Adams then splashed around in the shallow end of Hollywood for a couple of years, appearing in single episodes of teen shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as in a few B movies. In 2001 she got what should have been her next big break when Steven Spielberg cast her as the gullible candy striper who falls for Leonardo DiCaprio’s con man in Catch Me If You Can. But despite the film’s success, Adams found herself right back where she’d started, doing voiceover work and shooting a few episodes of another quickly canceled TV show. By 2004, though she was already at work on Junebug—the tiny independent film that would unexpectedly launch her career in earnest—she was reconsidering her choice of profession.
It was that career crisis, Adams says now, looking back, that has enabled her to navigate the recent scrutiny, accolades and nonstop moviemaking without ending up at Promises. “That time was about learning to take personal responsibility for my own happiness,” she says. It was an important step to take before her star rose, because as someone in the public eye, she says, there’s “so much information about yourself coming at you that it’s really easy for your identity to get absorbed by that external validation or criticism. You have to sort of set your feet down and tell your sister to stop reading the blogs.”
It does make life somewhat easier that the media attention has been almost entirely glowing. Her performance in Junebug, as Ashley Johnston, a childlike pregnant woman in rural North Carolina, was called “incandescent” by The New York Times. She so embodied the role, says Nora Ephron, who directed her in Julie & Julia, that “if you didn’t know her work and just saw her in Junebug you would think, Oh, this is a local pregnant person that they found while they were shooting. It was an astonishing performance.”
“She is so transformative in her acting, and that’s the hardest thing to be,” says Shawn Levy, director of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, out in May, in which Adams plays Amelia Earhart. “It’s rare among younger actors and especially rare among attractive actors. It’s the domain of so-called character actors. Amy never got the memo that she’s superhot.”
Junebug demonstrated the depth of Adams’s talent, but even before the film’s release she’d won her next big role, beating out 300 other actresses at an open call for Giselle, a Disney cartoon maiden who falls down a well and ends up a flesh-and-blood young woman in New York City, in Enchanted. That movie was a huge box office hit, due in large part to Adams’s cheerful good humor and Broadway-worthy singing and dancing. She has since made six films in two years, with well-received turns as Tom Hanks’s bubbly congressional assistant in Charlie Wilson’s War, a sexy Thirties starlet in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and, most notably, a confused young nun in Doubt.