“It felt like i was in a relationship that wasn’t working.” so says Amy Adams about her rocky past in TV. But her colleague on HBO’s Sharp Objects, Marti Noxon, has a theory: “Amy is a layered, complex actress. Back then, young, beautiful women were supposed to be a type.”
Though she's won two Golden Globes, an Independent Spirit Award and a special jury prize at Sundance — and been nominated five times for an Oscar — Amy Adams could easily forge a second career as a journalist.
For proof, look no further than how she orders a scrambled egg and sliced avocado at breakfast in the Chateau Marmont's lobby restaurant.
As a 20-something server stands by, pen poised in hand, Adams manages within minutes to extract her hometown (Melbourne, Australia), birthplace (Greenville, South Carolina), how long she's lived in Los Angeles (10 months) and a review of the City of Angels. ("It's dirty and smelly," the server says. "But there are great people here.") Wearing blue jeans and a peach blouse, her red hair in a tidy ponytail, Adams smiles radiantly at her, and the young woman basks in the warmth.
"It comes with toast," the server announces, helpfully. "No toast." "Potatoes?" "No potatoes. Just scrambled eggs," Adams says. Before she lets the young woman drift off to another table, Adams offers a fact meant to soothe: "The first year is always tricky."
Adams's natural reportorial skills — her way of listening intently while composing the next question — are used to full effect in Sharp Objects. The eight-episode limited series — debuting July 8 on HBO — is based on the mystery-thriller of the same name by New York Times best-selling author Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl).
Adams plays Camille Preaker, a crime reporter who, having just emerged from a psych ward, is dispatched to her tiny hometown of rural Wind Gap, Missouri, to investigate the gruesome murders of two young girls. Early in the series, Camille toggles between quizzing the Wind Gap locals and indulging in two of her favorite coping mechanisms: draining endless mini-bottles of vodka and engaging in bouts of self-mutilation.
Over the past 19 years, Adams has built a reputation for disappearing into characters across the entire emotional spectrum, from a sweetly innocent chatterbox (Junebug) and a tinkly-voiced fairy princess (Enchanted) to a ruthless con artist (American Hustle) and a linguist working to communicate with aliens (Arrival). But inhabiting someone as psychically wounded as Camille felt new.
"I've flirted with dysfunction in my roles, but I've never delved quite as deep," Adams says. Her character had fled Wind Gap, leaving behind a controlling mother (Patricia Clarkson), a duplicitous half-sister (Eliza Scanlen) and wrenching childhood memories she'd rather forget.
"I've played people with issues, but they've masked them in different ways. Camille is rough around the edges. She's trying, she really is, but she just doesn't do a good job of masking her issues, so a lot of her stuff is brought to the surface."
Surreal. That's how showrunner Marti Noxon (UnREAL, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) says it felt to hear that Adams, who'd read Noxon's script for the first episode, wanted to play the lead and be an executive producer. "To be honest," Noxon says, "I didn't believe it. In my mind, she's one of the few giant movie stars left. So I was like, 'Well, that's never going to happen.'"
In fact, until Adams came aboard, Noxon had envisioned Camille as a more obviously broken character. "But when I started to think about Amy in the role, I got really excited. First of all, she can do anything. Second of all, Amy has a luminescence that's undeniable, and how true to the story is it that all these things about her character are hidden beneath the façade of somebody who has a glow to her?"
In a world where an A-list actor's executive-producer credit is often little more than ego massage, Noxon says Adams went all in. "We ran everything by her: casting choices, production-related decisions, everything. There were lots of meetings where I'd say, 'Well, you don't have to come to this,' and there she'd be. She was always engaged and opinionated, and fought for the integrity of what is a very female story."
In fact, it was Adams who reached out to award-winning French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little Lies), with whom she'd long worked on developing a now-defunct Janis Joplin biopic. Vallée says that after reading the novel and Noxon's script, his first response to the invitation to join the team for this scary, twisty tale was, " What? Our little girl-next-door Amy is willing to do this? This, I got to see."
