Last Saturday, just after the Venice Film Festival crowned “The Master” with two major awards, I shuffled toward the Park Hyatt Toronto suite where Amy Adams leaned against the door frame, singing and laughing with her reps who were seated in the hallway. She looked nothing like the prim, pregnant Peggy Dodd, whom she plays onscreen. In the movie, Peggy and her cult-leader husband, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), attempt to redeem Joaquin Phoenix’s postwar lost soul, Freddie Quell — without losing their own souls in the process. In person, the petite star is cheery and barefoot — her super-high heels wait like lap dogs at the foot of her chair, where she joins me after finishing another chorus of “Callate la boca.”
Amy Adams: I was singing “Callate la boca” — I was teaching my daughter to sing it. We say it to the dog: “Callate la boca.”
Thelma Adams: It means “Shut your mouth,” right? Around my house we say “STFU,” but my kids are 13 and 16, not 2, like your daughter Aviana. So, after a while you just revert to how you were before you had kids. You can’t filter forever. Now, they understand how crazy their mother is.
AA: Oh, gosh, when does it happen? Because I know it’s on the way. When do they realize that you’re human? And not only human but, like me, a little left of center?
TA: It takes a while. It doesn’t happen until they are like 11 or 12. It’s the moment when they know that you can really embarrass them just by being yourself with no effort at all. Then you become a liability to a tween and a teen.
AA: Because now, I don’t care. I think that I am getting more and more like that. Now I am just a liability to myself because I’ve lost that ability to feel embarrassed anymore or feel shame over myself as much. You know people say, “You’re so smiley,” and I say that’s actually who I am. I tend to be someone who smiles a lot.
TA: Me, too.
AA: When I’m pissed, I smile.
TA: Now that’s scary!
AA: I was in New York on the subway and I was talking to this woman, and she was like, “You can tell you’re a tourist,” and I said, “Actually I’m not. I’ve been here all summer.”
TA: I know that you are smiley and charming and spunky, and you can play that, like when you play Amelia Earhart in “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.” But you are also a person, and it would be a shame to imprison all the emotions that you’re capable of in this tower of jolly.
AA: I am a person. I have bad days. I have really bad days.
TA: How do you access that dark side?
AA: What’s really great is that occasionally I get to do it as part of my work and have a creative outlet and somewhere to put that energy, or that angst, or the frustration, and have it be accepted as a part of an artistic self.
TA: Because your character in “The Master,” Peggy Dodd, is steely.
AA: Yeah. [She drops her voice to a whisper.] I like Peggy.
TA: I’m a little scared of Peggy, but I like your performance and respect her. Doesn’t she run the show to a certain extent?
AA: I think she’s very smart and she’s very aware of her role, and she’s more than happy to let somebody else steer the ship. The minute she sees it going off course, she’s going to take the wheel.
TA: So she’s the co-pilot?
AA: She’s definitely the co-pilot.
TA: And she’s sober, which her husband and his protégé are not. And she’s not as egomaniacal as the characters played by Hoffman and Phoenix.
AA: She’s a woman.
TA: So she can’t afford to be that egomaniacal?
AA: Women never can. Don’t you find? But mostly I’m a human being. It’s funny that you mentioned Amelia Earhart earlier, because that was the first time that I can remember playing a character that was confident. Afterwards, I said to my agent, I loved playing a confident character — let’s look for more. I really want to play confident women. And then I did “The Muppets,” and I remember thinking, this is really hard after playing characters that I feel are confident and fully realized. So that’s something that I was definitely looking for.
TA: How did you research Peggy?
AA: I had read a book a long time ago that I had picked up at a garage sale. I didn’t go to college, so I always felt something about not being an intellectual. It always got under my skin, and you know what someone finally said? “Who told you that being an intellectual is any better than being yourself?” I think it was a group of intellectuals, come to think of it! So I came to terms that I wasn’t a real intellectual but I loved learning. So I started picking up books, and I read a book called “The Feminine Mystique.”
TA: By Betty Friedan?
AA: Yep. When I was researching this character, I thought about what post-World War II meant to women. I thought about how the role of women had changed so much during the war and as the men came back we were sort of minimized.
TA: Like “Rosie the Riveter.”
AA: Yeah. It went from Rosie the Riveter to housecleaning is glamorous! Stay at home! Look how wonderful we are for making a beautiful home. Then there were those articles like “Don’t press your husband about his day on the job.” I mean, that stuff existed. I went back to “The Feminine Mystique” because I thought there was something wonderful relating to Peggy’s everywoman. And yet, she is different than any woman that I’ve ever met because of the era in which she existed. So I was informed more by the era, where I did my research.
TA: What’s the kernel of “The Feminine Mystique”?
AA: It really was the idea that women had power but understanding that it was behind the scenes. Peggy actually saw that as a very powerful place as opposed to feeling out of control. She ended up understanding where her power was. Granted, Peggy didn’t read “The Feminine Mystique.”
TA: Not likely, since it wasn’t written until 1963. I have two final questions: You’ve shot Lois Lane for the new Superman project, “Man of Steel,” opposite Henry Cavill. Lane is another confident female character. She can be seen as an extension of “The Front Page,” and Rosalind Russell’s big-shouldered women.
AA: Absolutely. It was fun. It was intimidating because it was played before by Margot Kidder, whom I love. One of my favorite movies growing up was “Superman” — and “Superman 2.” I was kind of a nerd; I loved them so much. It was important to create a character that was new because I thought she was perfect. It’s hard to step into a role where you thought someone had already achieved what could be achieved. But coming from theater, you’re always stepping into a role that’s been done before, so you’re always excited about it.
TA: What was your twist that you added to the role?
AA: It’s a totally different realization of the Superman lore, so I felt free in that way because I wasn’t trying to emulate any sort of banter that had been established by Christopher Reeve and Kidder. I was given a lot of permission to create a new character.
TA: By now you’ve heard the Venice Film Festival awarded “The Master” the Silver Lion for best directing for P.T. Anderson while Hoffman and Phoenix shared best-acting honors?
AA: I did.
TA: Can you give me a reaction?
AA: Wonderful! I’m sorry I missed the festival. I was onstage. I would have loved to be a part of that. I could not be happier for these two deserving men — and Paul as well. Three deserving men! Phil and Joaquin: After all this talk about female power, they frickin’ kill it in this film. They are unbelievable. Hats off! I can’t wait for people to see them in “The Master.”
When I exit Adams’ hotel suite, her director from “The Fighter,” David O. Russell (in Toronto with “Silver Linings Playbook”), has dropped by spontaneously to say hello between interviews. Down the hall, I pass Adams’ current director, Paul Thomas Anderson. He looks exhausted, eyes watery, graying hair disheveled, like a high school chemistry teacher after a long Friday. He’s clearly talked out but rallies when he sees Russell walking toward him. I get on the elevator a step ahead of the two auteurs, Anderson and Russell, then stand between them and realize what a gift, and act of will, Adams’ gregarious, happy-go-lucky personality is.