When Amy Adams read the script for Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie, The Master, she saw an opportunity to play a character type she'd never played before.
"Somebody who on the surface was very, very mothering, almost genteel, and then underneath, there was this boiling almost rage," Adams tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
In The Master, the Academy Award-nominated actress plays the forbidding wife of a cult leader. Although she played a tough character in The Fighter, Adams usually portrays sweeter, more princess-like roles, as she did in Enchanted, Junebug and The Muppets.
That may be in part because Adams grew up wanting to be the Sugar Plum Fairy — from The Nutcracker — and fell in love with Disney fairy tales as a teenager. She says the female characters had strength of character, and that she strove to be more like them — "to be kind and optimistic."
In the limelight now, Adams says she sometimes feels self-conscious.
"I'm much more comfortable speaking through my characters' voices than my own," she says.
Adams got her start acting in dinner theater, and returned to the stage this summer in a New York production of Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods. She's co-starring in two new movies — The Master and the new baseball drama Trouble with the Curve, with Clint Eastwood.
On playing Peggy Dodd in 'The Master'
"[Paul Thomas Anderson] didn't bring up any specificity as far as it being a cult — or, 'Go study this religion or read this.' For me, the way that I work, I didn't feel responsible for coming up with the history of this religion, belief system, cult, whatever. For me, I always go into the character. So most of my discussions with Paul had to do with my character — where she's from. She was very highly educated, and it was a time when women didn't have as many choices of what to do if they were very smart and very educated. It was just a different world. So I just came to the conclusion in doing my own research about that era, that this was a woman who found her power behind a man. And however she had to stay in power she was going to.
"I loved that on the outside the appearance is one thing, and the inside is something completely different. Because I really believe that is life. So to get to create a person who looks one way and acts another — I just don't know anybody who acts exactly like what they look like. I'm always surprised by people."
On why she loves playing characters with accents
"I love accents — I wish I could find an accent for every one of my characters. It makes it so much easier when I don't have to hear my own voice. ... Sometimes my own voice can pull me out of the scene on occasion. So when I do an accent, I feel a bigger separation, so I'm going to try to just only do accents from now on. "
On being more comfortable speaking through her characters
"I love talking, and I love communicating with people and hearing new ideas, but I do get very self-conscious about how I form my own thoughts. And I tend to be somebody who acts from a very instinctual place, and tries to live from a very instinctual place. So on occasion, when I have tried to intellectualize an emotional experience, it's very hard for me. And so, when I'm able to just get lost in the life of my character, and the emotional truth and reality that they experience, I really enjoy that. And it helps me understand humanity a little bit more."
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The new movie "The Master," written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is getting a lot of attention for Anderson's masterful filmmaking and for the powerful performances by the film's stars, including my guest Amy Adams. She's also starring with Clint Eastwood and Justin Timberlake in "Trouble with the Curve." Her other films include, "Junebug," "Enchanted," "Doubt," "The Fighter," "Julie and Julia" and "The Muppets."
Let's start with a scene from "The Master," which takes place after World War II. Amy Adams plays Peggy Dodd, the wife of Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic leader of a cult called The Cause. Joaquin Phoenix plays a G.I. who is mentally unstable and unable to fit in anywhere or with anyone. Then he stumbles into a party of the cult members and tries to find a home with them. But Amy Adams' character becomes skeptical that he's right for the group and she's suspicious of his motives. Here she is sharing her concerns with her husband. He's played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE MASTER")
AMY ADAMS: (as Peggy Dodd) I wonder how he got here and what he's after. Is it really all so easy that he just came across us? He's a drunk and he's dangerous and he will be our undoing if we continue to have him here.
PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) If we are not helping him then it is we who have failed him.
ADAMS: (as Peggy Dodd) Perhaps he's past help or insane.
GROSS: Amy Adams, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on "The Master." At the center of "The Master" is a cult and your husband, Philip Seymour Hoffman is the founder of it. You're his, I don't know, like third or fourth wife, but like you're almost the power behind him. In some ways like you control him. What did Paul Thomas Anderson tell you about this cult that you and your husband lead so they could have enough of a backstory to fill in the details of it?
