When she was 16, Anne Hathaway decided she was a failure.
Tara Lipinski, the figure skater only five months her senior, had recently won a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics. And Hathaway was being rejected by nearly every casting director she auditioned for.
“She started crying and told her father and I that she couldn’t even land a Clearasil commercial while Tara had a gold medal,” Hathaway’s mother, Kate, recalled. She and Anne’s father tried to ease their daughter’s anxiety but quietly took pride in her resolve.
“What I admire the most about Anne is that she keeps challenging herself,” said Kate, a former stage actress. “She’s always been that way. She just can’t settle.”
Though most teenagers never live up to the success of their idols, today Hathaway’s accomplishments rival those of her ice skating hero. A dozen years on, her determination has seen her through personal and professional tribulations — and now, at age 30, she is enjoying pivotal moments in both her career and her private life.
In August, President Obama called Hathaway the “best thing” in “The Dark Knight Rises,” in which as Catwoman she supplied the rare moments of lightness in a portentous film. Then in September, four years after a messy breakup with convicted con man Raffaello Follieri, she married jewelry designer Adam Shulman. And she is receiving the best critical notices of her career for playing the tragic heroine Fantine in Tom Hooper’s big-screen adaptation of the Broadway hit “Les Misérables,” which arrived in theaters on Christmas.
Hathaway has received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for her performance, but the actress is also thrilled at the “over the moon” response from a more personal constituency: her mom, who played Fantine in the first U.S. tour of the musical in 1987.
“I know I’m her mother,” Kate said, “but I think she’s the perfect Fantine. I don’t feel like I dove into Fantine as far as she did. Annie actually opened my eyes to the character because of all the research she did.”
At age 6, a wide-eyed Anne watched Kate perform in “Les Misérables” for the first time in Philadelphia and instantly became “stage-struck,” as her mother says. She wanted to jump up on stage with young Cosette and the rest of the children performing alongside her mom. But Kate and her husband, a lawyer, were reluctant to let their daughter get into show business as a kid. Even when she landed her first big break opposite Julie Andrews in “The Princess Diaries” at age 18, her parents insisted on sitting down with the film’s director, Garry Marshall, to express their concern about the seedy side of the industry.
“Her mom and dad were scared she’d become a movie person and go to the Viper Room and that I would give her drugs,” the filmmaker recalled. “I said, ‘You’re talking to a man who created ‘Happy Days.’”
True to her nature, the aspiring actress spent more time studying her lines than cruising the Sunset Strip. Shortly after the Disney flick about a squeaky-clean teenager who discovers she is secretly royalty hit theaters in 2001, Hathaway was quickly being heralded as a parent-approved role model for young girls. She even took a hiatus from acting to attend Vassar College, though at the time, Hathaway viewed attending the highly selective liberal arts school as a disappointment.
“I felt a certain degree of failure in going to school at first because I couldn’t put it off by having a job” in acting, she acknowledged.
She continued to audition during her college years, finished out her undergraduate degree at New York University, and in 2004 filmed a “Princess Diaries” sequel (as she was contractually obligated). After that, she moved on to more complicated roles — including the wife of a closeted gay man in “Brokeback Mountain,” a recovering drug addict in “Rachel Getting Married” and a young Parkinson’s patient in “Love and Other Drugs” — but had trouble shaking her goody-two-shoes persona.
Her sunny reputation, though, may have helped her weather some public humiliations, including her four-year romance with Follieri, who was convicted in 2008 of wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy and sentenced to four years in federal prison. There was also her widely lambasted turn as the co-host of the Academy Awards in 2011 with James Franco — though more of the blame was put on him than her. (“I walked around feeling sick to my stomach for a week,” she admitted.)
Finally, more than a decade after her first big film, Hathaway says she believes she is no longer thought of as “the girl who was in ‘The Princess Diaries.’” But that doesn’t mean she has eased up on herself. On the contrary, she is pushing herself harder than ever, driven by a belief that for what she lacks in natural talent she must make up for in effort.
“I see the sort of work that people like Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet can do, and I want to do that level of work so badly,” said the actress, who was nominated for an Oscar for “Rachel Getting Married” but didn’t win (the three women she referenced all have Oscars to their names). “But I don’t believe I’m as gifted as them. So the only thing I can control is how hard I work at it — how much do I commit to it? How far will I take it?”