Phoning in from the Sharp Objects editing room, Vallée adds, "Amy's very intelligent and cerebral, and she always has a very good understanding of the characters that she's tackling. She's such a force of nature. So I called her up and said, 'If you're willing to do this and go that crazy, let's go crazy together.'"
"I think that's what Jean-Marc meant — 'Are you sure [you want to do this]?'" Adams explains.
It wasn't just playing such a deeply troubled character, but working with a director whose energetic shooting style requires his cast to have military levels of stamina. He favors a stripped- down crew and very long takes, and he has a habit of doing reverse shots by flipping the camera around, often startling the actors. He directed every episode of Sharp Objects, shooting in 90 days on a stage in Los Angeles, with exterior shoots in Ukiah, California, and Barnsdale, Georgia (standing in for small-town Missouri).
"It takes a lot of endurance to work with Jean-Marc," Adams says. "He's nuts. You just go all day, in all conditions; you don't leave set. It's full-on."
That doesn't mean the experience was unrelentingly grim. "There's an episode where we had to shoot outdoors in northern California," she says, recalling a party scene where all the key murder suspects are guests, each eyeing the other.
"It was really hot and challenging. We all ended up being sunburned because Jean-Marc, he just goes and goes and goes. I was sunburned through my dress. I got an ice cream truck for the extras. I was like, 'You have to give them a break.' But it was one of the few times that the entire cast was together, and I could not stop laughing. We had so much fun."
Until her family left the church in 1986, Adams was raised Mormon in Castle Rock, Colorado. The middle child of seven, she didn't need to learn a work ethic — it's practically encoded in her DNA.
"My grandmother was the daughter of a rancher," she says. "She worked her whole life, my grandma. So my mother was challenged to work as well from a very young age, and she taught us that, too." Her first gig, at 12, was selling licorice at a rodeo in Ogden, Utah. She's been everything from a perky Gap greeter to a Hooters girl in orange hot pants.
"Even if I just hated it, I've always been the type of person who could not not do my job the way I'm supposed to," Adams says. "I cannot go halfway on anything I commit to. I just can't."
Her ability to sing, dance and act helped her rise swiftly through the ranks in Colorado's volunteer community-theater world. She'd already graduated to Minnesota dinner theater — her first paid role was as Christine in A Chorus Line — when her agent sent her to a cattle call for the 1999 beauty-pageant comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous.
"I didn't think I had a chance," Adams says. But she nailed the audition and went on to make her feature-film debut as Leslie Miller, "a slutty cheerleader."
In her first TV role, she played a conniving, sexually adventurous rich girl on Manchester Prep, a series meant as a prequel to the 1999 movie Cruel Intentions (a teen adaptation of Les liaisons dangereuses). Canceled by Fox before broadcast, the three completed episodes were stitched together into a straight-to-video raunch-fest called Cruel Intentions 2.
Thus began Adams's unsteady relationship with episodic television, which involved guest spots on what seemed like every show on The WB.
While Noxon, who spent six years as a writer and producer on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, never met Adams before Sharp Objects, she remembers Buffy creator Joss Whedon talking about Adams after she'd guested on an episode of the critically acclaimed show. "He was just really taken with her," Noxon says. "He was like, 'This actress? I think she's going to go places.'"
The powers that be on two half-hour comedies — The Peter Principle and a Beverly Hills 90210 send-up called Grosse Point — were less enthusiastic.
During her second year in Hollywood, Adams was hired as a series regular on both, but then replaced after appearing in the pilots. Playing a peppy candy-striper in Steven Spielberg's biographical crime film, Catch Me If You Can, was only a temporary balm. In 2004, she was pushed out of yet another TV show, Dr. Vegas, which starred Rob Lowe as a casino physician and Adams as Alice, his nurse.