ADAMS: You know, it's interesting because in thinking about my conversations with him he didn't bring up any specificity as far as it being a cult or go study this religion or go read this. So for me, the way that I work, I didn't feel responsible for coming up with the history of this religion cult belief system. For me I always go into the character, so most of my discussions with Paul really had to do with my character, who she was, where she was from. She was very highly-educated and it was a time where women didn't have as many choices of what to do if they were very smart and very educated. It was just a different world.
And so I sort of came to the conclusion in doing my own research about that era that this was a woman who found her power behind a man really. And I thought it was a really wonderful opportunity to create somebody that I'd never played before, somebody who on the surface was very, very mothering, almost genteel and then underneath there was this boiling almost rage, this fierceness, and to play somebody with that kind of duplicity was very interesting to me.
GROSS: So you and Philip Seymour Hoffman's character put members of this group through different exercises, and one of them is questions - just like asking the same question over and over, like what is your name?
GROSS: What is your name?
GROSS: What is your name?
GROSS: Do your past failures bother you? Do your past failures bother you? Do your past failures bother you? What did you think about or talk about when thinking about those exercises and why you're putting people through them?
ADAMS: Well, in the original script that I read my character was not involved in those. Paul very much would sort of come - he'd just say hey, come to set. I want you to do something. Like the in the film the exercise that I do is what color are my eyes? And he just had me look in camera and basically ask different questions as he called them out. It wasn't something that I had a lot of time to put a lot of thought into. He was telling me in the moment what to say, so it's a great exercise in staying focused and staying in character. It's almost like a hypnosis that I felt like I was hypnotized by the process of doing it, staring into camera and repeating these questions and that's what struck me when I was participating. There are a couple of times I appear on screen and those weren't scripted, those were in Paul's imaginings in the moment...
GROSS: That's really interesting because he's telling you what to do but on screen you're telling another character what to do.
ADAMS: Character what to do.
ADAMS: Exactly. So who is the master?
GROSS: So it's like he's controlling you and your controlling Freddy. Yeah. Yeah.
ADAMS: Yes. Paul is the master and I'm happily a member of his cult.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Amy Adams and she's one of the stars of the new Paul Thomas Anderson film "The Master." She's also currently in theaters starring with Justin Timberlake and Clint Eastwood in "Trouble with the Curve."
One of the ways you got your start with dinner theater. What's that like from the perspective as a performer, you know, when dinner is being eaten or served?
ADAMS: I took it very seriously. For me it was my Broadway, you know. I never knew where I would end up so for me it was all about living in the moment and I took it very seriously and I loved it. I loved the work. I loved getting, you know, to just sing and dance every night.
GROSS: What shows did you do?
ADAMS: I did "Brigadoon," "Anything Goes," "Seven Brides," a lot of shows.
GROSS: So you got to do a lot more classics than you ever would have done on Broadway.
ADAMS: Exactly. I probably never would have been hired on Broadway had I not moved out to LA and pursued acting and film, which is sad really. I just did Shakespeare in the Park.
GROSS: Yeah. I know, "Into the Woods," the Stephen Sondheim show.
ADAMS: Yeah and I worked with some amazing, amazing talent. And just working...
GROSS: "Into the Woods" is Stephen Sondheim's fairytale musical...
GROSS: And there's like three different like parallel fairytales that are told.
GROSS: And it's the really dark version of "Enchanted."
ADAMS: The second act is definitely. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. Because, you know, a few years ago you starred in the movie "Enchanted" as a princess living in - it's like an animated princess that starts off as animation...
GROSS: You meet your handsome prince and you're about to marry when the wicked queen intervenes and wants to get rid of you, so she pushes you down a well and somehow as you go deeper and deeper into the well, you emerge out of the well, but when you emerge you lift off this cap and it's actually a sewer cap in Manhattan.
GROSS: And you climb out and you're not only in the middle of Times Square instead of fairytale land, you're also in the middle of like the real world as opposed to the animated world. Instead of an animated character, you are Amy Adams playing a princess.
GROSS: And you have no idea where you are or what you're doing there. And then you get to sing in this too. And I thought I'd play little song in which you sing. And this is "Happy Working Song," and because you're tidying up this like single father's home who has taken you in because you have no place to go. You see that his apartment is really a mess so you lean out the window and sing and, of course, all the animals hear and want to come and help you.
