|Photo by Kevin Scanlon|
If the name Amy Adams rings no bells, think back to the wide-eyed nurse
in pigtails and braces who, on hearing Leonardo DiCaprio confess to multiple deceptions
in Catch Me If You Can, gasped and said, “You mean you’re not a Lutheran?”
That movie, and others more disposable (like this year’s The Wedding Date),
may have established Adams as an ingénue contender. But it’s her cunningly pivotal
role in the wonderful new film Junebug — as Ashley, an overpoweringly friendly
and hugely pregnant young working-class wife living with her in-laws in a North
Carolina backwater — that has made an actress out of her.
Adams comes from Colorado and Minnesota — she’s one of seven children in a family she describes as “a bunch of hams” — but she has a great ear for Southern accents (“Hi, you’re beautiful! Ah lerv her!” Ashley exclaims as she rushes to greet her new big-city sister-in-law), as well as the timing of a natural goofball.
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For a while she lulls us into laughing at this excitable bumpkin who prattles unstoppably about nail polish, shopping malls and baby naming. A little later, she lulls us again into the idea of Ashley as a salt-of-the-earth mediator possessed of earthy folk wisdom. Then, without dropping the giddy ditz thing, the actress takes a number of sly left turns, until by the end of the movie, Ashley emerges as an unassuming rock with an instinctive intelligence born of her fundamental acceptance of life in all its forms. Ashley is the glue that holds her conflicted family together, and virtually the only character who’s not posturing. Director Phil Morrison calls her an “accidental Sufi,” and Adams adds fondly, “She’s an emotional base, someone who’s able to invite you in. She creates an environment of no judgment.”
“I was concerned at times about going too far, being too much of a stereotype,” says Adams, who won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for her performance. “But Phil wanted that, and then he wanted to shatter it and create an effect that I wasn’t necessarily aware of while we were shooting.” Adams loves playing Southern women. “They have a sense of tradition, and yet they’re still modern women underneath it, so it creates a built-in layer and you hardly have to work at it. They’re fierce, but you would never know it.” Over the course of his slow, unexpectedly profound film, Morrison neither endorses nor negates received notions of Southerners. He plays with them, and he feels that Adams taught him something about Ashley on the set. “Amy brought something to it that I never knew was supposed to be there, and yet it was exactly what I needed in order for the movie to mean what I hoped it would mean.I never once heard her question anything that Ashley did from the point of view of ‘well, I would never do that.’ That’s what makes her such a compassionate actor.”
A tall, slender 30-year-old who looks all of 20, Adams gives off a certain reflective seriousness, but in her china-blue eyes and wide, ready smile you can see why casting directors spotted an innocent. She readily admits to having been naive when, at the urging of Kirstie Alley, with whom she appeared in her first movie (1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous), she left the familial environment of Minnesota dinner theater to try her luck in Los Angeles. It was hard at first: “I never really understood that people could use other people before I moved here,” she says. “But I’ve had the Hollywood for Dummies crash course, and had my heart broken a lot going after roles I didn’t get. I’ve learned a lot.”
Enough, perhaps, to be both philosophical and canny — in the way of so many bright young actors who are crafting career strategies rather than just looking for work — about the value of character roles. “If playing an ingénue helps me create a niche for myself, then great,” she says. Still, when she reels off the names of actresses who inspire her — Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Samantha Morton and, more than anyone, Holly Hunter — they’re all risk-takers who have played the wide variety of roles she hopes for, and is already getting. Later this year she will appear in Robert Brinkman’s documentary Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, and she just got a callback for a Broadway musical that will exploit her training as a dancer. When I remark that she looks a little like Nicole Kidman, a blueprint for so many starlets right now, Adams considers this carefully, then says, “I love Nicole Kidman, but I think ultimately I’m more quirky than she is. She’s so refined. I feel like I’m as unrefined as she is refined.” If that lack of refinement produces the likes of Ashley in Junebug, may she coarsen indefinitely.