roles honestly any more.” She describes with great joy the recent experience of driving home in the early hours from the set and stopping for food at a falafel place. “I live for those moments,” she says. “I stood for like half an hour waiting and no one was paying attention to me. They were all getting drunk and I was getting to overhear conversations: these two college students, guys, debating the morning after pill. I miss that.”

Twice during our conversation Amy tells me she’s boring. She knows that’s not true. She’s not boring at all. She’s a smart, funny, engaging person who has quietly constructed one of the most impressive CVs in Hollywood. She’s also a complicated, conflicted woman who has struggled with feelings of doubt and insecurity at many points in her life and career, from childhood onwards. And despite being an avowedly private person, she is also a serious and thoughtful interviewee, quite willing to talk in detail about her experiences, good and bad.

What Amy is categorically not is a scandal-prone magnet for the tabloids. There’s no salacious gossip about her private life. She gets chased by photographers but on her way to her daughter’s dance class, rather than falling out of nightclubs. At 39, she says, “I think I’m too old to go out clubbing in a dignified way. It’s not cute to be a hungover momma.”

In fact, so slim are the controversial pickings that pretty much every journalist in my position is obliged to point out that before she was famous she once worked for a time at Hooters, the American restaurant chain that serves its beer and burgers with a side order of sexy waitress in low-cut vest and micro-shorts. Which is true, up to a point: she was only there very briefly more than twenty years ago, and she never wore the tacky outfit.

Her public image, if she has one, is of someone not unlike the women in the films that initially made her famous: unassuming, small-town, perhaps a bit square. “I think it’s because I’m polite. I believe in manners. I say please and thank you.”

“Oh, my Gosh!” is her most frequently used exclamation. “Gee,” is another. At one stage she wants to use an expletive to describe herself as a moody teenager, but she hesitates. “I don't know what word I can use in a magazine,” she says. What word do you want to use? She whispers it: “Shit.”

“I would love to be a diva,” she says, when I ask her if she ever stamps her feet on set. “But I would then have to send so many apology notes for my abhorrent behavior I couldn’t do it. I’d be like, ‘What would my family say?’ They’d be like, [disapproving voice] ‘Oh, Amy!’”

The fourth of seven kids, Amy grew up shy in a house full of outgoing people: four brothers, two sisters and parents with a flair for performance. As a child, she says, she was always grateful to be one of many; it deflected attention. “I kind of like not being noticed,” she says. To put it mildly, this seems an unusual attitude for an actor. “It’s been a struggle,” she says, “because I love performing but if I’m in a group of people and someone has a bigger personality I’m like, ‘Go ahead, have fun! Looks like a lotta work.’” It’s this, perhaps, that explains her choice of screen roles. She is so often the calm, still centre of a film, around which louder, flashier actors can pivot and strut.

Her father is a soldier turned singer, her mother a masseur and semi-pro bodybuilder. Amy was born in Italy, where her dad was stationed for a time, but she did most of her growing up in Castle Rock, Colorado, right in the middle of the country, close to the spectacular wilderness of the Rocky Mountains.

“There is a real connection with the earth, living there,” she says. “When we took trips it was camping and hiking, using the world as your playground as opposed to going to amusement parks.” As for mischief, “The most trouble you could get in was smoking in [chain restaurant] Village Inn while you drank your coffee. You thought you were very sophisticated with your bottomless cup of coffee, sneaking cigarettes.”

In her earliest years the family was Mormon, but Amy’s parents divorced when she was eleven and subsequently they left the church. “I was still a child when we left, so I didn’t necessarily have a strong religious pull towards the church. For me it was just you suddenly weren’t a part of the community.”

She was an indifferent student at Douglas County High School and not, by any means, one of the popular kids. “I hated high school, really hated it,” she says. “It was classic teenage stuff. I was kind of a loner. I wasn’t bullied or anything but I would bring a book and read at lunch. I was really moody.” Right at the end, when she at last made a couple of friends, things improved somewhat – “We would ditch school and drink wine coolers” – but she knew she didn’t want to further her education. She couldn’t wait to be out in the real world, earning a living. Her salvation was musical theatre. She used happy music, she says, to mask an internal sadness. Her dream was to become a professional dancer. “I always loved dancing and singing,” she says. “It was just [a question of] overcoming my insecurity to be able to do it in front of people.”

