With Oscar nominations for “Junebug,” “Doubt,” “The Fighter,” “The Master” and “American Hustle” in the last nine years, Amy Adams is tied with Meryl Streep as the most-nominated actor or actress in that stretch. (Philip Seymour Hoffman, George Clooney and Cate Blanchett are next with four.) And now she’s in the running again with Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes,” the story of real-life artist Margaret Keane, who created iconic (if kitschy) paintings of children with enormous eyes in the 1960s, but sat by quietly while her husband Walter claimed credit.
Adams plays the long-suffering Margaret while Christoph Waltz is the overbearing Walter, a born salesman who persuades her that the work won’t sell if people think it was done by a woman — a fiction she reluctantly maintains until after their divorce, when a bitter lawsuit brings Walter’s fantasies crumbling down in a lengthy and uproarious courtroom sequence. And initially, Adams told TheWrap, the passivity was a problem for her.
“It was just where I was in my life at that time,” she said. “I was attracted to what I assumed to be confident characters, and I didn’t think she was strong. But that was about four or five years ago, and after I had my daughter I read it again and identified with Margaret as a mother. For the first time, I saw her as a little more than just a victim.”
The role came along at a time when Adams had gone through something of a career reinvention, with roles in David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” and “American Hustle” shattering her good-girl image pretty thoroughly. But those roles weren’t, she insisted, a case of the actress trying to engineer a makeover.
“I was just never really concerned about that, because I know who I am,” she said. “The fact that people thought I was something else didn’t bother me, and I wasn’t actively pursuing showing someone anything. But I do enjoy the way that that’s opened up opportunities and different pathways in my career.”
So did those films change the kind of roles she’s been offered? “It wasn’t so much a change in the things I was offered. It was more that people stopped asking if I thought I could do it. I used to have directors asking, ‘Do you think you can be tough?’ I knew I could be tough, but that was always hard for directors to see. Because I am very polite. I’m not going to be the person who pushes to the front of the line and says, ‘Look at me!’ It’s just not my nature.”
She laughed. “I know people don’t believe that about an actress, but it’s true.”
Of course, that refusal to blow one’s own horn is exactly what paralyzed Margaret Keane, who allowed Walter to claim credit for her work for years. “She was definitely in love with Walter and trusted him,” said Adams. “And she was devastated by his deceit, but she became complicit in it, and was overcome by her guilt.
“And she was also very scared and uncertain of her what would happen to her if she told the truth. He told her that they could take her daughter away. If anything, she was naïve.”
Adams came to the role immediately after playing a brazen con woman in “American Hustle”: “As soon as my fake tan faded, I went right into this,” she said with a laugh. She flew to Northern California to meet with Margaret Keane, who is now in her 80s and still paints every day. Although Keane had required a year of courting by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and was always worried that the film might somehow give the impression that Walter was indeed the painter, a day with her gave Adams the sense that Margaret was nobody’s pushover.
“There was a strength I wasn’t expecting,” she said. “She was very quiet, not one to speak of herself, but she has a quiet strength, and a steely strength. I wanted to get there with the character. Not every person who is strong is a big showboat about it.”
As opposed to her experience on “Hustle” — “that was like a freight train” — Adams found “Big Eyes” to be a quiet, calming shoot with Waltz as her co-star and Burton as director. “I love quiet conversations and breakdowns of things, and this was just two people having conversations with the director,” she said. “It was nice to get centered back in a more intellectual space.”
Was she ever worried that the laid-back character wouldn’t give her enough to work with, particularly while her co-star was chewing the scenery with relish? “I was just concerned with telling the truth of the character,” she said. “I know there might be a danger in being overly subtle, but I don’t ever think that’s a problem.
“I think it’s more important to tell the truth of the character than to concern yourself with whether people are impressed with your bravado.”
A version of this story appeared in the Nominations Issue of TheWrap magazine.