It's meal break time on the Culver Studios set of "The Family Stone," and Rachel McAdams is perched on a couch in one of the unassuming production offices, defending the unkind.
"You see so many [scripts] where you can play that nice girl next door and it's usually not compelling," says McAdams, who has given hilarious life to preening high school queen bees in "The Hot Chick" and "Mean Girls" and today wears the brown corduroy pants of Amy Stone, tormentor of the girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) her brother has brought home for Christmas. (The violet sweatshirt and fake fur mukluks are McAdams'.)
"I don't mind taking the mean card to play a really rich, layered character with a lot of complications."
But it was the complexities of a love-struck sweetheart in last year's summer romance "The Notebook" -- in which McAdams' expressive beauty moved thrillingly between rapture and heartbreak -- that brought special attention to her Hollywood ascendancy. This summer she adds a few more genres to her repertory, as the object of Owen Wilson's affections in the romantic comedy "Wedding Crashers" and the hostage of a scheming killer in the Wes Craven airborne thriller "Red Eye." ("The Family Stone" is set for a year-end release.)
Is she aware of how she's perceived by the industry? "I like to be in the dark about that," she says quietly, puncturing her discomfort with a giggle. "If I pay too close attention to what other people see, I may try to fulfill that, whereas if you don't know, then you have so many more possibilities."
While the roles that nestle in with big casts -- like her parts in "Wedding Crashers" and "The Family Stone" -- allow her the thrill of feeding off the energy of others, carrying a movie such as "The Notebook" or "Red Eye," in which everything hinges on the lead's face, has been a learning experience. "If you're at all neurotic, it can be a little uncomfortable," says the actress, who refuses to take up any more of the sofa than she has to, sitting on the edge with her legs and arms crossed like a photogenic pretzel. "You have to trust that you are compelling without doing anything. That's really hard."
McAdams, 26, was born in London, Ontario. Swept up by dancing and performance as a little girl, she put on shows in her backyard, enlisting her younger sister as a "trusty sidekick." But when she told her parents at age 7 that she was looking at a showbiz career, she admits, "they didn't discourage me, but they didn't go out and find me an agent."
Finally, a start-up theater camp for kids gave the then-12-year-old McAdams an outlet outside of home as well as an education in her peers' manic ambitions. "I'd always wanted to do musicals, so I signed up for the Disney camp, and I was so embarrassed. I was with these 8-year-olds who were going to be Broadway stars, singing at the top of their lungs, dancing since they were 2. I was so clumsy I would just go home and cry."
An instructor pointed McAdams toward the Shakespeare group, where she found confidence and inspiration. She went on to an intensive theater program at York University and defied the conservatory's rules by shooting a pilot for a TV series (which went nowhere) during her spring break. "I got an agent early, and we weren't supposed to do that," she says. "But I thought, 'I am not going to be left out in the lurch when this is over.' "
Just as important to McAdams' work ethic as an actor, though, was an awareness of her body, something she attributes to her love of sport -- namely figure skating, volleyball and soccer -- growing up. She considers herself a better actor when she's in motion. "I think I'm more spontaneous," she says. "It's amazing how physical you need to be in film, how fit and like an animal you have to be, on the prowl and ready for anything to be thrown at you."
"Red Eye" involved lots of stunt work, including getting strangled believably, but the obsessive knot-twisting and rigging she learned for a sailing sequence in "Wedding Crashers" went unused. "It was like, 'Oh, just pull that thing.' I didn't get to do much."
What she's never too prepared for, she says, is talking about herself and her movies. McAdams seems to consider every word: always polite, even engaging, but she's not about to be spontaneous on the subject of herself. In fact, when asked what she'd change about Hollywood, she says, "I'd like to get back to the secrecy of film, when people didn't know what happens off screen or what you wear in your everyday life. Everybody knows everything. I think it loses a little bit of its magic. And I don't think being able to act means you're necessarily able to explain anything." She follows up with another of her frequently self-effacing laughs.
So she treasures living in Toronto, her home city since college, and getting some "distance" from the business -- or possibly shooting something there. (A six-episode Canadian miniseries about backstage theater life she filmed two years ago, "Slings and Arrows," will air on the Sundance Channel here in the fall.)
Not that she doesn't like Los Angeles -- "I really like driving," she says, her eyes lighting up. But she misses her hometown's bracing shift in seasons, a none-too-surprising admission from an actress who relishes the chameleon-like nature of her job, playing a blond teenager one moment, a red-haired '40s-era debutante the next, and a caramel-haired New Englander today.
McAdams untwists her limbs and gets up, then tells a story as she walks back to the set. Recently she was on a street corner in Hermosa Beach, waiting for a light to change, when a pack of teenage boys next to her began discussing "Red Eye." "They were saying, 'Well, the girl from 'The Notebook' is in it," she says. "I thought they were making fun of me, because I was standing right beside them. I turned and looked them in the eyes and they kept talking." She smiles. "Completely invisible. It was really exciting."