Almost too far, if you ask Hooper, who said he attempted to stop the actress from losing 25 pounds for “Les Miz.”
“To be honest, I thought she was going further than she should, and I tried to discourage her,” he said.
“Tom didn’t like what I was doing, but he understood why I was doing it,” Hathaway countered. “No one liked what I was doing. By the end, people were hugging me and they would get emotional because I felt so frail.”
Preparing for Fantine
Holed up at one of her favorite West Hollywood sushi joints on a rainy evening last week, Hathaway’s cheeks were no longer shrunken. Her hair — which she decided to hack off into a boyish cut for the film — had begun to grow back but still didn’t come close to reaching the collar of her sweater. She was no longer depriving herself, freely ordering a smattering of vegan-friendly Japanese offerings for the table.
When a waitress approached a few minutes later carrying two vegetarian hand rolls, the actress began singing to the tune of the Pointer Sisters. “I’m so excited! To eat yummy food!” she crooned.
Alternating between the hand rolls and spinach ohitashi, she tried to explain why she insisted on getting so gaunt for the part.
“If I have an extra glass of wine the night before I shoot a scene,” she said, “I don’t feel good about myself because of that. If I see it on-screen, the guilt is immediate. I feel like maybe I’ve let the scene down.”
To prepare for the role, Hathaway also took voice lessons for months and practiced crying in the mirror, so she could control her face when emotion struck on set. But she also “mined some serious pain,” as Hooper says, conjuring up a darkness that seems so contrary to the cheery, unshakable Hathaway who often turns up on red carpets and late-night talk shows. While filming the musical’s critical “I Dreamed a Dream” number, she felt her anger multiplying, she said, her hope waning.
“The second all of those feelings that Fantine was feeling were turned on me, they were savage — they were animalistic, they had teeth and talons and they were shredders,” she said. “I tried not to think about myself that day because I was in a very unkind place. Fantine did nothing wrong. And I think that’s where I was getting in a lot of pain because of it. She’s innocent.”
Hathaway insisted Hooper let her perform over a dozen takes of “I Dreamed a Dream,” even after he said he’d gotten the perfect performance on Take 4. She wanted to see if she could make it any different, any better, any more — “any anything.” But after she’d given 20 more takes, Hooper told her to call it quits.
“And I was like, ‘Fair enough.’ I never bettered it,” she explained.
Asked if she is pleased with the version that appears in the final cut, she shrugged half-heartedly.
Part of her quest for perfection stems back to her mother, who quit acting to raise Anne and her two brothers in New Jersey after the “Les Mis” tour. “I think I’ve always taken acting very seriously and almost with a certain degree of earnestness because my mother was so talented and didn’t work a lot,” she explained.
It’s clear her mother’s approval is important to her. After one of the early performances of a 2009 Shakespeare in the Park production of “Twelfth Night,” the actress was told by her mom that her portrayal of the cross-dressing Viola wasn’t on-point.
“She was like, ‘Look, I see where you’re going with it. It’s certainly not bad. But you’ve got a ways to go,’” the younger Hathaway said. “I knew she was right, and she was being fair.”
In April, Hathaway is set to start filming the sci-fi thriller “Robopocalypse” with one of her childhood heroes, Steven Spielberg. In the fall, she and her husband plan to produce a film together that Hathaway will star in as a woman who spends a magical week with a stranger. With Fantine under her belt, Hathaway seems to have liberated herself from years of pressure to prove and redefine herself.
“I just feel that now I’m being viewed very differently,” she said. After other roles, she said, “I’d think — ‘Oh, this is the moment’ — I’m playing a recovering drug addict. But there was always a kind of push back, like, ‘Oh, she’s not that sexy.’ People were trying to put me in the good girl category or the bad girl category, and this is the first time I’ve ever been seen as a whole.”
Part of her new ease may also have to do with her domestic life. Toward the end of dinner, Hathaway paused to text her husband, who would soon join her at the restaurant for food. She gushed about Shulman like a giddy schoolgirl, recounting how they cook and listen to music and dance at home.
“I know it sounds really eager, but I’m super psyched to be married,” she said. “I feel very blessed in this moment, because I’m going through something that you could easily get swept up in, and I just want to go home and hang out with my husband every day. Letting yourself be taken care of is the most remarkable experience. I don’t fall apart as much, because I know I can.”