Thanks to Oprah, the yoga boom and a slew of zen-tinged self-help books, we’ve been hearing a lot lately about the importance of “being present.” The idea is that the key to human happiness is to fix one’s focus firmly on the here and now. It’s a strategy that makes a certain amount of sense, especially if, like Amy Adams, your here and now is pretty fantastic. But the 34-year-old actress readily admits that living in the moment is not something she’s very good at, despite all the hours she has spent on a yoga mat. At the Oscars this past February, for instance, while millions of television viewers watched her sitting in the front row, wearing a claret-colored Carolina Herrera dress and a killer Fred Leighton necklace, Adams was, in her mind, thousands of miles away, in the Atlanta mall where she worked after high school. “I just was so reflective the whole evening on how I came to be sitting in that room,” she recalls a few weeks later. “At one point my fiancé was like, ‘You feel distant.’ And I said, ‘I am! I can’t even talk to you!’ I was there at the Oscars thinking, What if I never left the Gap?”
Adams spends a lot of time dwelling on what-ifs. A worrier by nature, she says she’s prone to obsessing about “What if the plane crashes? What if I have the rare disease I just saw on Mystery Diagnosis?” And, when her fiancé, actor Darren Le Gallo, lets their dogs out into the yard of their Los Angeles home after dark, “What if my puppies get eaten by coyotes?” But “What if I never left the Gap?” is a particular favorite. “It’s a game I play with myself all the time,” she says with a roll of her big blue eyes. And it’s not hard to understand why. A member of that peculiar Hollywood subspecies—the decade-in-the-making overnight sensation—Adams saw her career floundering just four years ago. Now she’s a two-time Academy Award nominee (best supporting actress for Doubt and Junebug) with her own Disney doll (modeled on her Giselle character in the 2007 blockbuster Enchanted) and a new movie (Julie & Julia, coming this August), in which she stars opposite Meryl Streep for the second time. The recent triumphs, along with the acclaim garnered by her indelible onscreen charm, have given her a degree of confidence, but as someone who has found fame in fits and starts, she’s well aware that things could have turned out differently.
Sipping a Tanqueray and tonic in the rooftop lounge at New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel, dressed in jeans and a black sweater and wrapped in an enormous gray scarf, Adams looks less like a movie star than a pretty grad student at least a decade younger than her age. She admits to being blessed with a baby face, though not without adding a self-deprecating—and characteristically neurotic—dig. “I ordered a glass of champagne on the plane today, and the flight attendant asked, ‘Are you old enough to drink?’” she says, her auburn ponytail bouncing as she laughs. “I was like, ‘I’m old enough to worry about being infertile, so yes!’”
Movie stardom wasn’t something Adams gave much thought to growing up in the Denver exurb of Castle Rock, Colorado, the middle child in a brood of three girls and four boys. More interested in dancing than in acting—“All the people in high school who were like, ‘I want to be an actress,’ sort of drove me crazy,” she says—she performed with local companies as well as in family talent shows. When she was 12, her parents divorced, leaving behind not only their marriage but also the Mormon church in which the family had been active. A few years later, her mother, a massage therapist and former amateur bodybuilder whom Adams describes as “sort of nomadic,” relocated to Atlanta, and Adams, after graduating from high school, joined her there, moving into the basement with vague plans to continue her dance training while working a day job to pay the bills.
She knew she didn’t want to go to college because “I’d hated school,” she says. “The people were indifferent toward me, and that’s the worst thing in my mind.” In a place where, she says, “we were defined by the clothes we bought at the mall,” her family didn’t have much money for sprees at the Limited. “If I didn’t get things on clearance, I wasn’t getting them,” she says. “I would make fake Guess jeans by buying a cheaper brand with a triangle label and then cutting it off so you could still see the triangle outline. It’s so sad that I did that! But I really wanted to be one of those girls.”
It was at the Gap, where she landed at 18, after a brief stint at an Atlanta Hooters, that she started to come into her own. Scoring the job was, she says, “a huge deal, because with the 40-percent-off discount I could finally buy things that weren’t on sale!” More important, many of her fellow employees were trying to make it in the arts, which opened her mind to the idea that a career on the stage might be possible. One of her coworkers, a guy named Melvyn, turned out to be a veritable fairy godmother in khakis and a pocket tee. “He said to me, ‘I think you’re going to be an actress,’” Adams remembers. “I had taken an acting class, but I was so dorky, with hair down to there, looking like Little House on the Prairie. I was painfully insecure. But he made me audition for something. I’m sure I was awful, but he planted that idea in me.”
Soon after, a friend from home called to say that she was leaving her unpaid role in a Denver production of Annie, and Adams, though unsure about quitting the Gap, returned to Colorado to take the part. The choice, of course, turned out to be fortuitous, leading to roles at a dinner theater near Minneapolis, where the 1999 beauty pageant spoof Drop Dead Gorgeous happened to be filming. Adams showed up for an open call and was tapped to play one of the contestants. She found another unlikely fairy godmother in castmate Kirstie Alley, who urged Adams to head to Hollywood. There, she promptly landed the lead in Manchester Prep, a television spin-off of the film Cruel Intentions, about the manipulative sexcapades of rich teens. The thrill was short-lived; Fox deemed the show too racy and canceled it.