"The note was: 'Amy has to go. She's not sexy enough.' And I can say that, because Rob Lowe writes it in his [memoir]," she says. "It wasn't that I don't like television. I just sort of got [the feeling] that television didn't like me. It felt like I was in a relationship that wasn't working — and I don't know why."
When the Dr. Vegas door closed, though, another one opened. In 2005, the low-budget independent comedy Junebug propelled Adams into a new phase of her career, one involving a slew of Best Supporting Actress awards and an Oscar nomination.
In her years away from television, Adams became a marquee-topping film star, appearing in more than two dozen feature films. Today, it seems puzzling that lauded filmmakers including Paul Thomas Anderson, Denis Villeneuve and Spike Jonze have all embraced her, but in the early 2000s, TV had no use for her.
Noxon has a theory: "Amy is a textured, layered, complex actress. Back then, young, beautiful women were supposed to be a type. There were a few exceptions — Buffy was one of the rare places where a woman could have more than one quality — but if you didn't fit that one type, they just spit you out. And that's no longer true."
No one needed to tell Adams how prestige limited series or gritty premium-cable dramas had changed the landscape of TV, offering beefy, multi-dimensional roles, especially for women. But it was a meeting with Noxon, Objects author Flynn and executive producer Jessica Rhoades that helped alleviate any residual fears (executive-producing with Adams, Noxon, Vallée, Flynn and Rhoades are Nathan Ross, Gregg Fienberg, Jason Blum, Charles Layton, Marci Wiseman and Jeremy Gold).
"I thought my relationship with television was something I'd left in the past — the nature of the work and the pace are so different [than film]," Adams says. "But I just loved the power team of females. We sat down and I started hearing their point of view, how they wanted to approach it. That's when I was like, 'Oh, I could work with these women!' That's when I started getting excited."
When she was younger, Adams would immerse herself so deeply in a role that she'd have trouble shaking it off at the end of the workday.
"I call it, like, an infection. Like there's a part of me that becomes my character to some degree," she says. Having a daughter — Aviana — with husband Darren Le Gallo forced her to figure out ways to reconstitute herself and return home as Mommy. Responding to Aviana's endless queries about Camille, a woman covered with self-inflicted scars who drinks until she passes out, required some quick thinking.
"When the prosthetic goo would get stuck in weird places, she'd ask me what it was. I'd say, 'Oh, she has birthmarks,'" Adams recalls, laughing. "But she always knows to ask more questions, so that's when I say, 'You can't see this until you're 16.' And then she's like, [ intrigued voice ] ' Oooh , what's it about?'"
Adams's first project after Sharp Objects was Adam McKay's Backseat, a docudrama about Dick Cheney in which she plays Lynne Cheney opposite her American Hustle costar Christian Bale. Recently, it was announced that she'd be starring in director Joe Wright's adaptation of A. J. Finn's Hitchcockian novel, The Woman in the Window. There's been talk of a second season of Sharp Objects, but Adams says, "I'm only signed on for one."
Sharp Objects did, she says, ignite an interest in finding, developing and producing limited series, something she couldn't have imagined doing earlier in her career. "I've just never trusted myself before," she says, adding that, until three years ago, she didn't feel comfortable inserting herself into the creative process.
"I didn't even start having active feedback from directors until Big Eyes," she says, referring to Tim Burton's 2014 film. "Tim and I just talked and I realized, 'Oh, I actually can voice my thoughts on character.'"
On this late morning, Adams says that since last December, she's been luxuriating in being an ordinary parent. "There's pick-up [at school]. Dinners. Normal life stuff. Going to her tae kwon do test. Being there. Things I miss. So that's been fun."
Among the recent mother-daughter moments that Adams cherishes: "I was apologizing for something I did, and I said, 'Sometimes Mommy loses her temper when she shouldn't, and Mommy is really sorry.' She's seven and a half, and she made me laugh so hard. I felt like this was a huge moment, something that we could both learn from.
But instead, she wasn't affected at all. She said, 'Is there a reason why you're talking about yourself in the third person?'"
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This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2018