American Sweetheart Amy Adams Ain’t So Sweet

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High above Beverly Hills, a sun the color of a vodka screwdriver gazes weakly into a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. In walks an Amy Adams that we have not yet met. We’ve seen her in a tiara, a nun’s robe and sensible office attire. Today she is lean in tight, dark jeans, a snug T-shirt and a low-cut jacket. She tosses her signature cherry-drop hair, and thanks to a recent cold, speaks in a sultry, Lauren Bacall rasp. One can’t help but wonder if the rough, sexy speaking voice is the latest twist in a career that is traveling down some fresh asphalt. Maybe she should maintain that louche larynx by screaming in parking lots at midnight. “That would really expand my repertoire of work,” Adams says. “It could change people’s perceptions of me.”

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Not that there’s anything wrong with the going idea of Adams. The hard-working, singing/dancing/acting 34-year-old, formerly of Castle Rock, Colorado, is a serious study of craft, and a girl who bootstrapped her way up through years of dinner theater into a career that now pays out multimillion-dollar fees. That upturned nose does not lie. Amy Adams, it has to be said, is very nice. The perception of her niceness is at the heart of the unfolding Amy Adams story. Often described as “pure” and “innocent,” Adams finds herself in the curious predicament of having to persuade people that she is prone to behaving badly on occasion. In a town where fast-rising stars employ teams of experts to pressure-wash an image, the job of sullying one offers a rare opportunity to work against the system.

When asked about the Care Bears nature of her press, Adams says, “These are the kind of things I hate when I read them. I am so just like anyone else. It is interesting to be perceived as innocent. Innocent of what? I’m certainly not naïve.” She is less exasperated than she is eager to assert her normalcy. “I misbehave. I just do it in private.” The prevailing urge to cast Adams as the ultimate good girl is understandable. As Enchanted’s Princess Giselle, she was a winning spectacle in virginal white. In 2005’s indie smash Junebug, for which Adams received an Oscar nomination, she played a guileless Southern bride, eager in a sprigged cotton maternity dress. “The sweet girl in Junebug is not who Amy really is,” says co-star Embeth Davidtz. “Amy’s much naughtier than anyone I know. I can’t give you examples because they are so beyond X-rated. She’s got the wickedest sense of humor and says what nobody else would think to say.”

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Then came 2008’s dramatic powerhouse, Doubt, the screen adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, in which Adams resumed her saintly image but pushed her acting craft to the next level. In each career-changing role, volleying scene after scene with Meryl Streep, Adams transformed into a trusting young nun, robed in acres of hand-sewn wool. “Her face in that bonnet is like a lamp with those blue eyes coming out of it,” says Shanley, who directed the film. Explaining Adams’ approach to working alongside a superstar like Streep, Shanley offers: “Her goal was just to survive—and not look like a schmuck, and she more than did that.”

Schmuck, never. As her recent BlackBook fashion shoot attests, the girl’s got legs. Adams the actress, whose face is among the most subtly expressive in film, is also able to trigger telling cues through her wardrobe. This month’s Sunshine Cleaning, a hit at last year’s Sundance Festival, stars Adams as a single mom who opens her own crime scene cleanup service. It is a rare “jeans role” for a girl who knows exactly how to wear them. “We went a couple of different ways with my character, Rose. One was the ‘mom jeans’ way, and then there was the pseudo-prostitute version.” Adams decided to take the middle ground, opting for a pair by Lucky Brand. “My justification was that if she could buy them at [discount chain] Ross,” she says, “then it was okay for the character.” Adams also fought for her housecleaning character to wear a pair of khakis. “That was a real battle,” she says. “I said, I’m sticking by the khakis. They can be Dickies, but I am not wearing a dress.”

For Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian, a blockbuster ready to strike in May, Adams plays Amelia Earhart, naturally, in jodhpurs. “Tight jodhpurs,” says Adams. “It’s going to be an Amy Adams butt show. I was like, That’s a lot of information. I’m not known for showing my ass on camera, but there it is.”

