NEW YORK — At times, Amy Adams feels as if she’s two very distinct people.
There’s the foxy Oscar nominee who shimmies down red carpets in stunning Giambattista Valli and Lanvin gowns. And then there’s the mom of Aviana, 2, who arrives for an interview in jeans and Converse sneakers, her auburn hair pulled back in a messy knot.
“I love that balance,” Adams says. “I had a talk-show blitz yesterday. I had three hours down, so I raced home, changed out of my nice clothes and we walked to Central Park and did the merry-go-round because I promised her we’d do it before we went back. And she remembers. And then we walked back.”
Adams, 38, took a year off to have her baby. Now she’s back, in three decidedly dissimilar films. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, she’s the scarily pitiless wife of a captivating, blustering quack-religious leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman). In Trouble with the Curve, she’s Clint Eastwood’s estranged daughter. In December’s On the Road, she’s Viggo Mortensen’s kooky, unstable common-law poet wife, playing a character based on Joan Vollmer. And next summer, she enters the superhero canon in Man of Steel as Lois Lane opposite Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent.
“It’s like having a ‘this is your life’ moment. This is what I spent the last two and a half years doing,” Adams says. “It’s wonderful and so surreal. The experience of making the film is always the special part.”
Her performances couldn’t be more varied. In The Master, she’s the steel behind Hoffman’s hectoring yet alluring exterior, the rigid scaffolding that supports their controversial cause. Adams’ Peggy is uncompromising, unyielding and firmly entrenched in her husband’s movement, to the detriment of anyone who dares to question it or threaten it.
“I always enjoy complicated character studies,” she says. “I don’t need everything wrapped up in a neat bow to enjoy the filmmaking experience. I loved the role. I loved the idea of being with Philip, of being the woman behind the man.”
In Curve, she got to explore a more modern story, that of a driven lawyer who reconnects with her aging father over the great American pastime of baseball.
“I don’t often play really contemporary women. I do find such refuge in the past, so it’s always cathartic to play someone who’s dealing with issues that I deal with and my friends deal with. Sometimes it’s true that my relationships suffer. My immediate family gets my focus. It’s them, and work.
“I’ve let down a lot of friends or lost friends because of my focus. I apologized to them, but I did what I thought was best at the time. So I did really identify with that sort of person who manages what she can, and things get left behind.”
At home with the lizards
To see an entirely different side of Adams, just catch her in December’s Road, in a scene where she’s scrubbing the kitchen floor and making lewd faces. “Amy has the ability to morph into a character she’d like to play,” says Walter Salles, who directed her in Road. Meryl Streep has that unique quality, and so does Amy.
“All her films are so different. The only correlation between all her roles is the fact that she’s unique in every single one of them. She’s got this ability to immerse you in the specific scene and be completely luminous. She brings complexity and something truly unexpected.”
In person, Adams is precise and focused, but also personable and forthright. She and her fiance, Darren Le Gallo, spent the summer in Manhattan, with Adams playing the Baker’s Wife in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The stage schedule, she says, was brutal, leaving her little time to spend with Aviana and craving any bit of extra sleep she could get.
To that end, Adams recounts how she taught her daughter to stay in bed a little later by putting a clock in her room and telling her Mommy and Daddy would come in when the hand gets to 7. But Adams shares the credit, unlike so many celebrities who propagate the fantasy that they do everything themselves while also shooting films back to back: “It’s my nanny. I thank her every day,” she says.
Little wonder that Salles calls her “collaborative by nature.” And director Rob Lorenz, who worked with Adams in Curve, says the actress is “very aware of herself and very modest and really disarming and easy to work with. She’s keenly aware of everything. She knows what everyone is doing. She picks up on the subtlest of things.”
And she isn’t easily freaked out or intimidated. In one scene in Road, Adams shoos lizards out of a tree, which required training in working with the reptiles.
“We drove for an hour away from New Orleans and went to this place that has hundreds and hundreds of lizards,” Salles says. “There was this man who specializes in handling them. Five minutes after we arrived, Amy was interacting with the lizard man as if she had been there forever. She blends in. Whatever it takes to make a scene, she’ll go for it. Her talent makes things appear to be easy.”
When the cameras roll, she’s a pro. Salles recalls how during the Road shoot, Adams deftly switched between mom and actress modes.
“She has an intensity and capacity to concentrate but is also light and pleasant to be around. She had a very young child at the time. In the hotel, she gave her daughter complete attention and when she was on set, she was completely concentrated on us,” he says.
And Zack Snyder says that during the Steel shoot, Adams lightened up the mood by tapping into her inner showgirl.
“She will sing and perform. We’d be working and I’d be doing some lighting, and she’d have the makeup department and grips and she’d be literally singing show tunes and dancing for them, a capella. She’s good, too.”
A measured balance
For all her self-possession and innate elegance, Adams is also refreshingly candid about her shortcomings and ordinary concerns. She and Le Gallo are flying back to Los Angeles this evening with Aviana, and Adams worries that her daughter will have an in-flight meltdown, as overtired kids are wont to do. She’s prepared, toting a bag of toys, but is resigned that they may not work and her crying daughter would irritate other passengers. “I worry about that a lot, that I’m going to disappoint people. I need to get over that,” she says. “Because people recognize me, I feel very judged if things don’t go well.”
On a flight to Toronto last month, Adams, as generally happens with celebrities, was escorted to the head of the check-in line by an airport employee, to the vocal dismay of another passenger waiting behind her. She walked back to him and, a bit sheepishly, apologized.
Adams recalls one earlier airborne incident involving her crying daughter. “It’s funny. She doesn’t like to be held when she’s upset. She’s very independent. This one woman kept going, ‘Why doesn’t she just pick her up?’ Do you know what would happen if I tried to pick my child up right now? She would lose her mind. I probably shouldn’t worry about it. I love my child,” she says with a sigh.
She doesn’t suffer complainers, but she will commiserate with you about tantrums, or the challenge of making kids eat vegetables. Says Snyder: “Amy is very empathetic to whatever issues you’re going through. You think movie stars don’t have any problems. But she’s a great listener and she can relate.”
She’s not as ferocious as The Master’s Peggy or as strident as Curve’s Mickey. “I’m not somebody who’s publicly fierce. I’m probably more privately fierce. I don’t necessarily assert my control. I’m not someone who likes throwing my power around. I don’t make a scene, unless you mess with my daughter.”
Now that she’s a mom, Adams keeps her priorities in order. She says she’s still ambitious, but in a different, more balanced way. The three-time Oscar nominee — for 2010’s The Fighter, 2008’s Doubt and 2005’s Junebug — loves to act and has no intention of stopping. But she also makes sure that when she comes home at night, whatever character she’s playing doesn’t go with her.
“I don’t want my daughter to feel like she’s somehow a part of that. I cook dinner and we talk about our day. We turn everything off,” she says, referring to various electronic devices. “I still want to work. My work is important to me. I don’t put as much of my identity in my work. I’m not defined as exclusively by it. I still care very much about it.”