Finding the fresh response in obvious situations has become a specialty for Amy Adams - never more so than in Enchanted, in which she plays a fairy-tale beauty named Giselle who tumbles down a well in the magic kingdom of Andalasia and ends up peering out from a manhole in Times Square.
Over the phone from Manhattan, Adams says that when she read the Enchanted script she saw that "it was a different incarnation of the classic fish-out-of-water story, the way it was told." The character of Giselle revved up her comic engine. "I saw her as completely open, full of conviction and joy and a humor that would go along with that."
That word "open" immediately sparks in any Adams-follower's mind a connection between Giselle and her previous characters, especially Ashley in Junebug.
Adams may grow into stardom in Enchanted, a highly promoted Disney comic fantasy, but she first invaded movie lovers' hearts in the independent Junebug, an inspired piece of comic Americana. She turned an open-faced, openhearted pregnant beauty named Ashley into that near-impossibility: a lyrical motor-mouth. Once you got into the knockout redhead's rhythms, you realized that everything she said had meaning, including a remark to her aging high-school-sweetheart husband, Johnny (Ben McKenzie): "God loves you just the way you are. But he loves you too much to let you stay that way."
Ashley earned Adams a best-supporting actress nomination at the 2006 Academy Awards. But for a half-dozen years, Adams had been breaking hearts and igniting laughs simultaneously, whenever filmmakers gave her the chance, whether in that underrated beauty-pageant parody, Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) - Adams played the gal who told a competitor "They're never going to let you perform naked. I asked!" - or in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (2002), as Brenda Strong, the candy-striper who wins the heart of Leonardo DiCaprio's hustler-hero, Frank Abagnale Jr. When he tries to make a clean breast of things and says, "I'm not a lawyer or a Harvard graduate or a Lutheran; I ran away from home a year and a half ago when I was 16," Brenda is the one who asks, "Frank, Frank - you're not a Lutheran?"
Junebug's Ashley may have been her best showcase, but it had nothing to do, Adams says, with the producers choosing her for Giselle or her decision to pursue the part.
Still, she says, "I think they are both very open people, that's undeniably similar, and they're similar in their joy and sense of faith."
But they start to deviate after that. "Ashley is a woman with a different type of intelligence. Society likes to streamline the concept of intelligence into one idea, as opposed to a bigger idea - that people like Ashley are emotionally intelligent.
"Ashley's almost an empath - she feels what other people are feeling - as opposed to Giselle, who is truly a creature of circumstance. I like to think of Giselle as someone in the process of becoming interesting. In the future, she is going to be a pretty extraordinary woman."
It's hard to play "open" no matter what the character, Adams admits. "It's so exposing, and you feel so vulnerable on the set, because you're not playing smart and savvy. But it's also always rewarding because you're playing someone who constantly experiences new things."
Giselle believes in the omnipotent force of "true love's kiss" - and then, as she grows distant from her Andalasian prince, Edward (James Marsden), and closer to her reluctant New York savior, Robert (Patrick Dempsey), gets confused over which is her true love. But Adams says, "I think she has very good instincts. I think that being open is a key to intelligence and to being well-balanced, and that's another thing I liked about Giselle."
When Robert teaches her about the getting-to-know-you-quality of a dinner or movie date, "she's so willing to explore new ideas and consider them and talk about them. And I loved the really gentle transitions she makes to the end when she discovers herself and discovers new emotions [like anger] within herself."
The key to playing any character who might seem too good to be true - it worked for Olivia de Havilland as Melanie in Gone With the Wind - may be, as Adams says of Giselle, "You have to believe everything that she says - it's all about belief. You have to identify what is her truth and see the world through that." Adams adds with a laugh, "Only then can you figure out when she's lying! But Giselle is a very authentic person - that's just who she is, for better or worse in other people's eyes."
Openness, indeed, is part of Adams' own method as an actor. It accounts for the giddy sparks she strikes with two opposite leading men: in her words, the "yummy, funny" Marsden and the "lovely" Dempsey. "I had long conversations with Patrick and Jimmy, but I really just got lucky. As long as you don't deny who they are as people, you're going to see chemistry on-screen, because each of them truly has an innate charm."
Adams comes by her talent naturally. The middle of seven children, she was born on a U.S. military base in Aviano, Italy, and raised in Castle Rock, Colo. She likes to say, "My whole family - they're all performers, but I'm the only one getting paid for it." She grew to love singing and dancing in her father's amateur theatricals, in school and church, and at dance classes. Her first jobs were in Colorado dinner-theater productions.
It's a giant step to the soon-to-be-released Mike Nichols production, Charlie Wilson's War, co-starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman - and Adams as Hanks' right-hand gal. After that comes John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, based on his play about a dangerously manipulative nun (Meryl Streep), with Adams as a trusting nun (and, again, with Philip Seymour Hoffman). And then there's Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, based on Winifred Watson's novel about a dismissed British governess (Frances McDormand) caught in the whirl of a glamorous cabaret singer (Adams).
It's been a long career takeoff, but it's now certain that Adams will never again have to sing for her supper - unless she wants to, as with Enchanted.
Aug. 20, 1974, in Aviano, Italy
Douglas County High School, Castle Rock, Colo.
Chanhassen Dinner Theatre near Minneapolis
Awards and nominations for Junebug (2005):
Special Jury Prize at Sundance; best-supporting actress wins include the Independent Spirit Award and the NSFC Award from the National Society of Film Critics; best-supporting actress nomination for the Academy Awards
See more photos and watch a preview of Enchanted at baltimoresun.com/enchanted