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Bite down on the Amy Adams brand and what you find instead of sweet air is a bar of 70% cacao chocolate. “My friend Sarah calls me a ‘broad,’” Adams says. “And that’s kind of how I would describe myself.” We like this broad. A broad likes her liquor, but would never sell out a friend. A broad is a man’s woman and a woman’s woman, just like Adams. But this good girl’s alter ego is no slice of Hollywood schtick, trumped up to add dimension. She is a bon vivant, not a bad lieutenant, and does not pretend to be otherwise. “I think it’s not just the actions you do,” she says. “It is the spirit in which you do them. I’m about experiencing life.” To that end, Adams goes out on the town and enjoys her cocktails, but with one very important, non-negotiable caveat: “I take cabs. That’s my secret tip.” In other words, you’ll never see a mug shot of Adams plastered on TMZ. “I would not look cute,” she says. “I would definitely cry.”

Okay, so she’s not exactly the Wu-Tang Clan. Adams’ tastes do, however, run to the dive-ier end of the spectrum. For every night she is seen in sleek formal wear at a premiere, there are many more in which she heads out in denim to favorite local Los Angeles bars, such as El Compadre (where she loves the flaming Cadillac margaritas), and West Hollywood’s legendary brawl hall, Barney’s Beanery. “I go to happy hour and play pool with my brother,” says Adams. “It doesn’t end well! We get in trouble with our significant others every time we go.” Her other favorite haunt in town is Cheebo, an inexpensive restaurant within walking distance of the place she rented for the past couple of years (she has since bought her first house). She loves to dress up, just not every day.

Not surprisingly, she brings this down-to-earth quality to her roles and to the rest of her life. Philip Seymour Hoffman says that the only thing that surprises him about his Doubt co-star is “how well she has handled everything that has happened to her.” Emily Blunt, Adams’ onscreen sister in Sunshine Cleaning, describes a working method that never strays from the earthbound: “She manages to capture a character’s heartbeat. She makes brave choices and maintains them, and that’s the hardest part.”

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Adams goes up against Streep again in the upcoming Julie and Julia, a cinematic cook-off between real-life writer Julie Powell and a fictionalized Julia Child, a role for which Adams boned a duck. Future plans include marrying her boyfriend of eight years, Darren Le Gallo. (Adams is thinking about making it a potluck reception: “Brides across America are cringing!”). When asked what the Amy who arrived in L.A. just more than 10 years ago, and headed for years of tiny apartments and canceled TV shows, would say to the one who has been nominated for an Oscar, and has just wrapped two movies with Meryl Streep, Adams reflects for a moment: “I’d tell her not to worry so much. And to dye her hair earlier.”

If there were still a studio system, Adams’ stock would be less Shirley Temple and more, say, Rita Hayworth. Like her, Adams is a redhead who can swizzle a man’s brains with just one close-up. And just as Marilyn clicked into place when she traded Norma Jean’s mousey brown hair for platinum, Adams’ leap from her natural strawberry blonde to a rich red took her career from zero to 60 in a flash. “It sounds so silly, but if you haven’t made a huge hair color change it is hard to explain. When I dyed my hair red, there was a palpable shift. I didn’t get as much attention as I did when I was a blonde, but I got quality attention.”

Adams is not coy about the larger meaning behind this superficial change. “I have a lot of energy naturally and can be quite vivacious,” she says. “I’m full of vigor. I’m Tigger. I think people read that as being naïve or dumb. But as soon as I became a redhead, people were like, You’re that quirky firecracker. Suddenly, I was a pistol.”

So, with all the calculators and abacuses clacking away in movie studio back offices, no one can predict when “it” will strike. Sometimes, all it takes is a slight twist of the dial. “I do think there is an ‘it’ factor to some people,” Adams says. “Some people have ‘that’ thing and others have ‘this’ thing or ‘a’ thing. Not everyone has the same thing. I spent a lot of time trying to be like other people. I tried desperately.” And yet, her thing is effortless. When informed that she, too, has a thing, Adams looks startled. “I have a thing?” Yes, Amy, you have a thing. “But I don’t have ‘it,’” she says. Um, yes, you do. If “it” is the ability to light up the screen and grab the audience’s attention with every passing thought or subtle gesture, then yeah, she’s got it.

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Photography by Matthias Vriens, Styling by Elizabeth Sulcer