Amy Adams can rise to any challenge: sparkle as a princess, brawl like a Boston barmaid, dance with Muppets, kiss Superman, earn five Oscar nominations and hold her own against Meryl Streep — twice. Still, on Nov. 10, the deeply private, craft-driven actress will face a new test when Tom Hanks, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Kristen Stewart, Chris Messina and Denis Villeneuve take the stage of the Beverly Hilton Hotel to praise her talents as the 31st recipient of the American Cinematheque Award.
Being lauded for her entire body of work is “a little overwhelming,” says Adams. “I tend to look at things piece by piece.”
As for the prospect of watching a montage of her entire filmography, Adams falls silent. “Yup,” she eventually says with the well-mannered equanimity of an actress who spent years doing dinner theater in Minnesota. Then she giggle-exhales.
“I wasn’t even comfortable at my wedding having my family say things that were nice,” admits Adams, who married actor and artist Darren Le Gallo in 2015 after 14 years of dating. “I’m like, ‘OK, let’s move on.’”
Adams started her career as a dancer-waitress who high-kicked her way through “A Chorus Line” while serving the audience plates of prime rib. She wore nothing but a gold-embroidered jacket, nude hose and a hat — more costume than her earlier job at Hooters, at least — but the gig got her a better dinner theater engagement, and then the motivation to audition for, and win, the role of an oversexed beauty pageant bimbo in 1999’s “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” who does naughty things to a model of the Washington Monument. Adams was ninth-billed, but she took it as seriously as if she were the lead. In that first role, her comedy gifts already seem fully formed, the big eyes, bigger grin, deadpan innocence, and sugar-dipped voice that lets her get away with the craziest lines. Co-star Kirstie Alley encouraged Adams to move to Los Angeles, assuring the then-25-year-old, “You’re young. You’re funny. You’ll work.”
So she did. Within a week, she had a manager, Stacy O’Neil, and her first part as a manipulative prep-school heiress in a soon-canceled “Cruel Intentions” spinoff show that was re-edited into the movie 2000’s “Cruel Intentions 2.”
From there, Adams played the villain in “Psycho Beach Party,” which released that same year, did a ton of TV, and scored a plum role as the pig-tailed Southern nurse who steals conman Leonardo DiCaprio’s heart in 2002’s “Catch Me if You Can.” Its director, Steven Spielberg, loved her. Adams hoped she’d finally managed to find her breakout part. But after “Catch Me if You Can,” she didn’t work for a year.
Adams was nearing 30 and running low on hope — the one thing her characters almost always have in unlimited supply. Finally, she landed 2005’s “Junebug” and claimed her first Academy Award nomination. From there Adams launched into the spotlight with four more nominations in five years starting with 2008’s “Doubt,” “The Fighter,” “The Master” and “American Hustle.” It feels like the main reason Adams hasn’t yet won an Oscar is her filmography has been so consistently strong that voters feel safe putting her off another year (and another, and another).
O’Neil remains Adams’ manager today. “She’s been not just a manager, but a mentor,” says Adams. “It’s really important for women in our industry to have mentors, people you can really trust who can advise you towards a future that you really want.”
Her manager, agent and publicist are all women and, like her, all mothers. On the morning we spoke, Adams was helping her daughter Aviana prepare for her own awards ceremony: a taekwondo test.
“I work with really lovely, respectful men, as well,” Adams says, but her all-female trifecta has proven especially empowering. “They really understand what my priorities are and they understand who I crave to be, even if I’m not always her.”
People focus on the awards roles, but every film has pushed Adams closer to being the actress she’s still striving to become. Not Streep, of course — “There is no next Meryl Streep” — but her own kind of chameleon, the all-American sweetheart you don’t dare cross.
“I wasn’t even comfortable at my wedding having my family say things that were nice.”
“Sunshine Cleaning,” in 2008, with Emily Blunt gave her a chance to appreciate the powerful support of forging a strong female bond on the set. “It’s not always the case that us actresses get to work with each other,” notes Adams.
“The Muppets” (2011) pushed her to think about how to honor the spirit of childhood and connect with younger audiences the way she once she fell in love with Fozzie Bear.
Mention 2006’s “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” in which Adams’ wallflower goes from zero-to-60 when she seduces Will Ferrell on a bar table, and she lights up.
“I love it!” she says. “To witness that particular brand of genius, of improv and thinking on your feet and creating situations and creating dialogue. It’s not my greatest talent, but it was so much fun to get to be a part of it and get to play and learn from these masters.”
No wonder she recently signed up to work with “Talledega Nights” director Adam McKay again on his Dick Cheney biopic “Backseat,” in which Adams plays the former vice president’s wife, Lynne.
The American Cinematheque award is unusual in that it celebrates actors at the mid-points of their career. That suits Adams quite well. “I still sort of have that dream that my best work is in front of me,” she says. “There’s a lot to be done.”
She’s just started to discover herself as a producer on the HBO crime thriller “Sharp Objects,” based on the novel by “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn. Adams also stars in the series, and the dual roles behind and before the camera have given her a deeper respect for the labor, and hours, of putting together a show. She hopes to use that knowledge to be able to create work for other actresses, becoming the mentor she was grateful to have, someone who would advise that “Psycho Beach Party” starlet: “Keep your head up, don’t be so discouraged. Work hard. Enjoy your downtime.”
First, though, she’s got to get through all those compliments at the Beverly Hilton — and that montage. “I liked my Amelia Earhart wig,” the one from “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” she concedes. “My husband’s always encouraging me that I should maybe try to cut my hair like that.” Like the phenomenally empathetic actress she is, Adams’ goal for the night is to let herself get carried away by the emotions.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to take it in and not shut down,” laughs Adam. “These moments are rare.”
What: American Cinematheque Awards
When: Nov. 10
Where: Beverly Hilton Hotel