Amy Adams usually views her own movies through a scrim of self-criticism, but at a recent screening of her new film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, she watched with eerie detachment. “I was like, I don’t even know what I did in the film or what I didn’t do, or what I need to do, I have no clue.” Near the end, during a scene between her character, the wife of a cult leader, and Joaquin Phoenix’s drifter, “I just sobbed uncontrollably,” she says. “It really broke my heart. Oh God, I’m going to cry again if I think about it.”
We’re having lunch at the Loews Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, where Adams’s Cobb salad sits largely untouched. Suddenly, she tears up right in front of me. “I don’t know why it got to me, I’m not a crier,” she insists, collecting herself. “I’m always, ‘Oh, that’s so drama school.’ No. I’m not that kind of person.” When I ask what it was about the scene, she says it was Phoenix’s character, “so solitary, so seeking, so lost. I’d probably need to talk to a therapist to find out why that resonates with me so deeply.”
The Master is another of Anderson’s bad-nerve symphonies, its crisp 70-mm. compositions punctuated by bursts of psychic feedback, freak-out, and assorted Andersonian voodoo. Like his 2007 Oscar winner There Will Be Blood, it’s essentially a psychodrama played out between two men, an alcoholic veteran (Phoenix) who falls under the spell of L. Ron Hubbard–esque Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a new religion flourishing in the shadow of the Second World War. Adams plays his devoted wife, a Lady Macbeth–like amanuensis whose blue eyes boil with fury at unbelievers. “I do not want to run into her in a dark alleyway,” says Adams. “Give me [my character] Charlene from The Fighter any day, we can have a beer, talk about it, we’ll have fun. This woman scares the shit out of me. Excuse my language.”
Ever since it was announced that Anderson was making a film seemingly based, at least in part, on the founding of Scientology, the project has been cloaked in secrecy. “You’re the first person I’ve talked to about it,” says Adams, as if expecting a lightning bolt to strike. Anderson’s working methods were new to her. Even for scenes in which she was not scheduled to appear, she was instructed to show up, just to make her presence felt. “It was exhausting, but I love the effect,” she says. “She’s almost blurry.” Often, she had no idea whether the camera was on her, as during one scene in which Hoffman leads his followers in naked sing-along around a piano; Adams had to sit as demurely as possible, nude except for a pregnant-belly prosthetic.
“It was one of the most surreal evenings of my life, and I’ve had some pretty surreal evenings, up there with giving birth,” she says. “I was in a surreal place, because my daughter still wasn’t sleeping through the night and we were shooting nights. I felt like I was a little on edge, I was a little cuckoo, so I just sort of brought it.” For another scene in which Phoenix is ruthlessly “processed,” Anderson handed her a page of Victorian pornography and told her to read it straight to camera. “I’m like, Wait, is Paul trying to break [me] down? Is he doing this to me?”
It all sounds a little, well, cultlike, with the secretive Anderson imposing his will upon a cast and crew systematically discombobulated by working methods designed to keep them subtly off-balance throughout. “I won’t go that far,” she says. “But I do kind of worship Paul. He’s magnificent.” There’s a lot of the true believer in Adams, with her big blue eyes and bushy-tailed manner. That she was once a greeter at the Gap makes perfect sense. Her best performances — the motor-mouthed Ashley in Junebug (2005), the princess in Enchanted (2007) — have mined the comedy and pathos of the pathologically optimistic: sweet Pollyannas hoisting their beliefs aloft against a rising tide of reality.
“I do seem to be attracted to that,” she says. “Maybe I’m a disappointed optimist.” The fourth of seven children, she was raised a Mormon until the age of 12, when her parents separated and left the church, her father eventually moving to Arizona, Amy and her mother to Atlanta. “I’m always careful,” she says, “because I still have relatives I care very much about who are involved, but I definitely did see growing up a lot of women that were meant to be quiet and pleasant, and if you had something mean to say it’s probably best to keep a journal.”
If her early work came lit up with the infectious inner glow of the onetime believer, her more recent roles — in 2008’s Doubt, and The Master — have flipped that faith on its back like a beetle. Under the right directors — David O. Russell on The Fighter, Anderson on The Master — Adams has revealed real steel in those baby blues. “Amy is very private,” says Robert Lorenz, the director of this fall’s Trouble With the Curve, of one scene in which Adams lets Clint Eastwood have it in a diner for being an absentee dad. “I asked her during filming, which of her roles was the closest to the real Amy, and she said, ‘This one.’ She was definitely addressing some aspect of her personal life in the role.” Eastwood’s words to the director after the scene was finished: “You got the right girl.”
Since having a daughter herself — 2-year-old Aviana, with her actor-fiancé Darren Le Gallo — Adams has been much more aware of “how protective I am with my feelings. God, even telling you, I can feel this tightening in my chest.” She puts a hand to the base of her neck. “I think playing vulnerable, joyful characters was sort of a shield for me. You know, if I showed enough of who I was, maybe people wouldn’t look for anything else. I promised myself I wouldn’t go forward in my life and not be as honest as possible.”
This story appeared in the August 27, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.