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'Junebug' star Amy Adams steadies her aim

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SAN FRANCISCO - Amy Adams is writing a letter to her boyfriend. Longhand. Given that she's staying at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton, one presumes she could probably obtain access to a computer and e-mail him. Given that she's an actress whose star is on the rise, one also presumes she has in her possession a cell phone.

But she prefers the nearly lost art of letter writing. The choice is befitting; Adams is an old-fashioned sort of actress, versatile, serious and more interested in craft than celebrity. She's the best young actress you've never heard of, a Julianne Moore in the making.

Steven Spielberg, it should be noted, has heard of Adams. It was he who gave Adams her first big break, playing Leonardo DiCaprio's young wife - the one with braces, who threw herself at DiCaprio's character, Frank Abagnale Jr., with astonishing abandon - in 2002's "Catch Me If You Can."

It was the kind of performance that causes critics to sit up and say, who was that girl? Her new movie, "Junebug" premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, where judges fell hard for Adams, awarding her a special Jury Prize for her portrayal of an almost absurdly open-hearted pregnant girl.

"Junebug" recently made Entertainment Weekly's list of 10 summer movies "you won't want to miss," with the magazine citing Adams' performance specifically.

Directed by first-timer Phil Morrison, "Junebug" is about the urban-rural culture clash. In it, George (Alessandro Nivola) travels to his native North Carolina with his new wife, the sophisticated British-born Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), an art gallery owner who is in hot pursuit of a backwoods painter. While they're there, they visit his family, a study in taciturn behavior but for Adams' character, Ashley, who is married to George's resentful younger brother (Ben McKenzie of "The O.C."). She gushes about everything, she has no capacity for self-censorship and she craves love with an obviousness that leaves Madeleine dumbfounded.

Our first response is to wonder, as Morrison says, "Is she for real?" then to laugh at her. But Adams gives such a nuanced performance that we end up not just with compassion for Ashley, but with respect. She's the emotional focus of the movie, a person with a true heart.

So the big question is, why did nearly three years pass between the time Adams knocked Spielberg's socks off and the time she knocked the Sundance Jury's socks off?

"I didn't work in film for a year after Catch Me,'" Adams said. "I auditioned, but who knows? Part of it I think is that I'm a very different person when you meet me than I am in that film or than I am inJunebug.' It's not like I have a thing you can count on; I do something different for each role.

"The girl in Catch Me' was a mess, she was snotty and crying, she wasn't necessarily attractive to today's modern culture," Adams adds. "I even had a friend tell me that she was talking to someone at a studio about me and they said,Oh, you meant that homely girl from `Catch Me If You Can?""

She laughs, but not bitterly. She says she's used to encountering directors who are looking for an actress who fits their fantasies left over from high school of a "hot girl," and that's not her. Adams is plenty pretty, but what strikes you about her first is not her big blue eyes or her wide smile, but rather her air of quiet dignity. She looks 24, maybe, but she happily owns up to being 30.

"I don't want to start the cycle of shame," she said. "I think that a lot of times people are like, `Oh no, you won't be cast as a 22-year-old.' Well thankfully, because those are getting harder and harder to play, not physically, but emotionally.

"I look at Judi Dench and think, how do I get there?" she said. "Not how do I get to be Kate Bosworth."

Politeness is definitely in her nature; not only does she say "pooh" at one point, she hastens to say that Bosworth is lovely and has a wonderful career. She's just not Judi Dench.

Adams grew up in Colorado, where she got her start doing theater. Ever so briefly, when she had just turned 18, she was a Hooters girl in Denver, a piece of trivia journalists have happily latched onto ("bit-part veteran, former Hooters girl," she says ruefully). Her early Hollywood resume includes a guest spot on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"; parts in duds such as "Cruel Intentions 2" and "Serving Sara"; and a supporting role in this year's "The Wedding Date," in which she made the most of a small part as Debra Messing's self-absorbed sister.

Morrison said his casting director suggested Adams for the part of Ashley from the outset, but they auditioned many other actresses before Adams read for it. "What I'll always be grateful to Amy for is that she never tried to apply her own logic to the character," Morrison said. "During her audition, it struck me that she was really teaching me about the movie."

"I think a lot of times we don't pay enough attention to people with a positive attitude because we assume they are naive or stupid or unschooled," Adams said. "But what if she sees the truth about her life, understands it all and ultimately makes the choice that this is what she wants? Is she goofy? Yes. But she could ultimately be the most intelligent person in the movie."

Ashley's integrity of the heart ended up having a profound impact on Adams personally, as well as professionally. While she was in North Carolina filming, she was considering a TV offer. She won't say just what the show was, but it seemed like a clear path to financial success.

"It would have meant a lot of money, but it didn't feel right," she said. "What was going on within the movie just reminded me that life is so much more than money. And that was the first time in my life I said no to something that just wasn't going to be good for me."


(c) 2005, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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