Now in the animated movie it would be like, you know, the cute squirrel and the cute chipmunk and the cute bunny and, you know, all the adorable little forest creatures. But you're in Manhattan so, like, the roaches are coming out of the drain and the rats are, like, running out of the sewers and the pigeons are flying over and they're all coming to your house and they all help you clean. And it's hysterical and here is the song that - you're cleaning as all these, like, vermin are helping you tidy up the house.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ADAMS: Hello. Well, it's always nice to make new friends. All right, everyone, let's tidy things up. (Singing) Come, my little friends as we all sing a happy little working song, merry little voices clear and strong. Come and roll your sleeves up, so to speak, and pitch in, cleaning crud up in the kitchen as we sing along. Trill a cheery tune in the tub as we scrub a stubborn mildew stain, pluck a hairball from the shower drain to that gay refrain of a happy working song. We'll keep singing without fail. Otherwise, we'd spoil it. (Unintelligible) and scrubbing up the toilet. How we all enjoy letting loose with a little la da dum, dum, dum while we'll emptying the vacuum. It's such fun to hum.
GROSS: That's Amy Adams from "Enchanted." You really have a lovely voice. That's...
ADAMS: Thank you.
GROSS: That's so much fun. How old were you when you started in "Enchanted?"
ADAMS: I was 32, maybe. I was older.
GROSS: Yeah. It's, like, older for, like, the young princess...
GROSS: ...who, theoretically, would probably be, like, a teenager, so was it intentional to give the role to somebody your age?
ADAMS: I don't think so. Everyone sort of knew how old I was, so it didn't matter to them, as long as I looked and could play the part. I'm sure the DP had some challenges at times, but...
GROSS: So what did you do to get the kind of - those sweet, corny, like princessy gestures that you use in the film and when you're first in Times Square in Manhattan, you're in this, like, exaggeration of a princess gown with the puffy sleeves and the big, puffy skirt and it's such a gross exaggeration of it that it keeps getting in the way of everything.
ADAMS: Yes. I think it helped that I had been a dancer, so I tend to approach a character from a very physical place, anyhow. I went back and watched the older Disney films. "Snow White" had that a lot. She very much had that sort of hand push with the delicate fingers. And then, when I was working with the animators, they did a rough animation of how they saw Giselle running in the forest and I saw how they had her move and I thought, that's perfect.
And, really, they helped inform me and I just took it from there and kind of brought it into a three-dimensional world, but, really, I just used Disney animation from the past and then what they had come up with about how Giselle moved and one of the things that I loved is that she appeared to not understand gravity, like she didn't - she didn't understand weight, so when she moved, it was as though she didn't feel the floor and that was something I noticed about how she moved through the forest and I wanted to bring that as much as possible into New York.
GROSS: Is it ever like a relief to have lines written for you? Because, in life, you don't. In life, you have to really figure out what it is you want to say, knowing that what you might say might have consequences, but you know, when you're acting and you're reading lines, you can do that with abandon. It's not - you know, you don't have to think about - you have to think about how you're saying what you're saying, but you don't have to think about what words to use because those are taken care of.
ADAMS: Yeah. I'm much more comfortable speaking through my characters' voices than my own. I...
GROSS: Is that part of the reason why you became an actor?
ADAMS: I think so. I love talking and I love communicating with people and hearing new ideas, but I do get very self-conscious about how I form my thoughts and I tend to be somebody who acts from a very instinctual place and tries to live from a very instinctual place. So, on occasion, when I have to intellectualize an emotional experience, it's very hard for me.
So when I'm able to just get lost in the life of my character and in sort of emotional truth and reality that they experience, I really enjoy that and it helps me understand humanity a little bit more and that's one of the sad things about - once you become known as an actress, you can't disappear into humanity as easily and I've really missed that. I miss being a voyeur. I try. I just get caught now.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
ADAMS: Thank you.
GROSS: You can see Amy Adams in two new movies "The Master" and "Trouble with the Curve." Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new time travel thriller, "Looper." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.