Amy Adams: "Even to this day I have this fantasy: 'What else would I do if I didn't act?' And I've got nothing." Photo: Paola Kudacki/trunkarchive.com/Snapper Media
When Amy Adams first read the script for her new film Big Eyes, five years ago, she passed on it. She was only looking for "strong female roles" and it didn't fit the bill.
Big Eyes is based on the true story of artist Margaret Keane, whose second husband, Walter, took credit for her paintings of children with huge, doleful eyes, passing them off as his own, then popularising them in the 1960s through mass-production prints. As Walter kept telling her, "People don't buy lady art."
Adams initially regarded Keane – locked in a custody battle with her first husband for her daughter and wanting Walter's protection – as a pushover. Then, a year later, the actress had her daughter Aviana and reconsidered her definition of what constitutes strength.
"I think that there's probably a great conflict within her, between being an artist and being a mother," Adams says of Keane's surrender to her husband's plan. "You start doing something because you believe it's the right thing to do, and it ends up being the wrong thing to do for the right reasons."
Keane eventually sued Walter and took back control of her intellectual property and is now considered by some to be a late-blooming feminist.
Adams described Keane in her Golden Globes acceptance speech (she won a Best Actress award) as "a woman who had such a quiet voice, strong heart and strong artistic vision – and ultimately was able to use her voice".
Adams, the middle of seven children, has been driven to find her own voice from a young age. Born in Italy 40 years ago, where her father was stationed with the US Army, she mostly grew up in Castle Rock, Colorado. Adams was raised Mormon until the age of 12, when her parents divorced and left the Church. Even now, there's a residual wholesomeness about her that is decidedly un-Hollywood.
On the day we meet, the petite star is dressed in a modest Calvin Klein twinset, that matches her pellucid blue eyes. Her thick auburn hair drapes softly at her shoulders and the only tiny sign of rebellion is her tan pumps, kicked off impetuously on the floor.
Not only does Adams, in spite of her fame, remain softly spoken and eager to please, she is raising Aviana, 4, to be a little lady, too. "I'm a pretty firm mother," she says. "I really believe in manners and I've definitely had other mothers look at me like I'm a little hard on her. I don't want her to blindly follow authority but at the same time I'd like her to understand boundaries."
This is partly a case of Adams having learnt the hard way. School was not her forte, mostly because she was just waiting for it to be over so she could join the workforce. "Being one of seven kids, I was going to be responsible for my own education, financially," she says. "And I didn't want to accrue all these student loans and have to pay them off as a dancer. I was very practical."
Instead, she spent several years singing and dancing in dinner-theatre shows across middle America until she caught a break, scoring a role in the beauty pageant mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous. Co-star Kirstie Alley encouraged Adams to leave regional theatre and try her hand in the rough and tumble of Hollywood – a move that brought its share of lows as well as highs. What kept her going in the face of rejection? "Lack of options," she admits. "Seriously. I could not figure out what else I would do. Even to this day, I have this fantasy: 'What else would I do if I didn't act?' And I've got nothing."
That pragmatism paid off when she scored a role in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can as a nurse who falls for a charming con man, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. It was another three years, though, until her breakout role in Junebug (2005), playing a naive and vulnerable housewife whose baby is stillborn. The performance earned her the first of five Oscar nominations (pundits regarded her failure to garner an Oscar nomination for Big Eyes as a surprising snub from the Academy).
The accolades are impressive but the work itself has come at a psychological cost. "I'm very jealous of this sense of freedom other actors have with their work," Adams admits. "I've approached my work with fear, if I'm being honest. It's a big part of my life – a lot of fear of judgment, a lot of fear of failure."
Enjoying a low-key life helps ease some of the anxiety that has come with meteoric success. Adams has been in a relationship with artist and actor Darren Le Gallo for 13 years. If the paparazzi capture candid shots of the family, they are typically hiking in the hills around Los Angeles, or shopping at a weekend farmers' market. "When I did Julie and Julia I picked up cooking skills that changed how I saw cooking," she says of the 2009 film in which she co-starred with Meryl Streep. "It became very meditative for me."
Although, after a six-year engagement, people have mostly stopped speculating when Adams and Le Gallo might throw a wedding, the question of whether they want a sibling for Aviana is persistent.
She knows that whatever happens, her daughter's childhood will be very different from her own. "It's been something I've struggled with, to create the balance and provide some sort of normalcy for her, but understanding there is no normal life," she says.
Adams's regrets about missing out on college are sometimes tweaked by the creative milieu the girl from small-town Colorado finds herself in. "I've worked with some really amazing people," she says. "So, that'll do it to you. I'm like, 'Hmm, I should probably try and figure out what they're talking about.' "
DiCaprio enthusiastically filled out her film knowledge, she says. As for her love of literature, that is owed to an old love, who remains nameless but about whom she's still clearly wistful. "They say you're supposed to have one really great person you don't end up marrying," she says. "He was lovely and he knew I was sort of insecure about not having gone to university and he would give me books - Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, [John] Steinbeck. I really appreciated that he shared that with me."
In preparing for her Big Eyes role, Adams visited then 86-year-old Margaret Keane in her studio. "I knew I wasn't going to learn to paint like her but I could glean how she related to the paints and the canvas, watching how she used the brush," she says.
Keane disclosed to Adams that the figures she paints speak to universal childhood anxieties: "Why do we have wars? Why do people kill each other? All those things you ask as a child that adults can't answer."
"I think we never lose that fear," says Adams. "We just learn to live with it."
When Adams turned 40, she decided it was time to let go of the worry that had plagued so much of her adult life. "I let go of a lot in my 30s but I've hung on to certain ideas, thinking that they served me," she says. "Now, it's letting go of all of that superstition, like: 'You know what, Amy? Your anxiety is not the reason that you are where you are. That actually robs you of your joy. So let's see how we can let go of that fear.'"
Like so many parents of a four-year-old, Adams spent most of last year exposed to an unrelenting rotation of the Oscar-winning hit song Let It Go, from Disney's animated movie Frozen.
"It's silly that a kid's song is one of my defining songs for the year but I totally get where Elsa's coming from," she says of the film's main character. "You've bottled yourself up, being who people want you to be, but no - I'm going to be who I am, 'stand in the light of day', you know, 'let the storm rage on'."
By now, she is laughing at herself, animatedly quoting the lyrics of her daughter's favourite song. "There's a beautiful saying: 'Fear and gratitude cannot exist within the same breath.' So that's where I'm coming to. I want to start being present and experiencing joy."