There’s a scene midway through “Arrival,” Denis Villeneuve’s ethereal meditation on alien life and human loss, in which Amy Adams, who plays a world-renowned linguistics professor named Louise Banks, is forced to contend with the fact that her young daughter, Hannah, senses all is not right in her adolescent world. While Hannah doesn’t fully grasp to what extent her life will come crashing down, Louise does, and that maternal-held knowledge of the impending doom is what makes the moment so crushing, so devastating. It’s a scene that Adams, herself a mother, had to orchestrate very carefully so as to not completely lose herself in the heartbreak of it all.
“Anytime you’re dealing with the loss of a child it’s a place that nobody wants to visit, especially a parent,” says Adams, nominated for both SAG and Golden Globe awards for her lead performance in the critically touted sci-fi drama — an intoxicating melding of arthouse cinema and big-budget, mainstream studio fare.
“The way I deal with it is that I get into a very meditative state, so I can access [the emotions], and be able to move freely in and out of it, so that I’m not stuck in it,” says Adams, who is receiving a star Jan. 11 on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “Shooting a scene like that I can feel my body sort of resist going there, so I have to get really relaxed and meditative in order to create that emphatic response. And it was challenging because it’s not in our psyches to want to even flirt with that imagining.”
Louise, recruited by the U.S. military to decipher the inscrutable language of extraterrestrials hovering just above earth in shell-like pods, is not only coming to terms with the knowledge of what’s happening to her daughter, but what’s happening to her — and it’s a mystery that unfolds in a time-bending, non-linear fashion that makes the resulting plot twist all the more stunning.
“The flashback/flash-forward scenes had a lot of emotional weight to them because I’m playing them with the knowledge that Louise has,” says Adams, who looked to Villeneuve for theatrical and spiritual guidance throughout the shoot. “Denis very smartly put that all together, and we shot those [flashback/flash-forward] sequences first, which was so helpful to understand emotionally what she was experiencing. It was really helpful to know not only is she being pulled in and out of these physical experiences, but she’s also being pulled in and out of the emotional experience — and not understanding what that means. It creates a lot of confusion inside of her and kind of a sense of vertigo, which is what we wanted it to feel like.”
With five Oscar nominations to her name — and a stirring, starring role in Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals,” another 2016 awards contender — Adams has certainly proved herself an actress with considerable artistic range, whether it’s playing a perky, pregnant Southern belle in “Junebug,” the street-smart girlfriend of a Boston boxer in “The Fighter,” or a stripper-turned-con artist in “American Hustle.” But never before had Adams been tasked with playing a woman experiencing two starkly different realities at once — all while struggling to come to terms with what is happening to her.
“I played the performance in a linear fashion,” Adams says. “I prepared the performance in a non-linear fashion. In playing it, Louise is going through what the audience is going through, for the majority of the film, and then she sort of starts to figure it out as the audience is starting to figure it out. So, we’re learning it at the same time.”
Acting opposite inky, amorphous aliens, dubbed Abbot and Costello, presented a different sort of predicament since they don’t speak a lick of any human language.
|SPACE EXPLORATION: Adams worked closely with director Denis Villeneuve to ground the sci-fi of “Arrival.”|
“All films have their challenges and creating relationships with Abbot and Costello was one of them,” says Adams. “We were acting essentially to what amounted to a very large movie screen that was backlit white. Denis would have these balls and sticks and sort of float them around for us, like puppeteers kind of moving as the aliens, so we did sort of get to create a relationship with something.”
Prior to the shoot, Adams researched the work of field linguists who venture into indigenous cultures to study languages.
“Learning about the way they approach their subjects with an openness and compassion was really helpful,” says Adams.
“It also kind of helps having a child again because you realize that teaching someone the English language is very complex and it’s a very tricky thing. Even to this day my own daughter has lots of questions about her language, so it’s a fascinating thing to explore.
“And I think our current political environment shows this, that we can speak the same language and be saying two very different things, and that the way that we interpret information is so different based on our experiences and based on the reality that we live in. Language isn’t necessarily the key to understanding. It goes deeper than that.”
“Nocturnal Animals,” while not a movie about aliens, likewise unfolds in a non-linear, untraditional fashion. Ford’s moody drama is a film-within-a-film — one a pulpy thriller, the other a beguiling psychological study — and, like “Arrival,” explores how the differences in the way we communicate can affect our relationships — for better or worse.
“I was so intrigued by the way Tom [Ford] had formatted the script and the way that it moved between not only story and reality, but also past and present,” says Adams, who plays successful gallery owner Susan Morrow, a woman forced to confront mistakes of the past, such as her decision to divorce first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). “The way Tom ties it together, when he speaks he pulls you in — he talks about the music and the light and the mood, and I just wanted to go on that journey with him. It sounded like something I hadn’t done before and that’s always a curiosity to me.”
|“Language isn’t necessarily the key to understanding. It goes deeper than that.”|
Where Louise embodies a heartsickness and vulnerability, Susan appears to have it all — a sleek, high-fashion wardrobe, mansion sprung from the pages of Architectural Digest, a tall, gorgeous — if emotionally distant — husband (Armie Hammer).
At first, Adams had a difficult time empathizing with Susan.
“It wasn’t as much that I didn’t like her, it was that I judged her. I did exactly what I imagine the audience does at first, and I then I realized she didn’t like herself. And I realized that the same reason she feels like she can’t be unhappy is the same reason people don’t like her, because why should she be allowed to be unhappy when she has all these things? She’s a self-pitying rich woman and people have a hard time having empathy for that, and I think I fell into that trap. And once I realized that she has a hard time feeling empathy for herself, that really opened the character up.”
Another “wonderful challenge” for Adams was that the bulk of her performance is spent reading a manuscript, a thinly veiled revenge novel penned by Edward. “Sometimes Tom would read to me, and he’d often show me the counterpart inside the story,” says Adams. “But sitting in bed, sitting on the couch, there’s a lot of acting by myself.”
As for imagining what might happen come awards time, Adams leans pragmatic and focused on creative projects in the works. She’s currently prepping for “Sharp Objects,” Marti Noxon’s upcoming HBO TV series — “it’s a very female-centered story,” she says — and has already wrapped Zack Snyder’s “Justice League,” in which she plays iconic news reporter Lois Lane.
And if she finally wins that Oscar for her work in “Arrival,” that would be extraordinary, but not necessary.
“I already feel like ‘Arrival’ was such a win,” says Adams. “We didn’t know what the response would be and everybody involved loved doing it so much that when we finished, nobody left the set. It was strange. We all sat around and talked and hung out. Usually people are running off a set, but this time everybody just stayed. And so whatever the future holds I’m so grateful for what we’ve already been given.”
What: Amy Adams receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
When: 11:30 a.m. Jan. 11
Where: 6280 Hollywood Blvd.