The Amy Adams Method
Few actors are as unshowy, or unshakable. With “Sharp Objects,” in which she plays a self-destructive journalist, the five-time Oscar nominee keeps evolving.
Interview by Reggie Ugwu to New York Times
Amy Adams reached into her fanny pack and fished out a stick of sunscreen. “I’m such a mom-nerd,” she apologized, as if sensing the pretense of Hollywood Glamour melt with each dab to her flush, freckled cheeks. It was a late morning in June and the sun was high; there was nothing to apologize for. But she is congenitally polite and, as she stared up at the storied Art Deco observatory in Griffith Park here, on an 1,100-foot summit of Mount Hollywood, maybe a tiny bit self-conscious.
The hike had been 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 explained, began with a run-in with her childhood ballet teacher and ended with an overeager return to the horizontal bar, she had suffered an “old lady injury.” Which meant that she hadn’t exercised in a while. Which meant that, even a few dozen yards into a hike with someone whom she just met, she’d already felt herself running short of breath.
Between the panting and the fanny pack, Ms. Adams, already a five-time Oscar-nominated actress at 43, had begun to wonder what she must look like.
“I feel like I always … I don’t know if disappoint is the right word,” she said, zipping away the sunscreen. She was wearing dark, printed leggings, a black gift-shop ball cap with her signature strawberry tresses pulled through it and a black T-shirt that read, in big cutesy letters, “Better in real life.” “But whenever people meet me they’re always like ‘Really? That’s who you are?’”
She stopped for a moment, then deadpanned the answer that she always thinks but never says: “Yes. It is.”
She’ll star in July in the HBO mini-series “Sharp Objects,” her first television 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 — Ms. Adams’s 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 said, comparing the part to other damaged characters she’s played in the past. But she had been 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 said. “That’s something I’m always interested in — trying to defy expectations.”
The first Amy Adams that came into view was a hungry-eyed Lolita. She 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 called this her “Naughty Girl” phase — the awkward early years in two abundant decades of evolution in front of the camera.
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 was 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 actresses 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 fairy-tale 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 actress might have settled there, staking out a comfortable living filling in one shade of disarming ingénue or another. But Ms. 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 actress identified 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 said of what she saw in the role.
On the trail in Griffith Park, snaking toward the observatory, she described a series of setbacks from her pre-“Junebug” days — canceled television series (she co-starred in the evanescent 2004 Rob Lowe vehicle, “Dr. Vegas”), big breaks that snapped shut again — and an attendant “negative self-dialogue” that never quite went away. “I have this internal voice that is just not a cheerleader for myself,” she said.
We paused to take a breath in the shade of a billowing bush. Above: spindly cotton clouds, brilliant blue sky. Ms. Adams took a swig from a bottle of water and then, noticing my empty hands — my conspicuous lack of anything resembling a fanny pack — shot me a concerned look.
“Did you bring any water?” she asked.
I did not. A more concerned look. Her self-consciousness dissipated, suddenly confronted by a more pitiable being.
“Here,” she said, waving me over. “Drink.”
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.
Ms. Flynn said that, between “action” and “cut,” Ms. Adams “completely immersed herself physically, bodily, mentally into Camille.” Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed all eight episodes of the series, said, “I noticed her voice dropped a few notes and her way of walking changed. Suddenly, it was more sloppy, like ‘I don’t give a [expletive].’”
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 incentivized 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!’” Ms. Flynn said.
If women are less heralded for going to such lengths, she argued, it’s not for lack of commitment. “Maybe women just do less bellyaching,” she said.
Ms. Adams compared her own process to “catching a virus,” one that she can feel inside her body but suppress at will. “I’m constantly aware of other people’s experiences on set,” she said.
Adam McKay, director of a coming film about the life of Vice President Dick Cheney, tentatively titled “Cheney,” said Ms. 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.
Mr. McKay said Ms. Adams’s 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 said. “But you can still call her Amy and joke around and talk about other things.”
Occasionally, the Cheney persona — political ideology and all — manifested at surprising moments, like on the day Congress passed a sweeping overhaul of the tax code.
Mr. McKay had found the news depressing, believing the bill favored the superrich, and, speaking to Ms. Adams about it on set, was taken aback when she all but accused him of being a socialist.
“She looks at me, totally in character, and immediately goes, ‘Well Adam, when people do well in life, they shouldn’t be punished.’”
At the South-Facing summit of the Griffith Park trail, the Griffith Observatory sits on a manicured plateau from which you can see miles in every direction. We escaped the sun and sat in a quiet corridor in the back of the white, triple-domed building.
Ms. Adams recalled 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 said 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,” Ms. Adams said.
The couple — who have an 8-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, Ms. Adams has hung up her own pointe 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 Mr. Le Gallo’s sister, who picked a date and nudged Ms. Adams to capitalize on a two-month break from work. “She was like, ‘It’s enough already, you guys are just being stupid,’” Ms. Adams said.
This summer, the family will temporarily relocate to Brooklyn, where Ms. Adams will shoot a film adaptation of another mystery novel, “The Woman in the Window.” When Aviana was born, Ms. Adams took on a slew of projects believing she needed to “hoard work” in order to be a good provider, a decision she came to regret. Now she filters jobs through school schedules and family vacations.
Like Camille, Ms. Adams’s character in “The Woman in the Window,” a Hitchcockian psychological thriller that debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list this year, is another artifact of the “Moody and Introspective” era — she’ll play a mentally unstable and pathologically nosy recluse. “It must be my hormones,” she joked 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 paused 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 said.
“I may succeed, I may fail, but I’ll try anything.”