After school she spent a brief period in Atlanta, Georgia, to where her mother had relocated. But and when a friend told her of an opening in dinner theatre production of Annie back in Colorado, she headed home. She spent the next few years singing and dancing in shows including Brigadoon and A Chorus Line at dinner theatre venues – essentially, audiences eat and then watch the show – across Colorado and then in Minnesota.

In the first one she worked at, the performers would serve dinner to the audience and, once the plates were cleared away, the show could begin. Sometimes the dessert would be left on the tables so there would be some clinking of sundae glasses during the performance. “It’s easy to make fun of it but it’s actually some of the best times I’ve had,” Amy says now. “It was a great way to spend my twenties. You developed a great work ethic. Eight shows a week. You turned up to work on time.” She thinks that when young Hollywood actors go off the rails, rather than jail or rehab they should be sent to work in regional dinner theatre; that would set them straight.

The first defining moment in her adult life was the death of a close friend in a hiking accident, when they were both 23. “He’d been one of the few people who knew me when I was younger and then he was my boyfriend for a while and then we just remained friends and talked. I haven’t really ever talked about this before in an article but it had a huge effect on me. I thought: this is it, this is the only life.” Was she going to spend hers in regional dinner theatre, or should she aim for something more ambitious? Until then, she says, “I’d always operated out of fear.” Now she was determined to get to New York or LA.

The story of what happened next sounds almost too good to be true, but Amy confirms every detail. Temporarily off work from her Minnesota musical job because she had pulled a muscle in her leg, she decided to audition for a Hollywood film that was, miraculously, shooting on location nearby. She got the job. The film was Drop Dead Gorgeous, a comedy set in the world of competitive beauty pageants, and when she suggested to one of its stars, Kirstie Alley, that she might try her luck in Hollywood, Alley encouraged her to give it a shot.

“I didn’t grow up feeling I could be famous,” she says. “[Back then] there was no ‘Stars: they’re just like us.’ It was more like, ‘Stars: they’re nothing like you.’” Alley, “made it seem like it could happen. Sometimes you just need to hear it from somebody who’s been there to make it tangible.”

At 24, she set off with her brother for California, in an old Toyota, which duly broke down in New Mexico. “We didn’t have anything. Didn’t have a phone, a pager. A tow truck came from the next town and rescued us.” When they finally got to LA they had “no car, not apartment to move into, nothing.” They stayed with a cousin while they tried to find their feet.

The next series of events is still more remarkable: within two weeks she had signed with the manager that she still has, the agency she still has and she’d booked a part in a TV pilot. While most struggling actors wait tables for years, Amy was a waiter for precisely two days. “I struggled plenty after that but I did have a lot of events fall into place for me that can only be described as luck.”

A theme of my conversation with Amy is the see-sawing nature of her life, with moments of good fortune followed by periods of struggle and uncertainty.

“I’ve had several episodes of falling into these cycles of insecurity and it all seeming so daunting,” she says. The first was adjusting to life in LA, around the turn of the century. “It was a shock to the system,” she says. “I’d lived in a very sheltered world of theatre where even if there was competition I really felt like it was a family. So to suddenly be around people that weren’t rooting for you was a really new feeling for me. It was a little overwhelming.” She refers to 1999 to 2000 as “The dark year.”

At first she played mean girls, bitchy blondes in B-movies and generic TV shows. She met Darren in 2001, and the following year landed a dream job: Brenda, a sweet, bashful volunteer nurse who falls for Leonardo DiCaprio’s charming con man in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can. It should have been her star-making breakthrough: a plum part in a terrific film from Hollywood’s most respected director, opposite cinema’s most dazzling leading man. What happened?

“I choked,” she says. “I mean I could blame it on a lot of other things but I choked. I just felt this pressure to suddenly be this level of actress that I wasn’t confident enough to be. I did a series of really bad auditions, I had opportunities presented to me and I let the nerves get the best of me.”

She didn’t work again for almost a year. “It was horrible,” she says. “And the couple of years after that it was, ‘I can’t do this. I’m not strong enough to continue with this level of rejection, which was constant.’ It was, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ I was staring down 30. ‘What do I want, what do I want to do?’ It wasn’t like my life was so bad. I was just lost, confused, I was horribly insecure.”

She was offered and accepted a part in a TV show called Dr Vegas, with Rob Lowe. Then she changed her mind about doing it. Then they decided they didn’t want her anyway. Then came Junebug, which changed everything.

