It's mid-August when Adams and I meet, in a clubby, low-key restaurant on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. Although she has crammed in almost 40 movies over the past two decades, Adams has just one opening this year, ‘‘Justice League’’, where for the third time she will lend humanity to this DC Comics superhero conflagration in her role as Lois Lane. Further down the calendar is the HBO limited series ‘‘Sharp Objects’’, based on a novel by Gillian Flynn, the best-selling author of ‘‘Gone Girl’’. Notably, Adams isn’t appearing in a movie that might bring her another Oscar nomination. This year, at least.
She has been nominated five times before but conspicuously did not receive a nod for her starring part in the widely acclaimed 2016 science-fiction drama ‘‘Arrival’’. In the film, she is unequivocally superb as a linguist, Louise, who is recruited by the military to find a way to communicate with extraterrestrials that have landed on Earth. But Adams is also unassumingly superb. Louise carries a terrible personal burden, a tragedy that’s revealed incrementally and which Adams expresses as if from the inside out, holding the character’s pain so closely that it becomes a near-imperceptible shadow across her face. Even when Louise first encounters the aliens — turning her gaze up at the marvelous octopus-like creatures towering above her — Adams conveys awe without letting go of sorrow.
Part of Adams’s greatness as an actor is that she gives herself over to her roles so completely. She doesn’t showboat, calling attention to her technique with histrionics and self-flattering moments, but instead surrenders herself to her characters. She builds histories for them, working on details and finding triggers instead of opening a vein like some performers do. ‘‘I don’t need to relive trauma to empathise with it,’’ Adams told me. Instead, she convinces herself that she is somebody else, that she is living somebody else’s experience so that the character can ring true to her. Sometimes she finds her inspiration close by, which was the case when she was rehearsing with the director Tom Ford for last year’s ‘‘Nocturnal Animals’’. Adams was still finding her character, Susan, a high-powered gallerist, when she realised the key was in front of her: ‘‘There’s Susan. Susan is Tom.’’ Adams borrowed Ford’s grace and precision, the way he moved his hands, sat on a couch: ‘‘He gave me that physicality.’’
A pointillist, she creates pinpricks of emotion, but can easily go bigger than life, as she did to play Sydney, a con artist in the lollapalooza ‘‘American Hustle’’ (2013), a loose take on the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Slipping in and out of accents as well as plunging necklines, Adams — a virtuoso of complicated, seemingly contradictory moods — takes this shiny, flashy character and turns her into the most electric person in the movie. Adams studied acting for years and can cry at the drop of a dime, as she’s proved on more than one talk show. She has learned how to play the celebrity game: She knows how to chat up Jimmy Fallon, smile on the red carpet and keep cool when the paparazzi pounce. Significantly, she doesn’t give the gossip websites much material, even if she made a guest appearance in them this summer. ‘‘Fans freak that she’s pregnant after she wears flowy sundress,’’ one item exclaimed (erroneously). Adams seemed amused by the speculation. Stardom for women involves constant surveillance; shaking off these intrusions is crucial to maintaining and defending a private self.
A paradox of stardom is that it depends on the appearance of an ordinary life. Some of this is about relatability, but it’s also about how actors fill performances up with their own humanity. In person, Adams seems nice, thoughtful, a touch vulnerable, which is how she sometimes appears on camera. (Big eyes help.) She also conveys appealing resilience. When she arrived for our interview she wasn’t accompanied by anxious handlers; when she left, she drove herself. She seems of our earth, not one of those exotic creatures whose celebrity becomes so otherworldly that it edges into camp. Yet like all stars, this palpable humanity comes with an ineluctable facility for both holding the screen and your attention. Adams seemed reluctant to see this in herself. When I mentioned Charlize Theron in passing, she lit up. ‘‘She can just sit on the couch, and you’re like, ‘That! That thing, what is it?’ That’s not me.’’
