Amy Adams discusses motherhood, movies, and her massive range of recent roles

IF YOU were to choose one article of clothing to represent Amy Adams, it might be a dress like the one she wore in Enchanted – a confection of fairy-tale glam with a cage of steel holding everything together.

Or stick her in a pinny, and Adams becomes a modern girl who debones duck as a feminist act in Julie and Julia. Put her in leather trousers and she is Amelia Earhart with a smart twist of Katharine Hepburn bossiness in Night at the Museum 2. And in demure Peter Pan collars and peacoats, she has another shot at an Oscar as the tense, textured wife of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult leader in The Master – seemingly submissive but with eyes that spit ice, fire and everything in between. “I’ve always been interested in the roles of women in the 20th century,” says Adams, as the film gathers momentum and acclaim at the Toronto film festival.

“It was such a quick-growing time and our roles changed so quickly. One of the things I had read a long time ago was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which was talking about women’s roles right after World War Two and the climate for women and how we were just beginning to be empowered when the men went off to war.”

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Adams rarely goes for the more obviously transformative roles that so many actresses clamour for – the kinds that require weight-gain or wigs or prostheses. But they are almost always characters with metal underneath. “I’m definitely not always warm and cuddly, so it’s nice to get to bring that to a role sometimes,” she says. “I do love playing characters with a sunny disposition but some days it takes a little more energy.”

In interviews, Adams is far from steely; she smiles a lot, and she’s unfailingly polite. Back when I first met her, for Enchanted, she seemed a little unnerved by the scale of the promotional machinery for her first studio big picture, but was keen to be helpful – and very funny about the wedding-cake dress she wore for most of the movie. “When I read the script about fighting dragons, running around, I don’t know how heavy this dress is, and that I would be doing this while wearing what is basically a tent.”

For The Master, however, she’s not keen to be drawn into one of the hot-button conversations the movie provokes – is this a movie about Scientology? Set in the 1950s, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film about the founding of a charismatic cult bears some similarities to the early days of L Ron Hubbard. Instead of L Ron, we have Hoffman, with Adams as a wife who is even more fanatical about their spiritual movement than he is. It is perhaps her darkest role to date, as she plays the devoted wife and rock of stability on which Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) relies. She is gradually revealed as the real power behind the cult, setting tests for Joaquin Phoenix as a new recruit she can’t bring herself to trust. But it remains a typical Adams performance in that she eschews showboating her character’s shadowy side.

The cult flirts with time travel, and the notion that it is possible to access previous lives, but Adams says Scientology wasn’t something she researched before filming. If you want to read it as a movie with interesting parallels, that’s fine by her, but she says, “I don’t think Paul was trying to make a movie about Scientology”.

Her screen husband shows a united front. “I don’t care how many similarities there seems to be between this film and L Ron Hubbard and Scientology,” says Hoffman. “It’s not a film about Scientology.”

“It’s the most-asked question,” says Adams, who smiles when she hears his quote. “I understand.” She also manages to dodge commenting on Clint Eastwood’s recent supporting role at the Republican party convention, where he opened for Mitt Romney. Adams stars in his upcoming baseball movie Trouble with the Curve, as a baseball coach’s daughter who agrees to put their dysfunctional relationship on hold, and accompany her father on a scouting trip to pick up new team talent. Everyone else may have watched Eastwood converse with fresh air on a political stage, but not Adams. It turns out she’s on what she calls “an internet diet”, allowing herself to check e-mails, but avoiding logging on too often so that she could spend quality time with her baby daughter. As a bonus, she can’t comment on her Curve co-star, “but nothing Clint does would surprise me”.

“I grew up watching Clint – and had a huge crush on him, of course. But he’s just such a warm individual with such a great sense of humanity and humour, which made it easy to not be intimidated.”

Eastwood, on the other hand, is mighty impressed by Adams’s baseball skills. “She can sprint like a guy, throw like a guy, take a real swing,” he says.

None of this was natural, laughs Adams. When she played ball as a kid, her mother kicked her off the local baseball team she was coaching because Adams would flinch at the ball. So Adams worked with a coach to get some pitching skills. “I had to look as if I was comfortable, that I was at home on the field. But before I started this film, all I could do was run. I was a good runner.”

The forward motion hasn’t stopped. She has just finished a stint on an open-air stage for New York’s 50th Shakespeare in the Park, starred in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and has a third film coming out, Man of Steel, in which she reinvents Lois Lane for the Superman reboot, directed by Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300) and starring Russell Crowe as Jor-El, Henry Cavill as Superman, Kevin Costner as Clark Kent’s dad Jonathan, and Michael Shannon as General Zod. But isn’t Superman dating Wonder Woman in the new DC comics adventures? “I can take her,” she quips.

It seems a remarkable workload, given that Adams could afford to kick back and enjoy the critical accolades and financial security on offer at the moment. On most of the films, she grabs sleep where she can, whilst sharing child-rearing duties with her husband and nanny. The problem is that she can’t shake the drive to make up for lost time. “When I hit 30 and started getting offers, it was like, ‘OK, it’s like I have a short amount of time before the clock is running out on my career.’ It’s that phantom clock in the female world they talk about.”