A low-budget indie drama, with no real stars, Junebug was shot over 21 days in 2004 and it opened at the Sundance Festival at the beginning of the following year. Few people who saw it came away talking about anything other than Amy’s performance. She plays Ashley, a God fearing, blue collar southern belle: sunny, kind, gauche, and heavily pregnant. She’s the kind of character – unworldly, not fashionable or cultured – who is often patronized even by well-meaning filmmakers, who can’t help making fun of the unsophisticated tastes of those less urbane than themselves. But Amy makes Ashley, for all her compulsive oversharing and her gummy smiles, a complicated, compelling and admirable person, the superior of those around her.

“[Ashley] was so exposed and raw and I think I felt like that, too,” Amy says now. “She had a vulnerability. It reminded me of growing up and having all this internal sadness but masking it with musical theatre and dance.”

From being close to unknown she was suddenly hot property, an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress. But the really revelatory performance was still to come. In 2007 she was cast as Giselle, a cartoon princess brought to life in modern-day New York City, in Disney’s Enchanted. What could have been trite, cynical and sickeningly winsome is made sweet and funny and winning by Adams’ wholehearted embrace of both the conventions of the genre – the big musical numbers, the sweeping romance, the good and the evil – and the sly, pitch-perfect nods and winks to the silliness of the whole thing. Variety, the influential trade publication, compared Amy’s performance to an earlier star-is-born moment: that of Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins.

For a time, her image would become fixed as a wide-eyed ingénue with a disarmingly steely core. “Naivete is not stupidity,” Amy says, “and innocent people are often very complex.” In Doubt, set in Sixties New York, she was a gentle young nun who accuses a charismatic clergyman of inappropriate behavior with an altar boy. She received her second Oscar nomination. And entered another period of angst.

“I had an existential crisis at the Oscars, sitting next to Sean Penn and Meryl Streep and being like, ‘What am I doing here? I don’t belong here. Everybody can see right through it all.’ I felt like it could all be taken away.”

No matter how successful she becomes, she’s always susceptible to criticism. Recently she banned herself from the internet, to avoid the negative comments of bloggers and critics. Even when the reviews are good, “They just have to say one thing and I’ll be, ‘That’s right! I agree with you! My voice is a little hollow.’”

Crises of confidence apart, her career has gone from strength to strength. If anything proved she was much more than a cosy, family-friendly screen presence, someone who had every right to be sitting alongside Penn and Streep at the Oscars, it was 2010’s The Fighter, David O Russell’s terrific Eighties-set drama about boxer brothers, played by Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg. Amy plays Charlene, a tough, resourceful barmaid prepared to seize her slender shot at happiness after a lifetime of let-downs and set-backs. She gets an entrance any actress would kill for, knocking back shots in denim cut-offs and a crop top. Her opening line to Wahlberg’s character: “Are you just going to stand there and stare at my ass?” Again she was nominated for an Oscar, again she missed out, a pattern repeated at the beginning of this year when she was nominated yet again for her terrifying performance as a zealous cult member in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.

That time there was less angst and insecurity. She is learning to relax and enjoy her success, and the attendant hoopla, a little more. Becoming a mum has played a big part in that. Recently, Aviana has encountered her mother’s work for the first time, when they happened upon Enchanted on a hotel TV. “She looked at it and said, ‘Mummy that’s you!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ And she said, ‘What are you doing in that white dress?’ She knows that I make believe but she doesn’t quite get it yet. She’s started to ask lots of questions about it. So it should be an interesting next year.”

At one point I had suggested to her that actors tend to be insecure people. It’s why they get into the business in the first place. They are seeking some sort of validation.

“I didn’t become an actor for validation, at all,” she says. “I graduated high school and I didn’t have a skill set and I didn’t want to go to college. I needed a job. This is what I could do. And I like it but it can be very painful. You feel so vulnerable all the time on set, and exposed. But I had that feeling of being exposed when I was a waitress, I have it at parties when I say too much, I have it here, you know?

“It’s funny,” she says, conscious that she might come across as ungrateful, “because talking to you it seems so reasonable but even now thinking about people reading it: ‘Oh, yeah, her life is so hard.’ No! It’s not that. It’s just being a human is hard and I’m a human so I’m just telling you my human experience.”

Back on the street, Amy and I say our goodbyes. I’m heading to the airport. She’s going to walk back to the house she’s renting with Darren and Aviana, and they’re going to head to the park. I watch her cross the square, swinging her bag, dodging the foreign press newsstand displaying the glossy international covers, all those famous faces competing for attention. Amy doesn’t give them a second glance. She strides purposefully past the subway station and disappears into the thickening crowd.


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