I insisted that Adams was wrong, because while her appeal is different from Theron’s — Adams draws you to her, Theron keeps you at a distance — each makes you want to watch her and only her for as long as she’s on screen. Adams waved off the compliment. In someone else this might have read as false modesty, but she came across as someone who knows better than to trust other people’s admiration. It’s skepticism that feels grounded in experience. Adams found a manager soon after moving to Los Angeles in 1999 from Minnesota, where she had been working in dinner theatre and dancing in regional musicals like ‘‘Brigadoon’’. She was 24, with one movie credit (the 1999 beauty pageant satire ‘‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’’), but she was also just another pretty young hopeful on a very crowded assembly line.
‘‘I would go into auditions and it would be me and three model versions of me,’’ she said, ‘‘and I would never get the job.’’ It was the era of ‘‘Dawson’s Creek’’ and Katie Holmes. Adams did a lot of television (‘‘I guest-starred on every WB show that was ever made’’), but stripping down to a bikini to win a part wasn’t working for her. ‘‘I always thought it’s an ‘it’ factor and I just don’t have ‘it’,’’ she said. She credited her manager with helping her overcome self-doubt. ‘‘You get to decide what you want to be,’’ Adams recalled her manager telling her. ‘‘You get to decide that, Amy.’’
She was still figuring it out when she landed the delectable role of an early 1960s candy striper in Steven Spielberg’s ‘‘Catch Me if You Can’’, a 2002 biographical caper starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. As Brenda, Adams weeps through much of her first scene with DiCaprio, her eyes red and watery, a hand hovering over her mouth as her character tries to hide her metal braces. DiCaprio is playing the seducer, and Adams is a stand-in for us, the soon-to-be seduced. Later, after Brenda’s braces come off and she clambers into Frank’s lap, Adams complicates the character’s innocence with heat, letting you see the clumsy girl and desiring woman at once.
Critics singled out Adams’s performance, but she was a supporting player in a Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle and, as she put it, the girl in braces: ‘‘It’s not like I had a beautiful gown with him walking down the steps of the Titanic.’’ The role brought her different kinds of auditions, but it was more a break than a breakthrough. When a writer friend pitched Adams to a studio for another project, the limits of Spielberg’s largesse became conspicuous. The studio’s response, as Adams described it to me, was: ‘‘Oh, the homely girl from ‘Catch Me if You Can’. ’’ That’s preposterous and offensive, and typical of the industry’s sexism. Adams, however, didn’t frame it that way: ‘‘I can’t blame anything other than I did not do my best at that point. I don’t think I inspired confidence.’’
Confidence is a thread that wends through many stories about successful women who need to overcome not only their own insecurities but also a world that greets female achievement with ambivalence at best. When we spoke, Adams largely narrated her history in personal terms, but it was clear that the industry played its part. ‘‘I was getting ready to turn 30,’’ she said of the period that followed ‘‘Catch Me if You Can’’. ‘‘I was tired of being unhappy and tired of chasing something that might not belong to me, like a career in film and television.’’ She was ready to let go of what she thought ‘‘being an actress was, or this idea of being a movie star, this idea of being ‘it,’ of being The Girl.’’ She was thinking of moving to New York to focus on her craft and start over. And then ‘‘Junebug’’ happened.
Adams’s role as a pregnant innocent, Ashley, in this little-seen 2005 independent movie was part of what became a slow-moving career trifecta. If ‘‘Catch Me if You Can’’ indicated that she was a fresh talent, ‘‘Junebug’’ suggested the richness of her range, showing her gift for moving from emotional lightness to darkness and back again. With crystalline sensitivity, Adams makes you care deeply about Ashley, whose virtue carries great narrative weight; even for those who didn’t respond to ‘‘Junebug’’ and its contrived hokum, the performance was a reminder of how a single actor can nearly redeem a movie. (It led to her first Oscar nomination.) Adams’s next leap forward came with the Disney hit ‘‘Enchanted’’, which depends entirely on her to transform a high concept — a cartoon princess becomes human — into a delightful fairy story. Adams, who studied dance, sweeps into the movie with grace, tremulous feeling and fluttering hands, delivering an extraordinary performance that established that she had arrived at last.