Adams was born in Vincenza, Italy, then raised in Colorado as part of a large family, “I learnt to hold my own,” she says. “You stand up for yourself when you’re one of seven children.” At 5ft 4in, she has the unconscious good posture of the ballet dancer she trained to be, and performing is in her blood thanks to her father. “He would play the guitar and sing in nightclubs and pizza joints, and we would watch him.”

At school, she says, she was an average student but shone at singing and dancing. When she left, she spent eight years in musical dinner theatre, one of the most strenuous forms of entertainment, in productions of Brigadoon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Anything Goes. She pulled groin, adductor and abductor muscles and developed bursitis in her knees, and when she landed a small part in the 1999 black comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous, Kirstie Alley encouraged Adams to move to Los Angeles to pursue acting before her body gave out.

The acting roles were tiny at first, and she was fired from two TV series, but Steven Spielberg spotted her possibilities and cast her in his 2002 film Catch Me if You Can. She’s the sweet, family-minded girl that Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) falls for and almost marries, until his fraudulent past catches up with him. When Spielberg reckons you’re a rising star, you might be forgiven for thinking you’re on your way. Instead, she didn’t work for a year. “Maybe I allowed myself to think that, after working with Steven Spielberg, things would get better, but they didn’t,” she says.

Other actresses might have taken the next part offered but Adams held out for a little indy picture, Junebug, in which she played a superchatty, slightly annoying and extremely pregnant southern girl, winning over audiences with her optimistic spirit. Suddenly she was off the blocks.

The movie became a critical hit and was much admired in Hollywood circles. It won Adams an Oscar nomination and she found her stride – and a new hair colour. A natural blonde, she dyed her hair red for Junebug, and it has remained that way ever since. “The red-haired gene is in my family, and it seemed to suit my personality,” she says. She proved even harder to miss after she beat more than 300 actresses to win the lead in the 2007 Disney musical comedy Enchanted, playing an animated princess who steps into the less enchanting parts of Manhattan in that hooped princess dress.

A shape-shifting quality, along with a Puritan’s work ethic, enables her to inhabit her varied roles. On screen she has more than held her own with megawatt actors like Eastwood, Tom Hanks and the Muppets, and has been described as a sort of Everywoman’s Meryl Streep – with whom she co-starred in Julie and Julia and Doubt, in which she played a nun who thinks she has witnessed a crime. Not only did Adams earn a second Oscar nomination, at the Doubt wrap party her director recalls her cajoling the rest of the cast into shaking off an intensive shoot by putting on a show at a karaoke bar. “She grabbed that microphone,” recalls John Patrick Shanley, “and got my friend to sing You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. They brought the house down. Amy really wants life to work, and it’s a lovely thing to see.”

Onscreen, Adams is also feisty and fearless, according to colleagues, who point to a capacity for focus and hard work. “If you told Amy to run into a wall, she’d run into a wall – and she’d run into it hard,” says Emily Blunt, her co-star on Sunshine Cleaning. Yet she retains a strong sense of the absurd. Blunt also remembers the pair of them being overcome by giggles when they tried on their maid outfits for the film.

Adams has nice comedy instincts; early in The Muppets, when Kermit turns down the chance to revive the old gang, her character deadpans, “This is going to be a really short movie,” and it’s her wide-eyed wholesome delivery that helps sell the line. Even in Leap Year, a lumpy bit of romcom blarney, she managed to wring laughs from walking around Ireland in high heels and pencil skirts.

However, Hollywood notoriously doesn’t rate heavy lifting in comedy when it comes to awards, so Adams’s third Academy nomination was for The Fighter, playing Mark Wahlberg’s girlfriend – the only character in the film tough enough to face down his formidable mother, played by Melissa Leo. For one scene, director David O Russell made her yell obscenities at Christian Bale from a balcony, over and over again, until Adams managed to call a halt to the takes by pleading she had run out of swear words. A notoriously combative director was charmed into giving in.

There are those people in the public eye who like to pretend they are ‘private’, and there are those who really are. Adams is rarely in the tabloids, so it’s hard to keep track of her personal life. Now 38, she is trying to create more time for her family, her fiancé, actor Darren Le Gallo, and their two-year-old daughter Aviana. The couple met in acting class in 2001, and have a policy of never spending more than two weeks apart, so when Adams went to New Orleans in August to film Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Le Gallo and Aviana joined her for the 11-day shoot. At home in Los Angeles, they share babysitting, although they’ve been trying to find time for a wedding date since Le Gallo proposed four years ago. “Actually I nearly proposed to him the first year we were together but I wasn’t sure he would like that.”

Now that Adams is one of the ten highest-earning actresses in Hollywood, a hardened cynic might ask what’s not to like, but having waited so long to find her overnight success, Adams is sincere about trying to settle her priorities. Despite her sense of the ticking clock, she took a break to have a baby, and is wry about the usual line of inquiry regarding the business of juggling childcare and career. On the Road opens this month, with Adams as the junkie Jane Lee and Viggo Mortensen as her husband Old Bull (the character based on William S Burroughs). She was breast-feeding day and night during filming and was often hollow-eyed from lack of sleep at the beginning of a film day. “I really felt like I was strung out. I’d show up at the trailer for make-up and they’d say, ‘Well – it’s a good start.’”

• On the Road is released on Friday; The Master is released on 2 November and Trouble with the Curve is released on 30 November