Propped over her breakfast at a West Hollywood cafe one morning in late October, Amy Adams was contemplating her dream role. The actress had just dropped her 6-year-old daughter off at school after returning from traveling to promote her two new films, the science-fiction drama "Arrival" and psychological thriller "Nocturnal Animals." Her mother and husband at a nearby table, Adams was preparing for extended family to arrive in town momentarily.
"I need to play somebody who just goes around and gets spa treatments," Adams said, wistfully. "I would have to do a lot of spa treatments, just for research. Weeks of research."
Adams has certainly earned some downtime after turning in her two new complex lead performances. In Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival," which opens Nov. 11, she plays a linguist haunted by an unexplained melancholy who must learn to communicate with aliens in order to prevent a global war. In Tom Ford's "Nocturnal Animals," which opens a week later, she plays an aloof art gallerist obsessed with her ex-husband's novel.
At 42, the five-time Oscar nominee's career has been characterized by a mix of supporting roles, from a naive nun in "Doubt" to the wife of a cult leader in "The Master" to journalist/love interest Lois Lane in the latest round of Superman movies. Her two new performances, however, place Adams squarely in the lead position.
As "Arrival's" Louise Banks, she reluctantly leads a team of investigators including a scientist played by Jeremy Renner. Much of the film's 10-week shoot took place on a bare soundstage in Montreal, with puppeteers behind a lighted screen serving as the aliens. For the entire production, Adams said, she had a stomachache, a side effect of internalizing Louise's anxiety.
"She's not heroic in the traditional sense," Adams said of the character. "I love that she gets to rely on her intellect and instinct as opposed to brawn and bravery."
Adams said she prepared for the role by studying linguistics and working with her acting coach on the film's psychological underpinnings, but she is ill-equipped to answer the deep questions the movie raises about science and the nature of time.
"It's funny when people start challenging me about it," Adams said, of the movie's internal logic. "If I were able to explain how the science of this film works, I would not be an actress."
In "Nocturnal Animals," Adams plays a woman who is equally unmoored, although the milieu — the Los Angeles fine-art scene — is far more familiar. Adams' husband is artist Darren Le Gallo, and though his work resides more in the underground art scene than the rarified one depicted in the film, she found some uncomfortable parts of the character to latch onto.
"I have definitely been invited into that world at times, the wealth and privilege of a very specific part of the Los Angeles art scene," Adams said. "I found myself really judgmental of this character. Then I realized, 'Wait, she doesn't like what it feels like to be her. She is judging herself.' So, actually, this is a great place to start."
After becoming a mother, Adams dove into an intense period of work, one she said she's slowing down a bit now.
"I'm not sure why that was my reaction to having a child," Adams said. "Maybe I was just like, 'I've got to hoard now because I'm not sure what the future holds.' As the provider I was like, 'I need to work, work, work.'"
She has also realized, she said, what kind of roles are a good fit. Reflecting on a years-ago audition for a part that required her to strip down to a bathing suit, Adams said she had an epiphany.
"Let me tell you a secret: I don't have a good bikini body," Adams said. "It's not bad. It's not like 'ugh.' It's just not my calling. I was standing there in a bikini and I was like, 'I am never going to get this job.' It was down to me and another girl. She looked really good. I was never going to be that girl, and I realized, 'That's OK.'"
In March, Adams will begin shooting the HBO series "Sharp Objects," an adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel in which she plays a newspaper journalist with psychiatric issues.
An inveterate karaoke fan ("Alone" by Heart is a go-to), she also has a hankering to do a musical, and has discussed making a sequel to "Enchanted," the Disney live-action movie in which she played a princess-adjacent character.
"Five years ago, it was like, 'Oh gosh I don't want to do any sequels' and then I think with everything happening in the election I realized, we need a film called 'Disenchanted,'" Adams said. "Let's have some fun. Something joyful but also something that asks, 'What does it mean to be happily ever after?'"