Amy Adams is one of the most popular actresses working today. She deftly navigates her career from blockbusters (Night at the Museum 2, The Justice League) to highbrow Oscar bait. This is evidenced by a tidy handful of five Oscar nominations for her roles in Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter, The Master and American Hustle. Like the sci-fi Oscar bait blockbuster from last fall, The Martian, Adams’ newest film, Arrival, might just win over audiences and critics alike. The film has enjoyed deafeningly good buzz since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September.
In Arrival, linguistics professor Louise Banks (Adams) leads an elite team of investigators when humongous spaceships touch down in 12 locations around the world. As nations teeter on the verge of global war, Banks and her crew (which includes Jeremy Renner) must race against time to find a way to communicate with the extraterrestrial visitors. Hoping to unravel the mystery, she takes a chance that could threaten her life and quite possibly all of mankind.
It’s a Hollywood cliché that an actress wasn’t necessarily looking for a role at the time a potential career-changing role lands in her hands. Well, this happened to be the case with Adams’ Arrival starring role.
“I didn’t know what I was going be doing next and it was at a time where I really wanted to take a break and just be a mom for a while. Then I read the script. It spoke to me really deeply in the core of who I am and I felt that I really had to do it. I was really drawn to it.”
The story wasn’t the only draw. Director Denis Villenueve’s star is rising fast due to films like Prisoners and Sicario. There’s also the fact that is the rare sci-fi film with a female as the lead protagonist.
“Denis is another huge reason that I was attracted to this. Once I’d read the script and really loved the character, I sat down with him. The way he saw it was how I read it, which isn’t always the case. He really wanted to tell it as an intimate story of this woman, it just happens to be placed in this amazing sci-fi universe. I knew it would have a really deep heart—that was important to me—and yet be really visually interesting. He had such a wonderful way of describing to me what the aliens would look like and how the language would be expressed—he’s a very special director, a very special man.”
To prepare for the role, and to understand what a linguist actually does, Adams met up with one. She learned that being a linguist is very different than being a translator.
“I met with a linguist and realized it’s impossible to learn everything a linguist knows. The thing that helped me and freed me is that there are different types of linguistics. The linguist I spoke to only speaks two languages so that freed me up. Though my character speaks a couple of languages, she studies the anthropological significance of language and culture – how people speak to one another and how languages originate. I did a lot of reading and realized I wouldn’t be a good linguist, but I found it fascinating and really enjoyed that aspect. I didn’t really understand, from a sociological point of view, what linguists did and what linguistics was, so that was really fun to learn. I now understand much better how she was able to then decipher a language.”
Adams found that the experience gave her more insight into the world around her and changed the way she thinks about communication. She says she also learned from watching her own daughter.
“I do think about language and how it informs society. Watching my daughter and other kids—I’ve brought her to several different countries now for work—who cannot speak the same language but who end up communicating, figuring out what words they have in common naturally, you start to learn that communication and language are based on so much more than the words we speak. I started seeing it from that point of view and that was cool.”
Adams’ experience working with VFX helped, as did having other humans to act with in most scenes.
“Having worked on special effects films before was really helpful. I was only alone once so I still had a human component around me. We were all in it together, which always helps because it creates that energy. The actors can help create the energy together but my job as an actor is to create what isn’t there—you create a relationship and it has to feel real—so it’s the same thing.”
Having physical stand-ins for the aliens helped the process, even if they were only symbolic representations of the aliens.
“I had to have a relationship with these sticks with balls on the end of them but we had really great puppeteers – these really great guys running around with these puppets for us. I always appreciated them. They don’t get enough credit because they’re there every day we are, working all day, and they have to hold a stick for hours on end so that we can act to it. I really appreciate that.”
Audiences appreciate Adams as well. There are few actresses who can hold a stick to her career right now and, with Arrival, she might have just raised the bar.
Arrival opens in theaters November 11th.