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.
All of this work, of course, hasn’t left much time for a personal life. Adams and Le Gallo, who met in an acting class in 2001, have yet to plan their wedding, though they’ve been engaged for the better part of a year. “I have a reputation as a poor planner,” she says, “so expectations are pretty low. When I have people to my house for dinner and tell them it’s casual, they think that means don’t wear high heels, but I mean, ‘You’ll be getting your own forks out of the drawer.’” That house—a Forties Cape Cod that the couple moved into last December—remains largely undecorated. Before she takes off again in March, to Ireland, where she’ll spend two and a half months filming a romantic comedy called Leap Year with Matthew Goode, Adams intends “to at least buy some throw pillows and a bedspread!”
Still, she insists, her hectic schedule has done little to diminish her relationship with Le Gallo, even though his own career hasn’t exactly kept pace with hers. The pair try not to spend more than two weeks apart, and when he visits her on location, she says, “there’s that amazing feeling of getting to know each other again. I think it’s really unique to this experience that we’ve been living, and Darren embraces that, which I’m very grateful for. He’s been great. He’s not perfect, but he’s great.”
Oscar season was particularly intense for Adams this year, thanks to the nomination for her role as Sister James in Doubt. “When I read the [script], it was this gut feeling of, I have to do this,” says Adams, who flew to New York on a day’s notice to meet with Doubt writer and director John Patrick Shanley, telling him that she just happened to be in the city anyway. “I’m not cool. I can’t pretend I don’t want something in order to get it.”
Shanley, as it turned out, didn’t need much convincing when it came to casting Adams. “She has this tone of a true believer but then a substance of skepticism, and that dichotomy was very attractive to me. I wanted an active mind under a patina of innocence,” Shanley says. “And then what I didn’t know is that she also has this sort of Unsinkable Molly Brown quality. If she saw a flagging of momentum or enthusiasm with the crew, she’d grab a microphone and sing a World War I song. She’ll do whatever it takes.”
“Innocence” and “pluck” are two words applied frequently to the women Adams portrays. Her most successful characters—from Giselle and Sister James to Rose Lorkowski, the hapless founder of a crime-scene janitorial company in the recent Sunshine Cleaning—share a certain wide-eyed belief that, despite evidence to the contrary, the world is somehow conspiring in their favor. Adams, for her part, sees these stories as less about naïveté than about faith. “People always say, ‘Oh, your characters are so innocent and sweet,’” she says, “when actually it’s that they’re struggling with faith, maybe realizing that their way of thinking is not the only way.” And as someone whose own faith was pulled out from under her at age 12, Adams can certainly relate. “It was confusing in sort of an earth-shattering way,” she says of the double whammy of her parents’ divorce from each other and from the Mormon church.
Whether she can relate to the people she plays is something Adams always considers before signing on to a film. “I think I’d have a hard time playing somebody who’s just completely vile,” she says.
“One of her great strengths as an actress is that she really understands her characters,” observes close friend Emily Blunt, who plays Adams’s sister in Sunshine Cleaning. “Beyond that, I think the characters very much live in her.”
If that’s the case, then Adams is showing off her slightly less good-natured side in this summer’s Julie & Julia. She plays Julie Powell, a “grouchy, reflective, conflicted, lost woman,” as Adams describes her, who attempts to find meaning in her life by cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Ephron sees Powell as somewhat of a departure from Adams’s usually sweet types. “She loses her temper, and sometimes she says irritating things,” Ephron says of Adams as Powell. “She plays not quite a New Yorker, but almost.”
The project reunited her with Doubt costar Streep, who plays Child, though the pair never converge onscreen. Despite having made two films back-to-back with the legendary actress, Adams was reluctant to mine Streep for tips on technique. “What Meryl does and what Meryl is is intangible,” she says. “And that’s what I learned working with her, that there is only one and I can’t ever think, I’m going to be the next, or even, I want to be the next.”
Just what she does want to be is something she’s still trying to puzzle out. Sitting at the Oscars, when not reliving her life in retail, Adams was asking herself that very question. Thus far, she says, “I’ve just sort of floated on the breeze. Now do I need to have some sort of goal? And if so, what is the goal?” At first her lack of clarity distressed her, but in the weeks since the awards, Adams has come to realize that maybe nobody has an answer. “I was thinking that I should feel different at this age—that I should have more figured out,” she says with a little sigh. “Parts of me feel like a 12-year-old girl, parts of me feel like a 50-year-old woman, and parts of me are a 25-year-old, like, whoo-hoo! But in the end, I’m starting to think, the secret is just reconciling all of those parts of yourself and accepting that, okay, so this is life.”