For a time, Amy Adams, a former chorus girl from Colorado, was known for her princesses and country girls: sweet and sunny characters that helped make Adams a star.
"I call them the innocents – like Picasso, my 'innocent period,'" Adams says, chuckling. "But the naivety or anything that I brought to a role, I didn't feel trapped by it. I thought each of them saw the world in a different way. I was perplexed that people saw me in that way but I understood it. I didn't know when or how that would change, but I knew it needed to in order for me to evolve as an actress."
That evolution has been going on for some time, from the forceful restraint of her performances in "Doubt" and "The Master" to more unbridled outings in a pair of David O. Russell films, "The Fighter" and "American Hustle." At 42, she is already a five-time Oscar nominee. But this fall, in a pair of intelligent, layered performances, Adams' expanding range and growing complexity has never been more on view.
In Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival," she stars as a linguist tasked by the government with communicating with newly landed aliens whose sleek, orb-like ships are mysteriously hovering just off the ground. The movie, which is now in theaters, is thick with a "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" atmosphere and resonant – through Adams' performance – with deeper emotions than your average sci-fi film.
Adams also stars in Tom Ford's "Nocturnal Animals" (out Nov. 18), as a Manhattan gallerist trapped in an unhappy marriage. When a novel written by her first husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives, she's teleported into a fictional world. The book's story, a bloody thriller, is heavy with personal subtext.
"Both of these characters come to a crossroads and I feel like I'm at a bit of a crossroads," Adams reflected in an interview in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, where both films played.
"It's being a mom and entering my 40s and looking at things in a different way, a way that has been really awesome," Adams said of her shift. "I feel really happy about the changes that have happened internally. I feel like these films helped that happen."
But those changes, she says, are mostly about finding a balance between her career and her family life. She and husband Darren Le Gallo have a six-year-old daughter. Though spelling out the connection would give too much away, motherhood was an especially powerful influence on "Arrival." Adams agreed to do the film within 24 hours of being sent the script.
"Every time I start talking about my daughter in relationship to 'Arrival,' it goes straight to tears," says Adams. "My husband saw the film before I did and he couldn't talk to me for a while."
Adams' range as an actress is a sneaky kind. There are no tales of tortured transformations. She simply keeps showing up in role after role, fully inhabiting a character with warmth and smarts while, to varying degrees, remaining herself.
Working with her acting coach, Warner Loughlin, Adams builds the essence of a character in advance of shooting so that she can be free and reactive on set. That was especially necessary in both "Arrival" and "Nocturnal Animals" because both films call on her to express much without speaking. In the latter, she's often just reading.
"I have to be active and I have to drive a sort of emotional core through the movie," says Adams, "but yet I'm very much reactive at the same time. In 'Nocturnal Animals,' I was alone a lot."
Villeneuve, the director of "Sicario" and "Prisoners," says he needed a strong actress who could emote a lot while often acting against a tennis ball.
"I knew that the movie would be on her shoulders," says Villeneuve. "I wanted someone who you could read what was she was going through without words. The movie is Amy Adams, to me."
Ford, the fashion designer whose previous film, "A Single Man," pursued Adams for some of the same qualities.
"It's in her eyes. She has a soul and you can look right into her eyes and see it. You cannot not like Amy Adams," says Ford. "There was not a bad take of that woman. Her brain is always moving and everything she's thinking is always on her face."
Adams hasn't entirely left "the innocents" behind. She will reprise her "Enchanted" role in a sequel for Disney. And she has reliably been the most lively, intelligent thing in the DC Comics films as Lois Lane.
"I'd love to do a whole Lois thing but I don't think that's where they're going," she says, with sarcastic understatement. "I can safely say that 'Justice League' is not a Lois Lane stand-alone."
Unfortunate as that is, the question remains: What can't Amy Adams do?
"I can't speak Mandarin. I can tell you that from my experience on 'Arrival,' Adams says. "That was the only time Denis and I had any conflict, because I was so stressed out. He was like (dropping her voice for a spot-on impression of Villeneuve's deep Quebecois accent), 'You have to calm down. You must calm down.'"