Since then there have been juicier roles and steady acclaim and, of course, more Oscar nominations. In 2015, Adams married her longtime boyfriend, Darren Le Gallo, an artist she met in acting class, with whom she has a daughter, Aviana, named after Aviano, the Italian city where Adams, a military brat, was born. (Adams is one of seven children in a family that was Mormon until her parents’ divorce.) Having Aviana led Adams to again rethink her relationship to work. ‘‘I had to learn how to shut the door when I walk off the set. It’s hard and it doesn’t always work, but more often than not it does now,’’ she says. Long hours and location shoots can be tough on families, but having a husband who is willing to pack up with Adams helps. ‘‘We’ve realised we can be happy in an apartment in Detroit or a house in Hollywood or a hotel room,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s a good feeling, but I’m protective of it — very protective.’’
It can be tricky shutting that door on a project like ‘‘Sharp Objects’’, where she plays a reporter chasing a grisly story and where, for the first time, she has an executive producer credit. ‘‘What was exciting for me was being part of the creative development,’’ Adams said, ‘‘getting to feel comfortable speaking, feeling like that was my role now. Like, oh wait, I have an opinion and I’m going to share it!’’ She enjoyed it, but is unsure how much more producing she wants to do. ‘‘I can multitask,’’ she said, ‘‘it’s just an intense experience. And especially when you’re working every day of production, all day every day, in a dark character, and then trying to manage the other stuff — for me it was challenging.’’
Those challenges extended to the set, including one day when, for a tricky single take, she had to crawl on a bathroom floor while weeping and drinking fake vomit she then had to spit up. As she was crawling and weeping and vomiting, a male crew member kept whispering the location of a prop until she finally barked, ‘‘I’ve got it, I’ve got it!’’ She apologised, explaining that she’d been staying in character. ‘‘He was trying to be helpful,’’ she told me. It’s the kind of response that I’d expected from Adams — but I had misunderstood her. I thought she was illustrating how she had gone to a psychologically dark place, but the point was that she knew she was right to call this man out. ‘‘I feel partially responsible for the tone that’s on set,’’ Adams said. ‘‘I’m sorry for how he felt, but I knew why I was doing that.’’
Adams was standing up for herself, which is what we demand of women. What we sometimes forget, however, is that not every woman is going to speak up on her own behalf — or for other women — in exactly the same way or necessarily as a political declaration, and that she shouldn’t have to, either. What happened after Sony Pictures Entertainment was hacked in 2014 offers a good feminist case in point. Among all the ugly, embarrassing information that the hack revealed was that both Adams and Jennifer Lawrence had been paid less than their male co-stars in ‘‘American Hustle’’. Lawrence went public with her feelings about the wage gap and was by turns praised and condemned for doing so. Adams said she was proud of Lawrence but made it repeatedly clear she didn’t want to discuss it in detail, if at all.
‘‘I don’t want to talk about my own experience because I fight my own fight and I feel comfortable doing that,’’ Adams said when I mentioned the hack. And, as she admitted, ‘‘There’s not a lot of empathy out there for celebrities.’’ But the disparity that the Sony hack revealed made her curious. Years earlier, to prepare for some of her period movies, she had started reading books like ‘‘The Feminine Mystique’’. (‘‘I didn’t go to college. I didn’t do women’s studies. I had no idea.’’) After the hack, she dug in again. ‘‘I spent a lot more time educating myself about what women executives get paid.’’ She read about C.E.O.s and teachers, the sociology and cultural conditioning.
‘‘It’s important to talk about inequality,’’ Adams said. ‘‘But for me, where I feel most empowered is in educating myself and being, hopefully, a mentor for younger women. That’s more important. I offer any young actress I work with my phone number. I’ll tell them on set, ‘You don’t have to do that. You can say no.’’’ It seems like a modest gesture, but less so when you consider that the movie industry has long profited from female submission, from women acquiescing because their only choice is exploitation or unemployment. This is what makes women saying no powerful, and why it’s heartening that many are speaking up. Adams speaks up when she wants, how she wants, and she is saying yes — and no — on her own terms. These days, instead of telling her daughter ‘‘Don’t be bossy,’’ Adams asks her little girl who she is the boss of. ‘‘And she says, ‘Me.’ And I say, ‘That’s right. And you get to choose who you are.’’’