Allure: The Girl on Top

Allure
Published: November, 2005

The gold tendrils that only partially shield her face are swept away by a small impatient hand, its wrist covered by a spattering of ebony dots the size of chocolate chips. Of these, Rachel McAdams is almost excessively proud: “My favorite beauty marks,” she says, although there is such an assortment to choose from, you wonder at decisiveness. Two at her delicate throat – “My vampire beauty marks,” because they do indeed look as though Dracula had snacked there – and then, along one pale arm, a trail of other droplets that, she explains, “sort of match the ones on my face.”

These beauty marks are the actress’s trademarks: fierce exclamation points that joust with the shyness of the rest of her. Despite a robust sense of humor and quite charm, nothing about the Canadian-born actress’ newfound celebrity sustains or strengthens her. “This is not expected,” she says, bent over a quesadilla and a glass of wine. her face slight flushed. “I could never have imagined the response.” She is all of 26.

A lot has changed since the day – just four years ago – when McAdams took her first plane ride, during which she didn’t accept a newspaper from the stewardess because she thought she’d have to pay for it. “When I was a kid, all our family vacations were taken by car,” she explains. Her mother and father always supported her forays into the public eye. But she explains, “it takes a minute for all of us to wrap our heads around this.”

You can see why. After being the comedy sweetheart in the hit Wedding Crashers, where she plays the privileged and lively beauty who stills the roving eye of Owen Wilson, McAdams reportedly went on the bag a cool $1 million for Red Eye, a Wes Craven movie in which the actress maintains an astonishing dignity while being mauled and punched aboard a jet. And yet, despite this avalanche of money and fame, her favorite choice of vehicle remains her father’s purple Pathfinder bike, its brakes, seat, and frame so dysfunctional that two evenings before we meet, it tipped over, its handlebars scrapping the door of a passing cab, into which she practically fell. Everything for McAdams has happened fast. Much too fast.

Sometimes it just feels wrong; you kind of feel you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, even though everything is so wonderful,” she says in a voice soft but heavy with anxiety. “You’d be devastated if you lost it all, because you can’t help thinking you haven’t earned you keep yet. And that everyone else is going to figure that out, is going to say, ‘Wait a second!’ Why did we put her here? At the top? She’s not ready yet.”

Ready or not, she relishes the mutability of her evolving career and appearance. McAdams’s look, character, and hair all change practically hourly, depending on who she’s playing – or, as in the present instance, not playing. So much so that just before our interview, which takes place in a Toronto café that holds perhaps 12 lunchtime diners, McAdams’s publicist feels it only fair to warn me. “You will be looking for a blonde.”

This, as it turns out, is vital information – it takes even the waitresses a full hour to catch on the fact that they are serving Canada’s A-list actress. A young woman, moreover, who is just five feet four inches in aqua loafer-heels, wearing a striped belt that cinches a navy dress from India, one of a pair, as it turns out (“There’s this little place here called Morning Star; they sell, like two dresses for $40)”. With this kind of information, the whole café is elated. “Loved you in Mean Girls!” reads the mash note on the bill.

Mean Girls was, of course, McAdams’s 2004 breakout film, in which she played a rich-bitch high school queen opposite a kinder, gentler Lindsay Lohan. In it, McAdams was a bonde all right, but the hair was ironing-board straight and the skirts as tight and skimpy as her false smiles. This was followed by the release of The Notebook, where she was, once again, rich, but this time a 1940’s flame haired débutante with a lock-lipped passion for a mill worker (played by fellow Canadian Ryan Gosling). In Red Eye, she switched to perky brunette, her natural color, and the vampire marks at the base of her throat are throttled by an assassin played with engaging venom by Cillian Murphy. The Family Stone, her newest film, with Diane Keaton (of whom she was so in awe off-screen, she could barley speak), features McAdams switching back to vicious once again. Her character’s object: to foil the marriage plans of her brother’s fiancée, played by Sarah Jessica Parker.

Given McAdam’s gentle, almost deferential personality and her modest background, it is strange that the part of the archetypal moneyed queen bitch comes to naturally to her. “I suppose it’s because you spend a lot of time fantasizing about what it mean to be the girl on the top,” she observes. “Every girl wants to know what that feels like, and thinks; If you could be that girl, your whole life would change. It’s kind of a magical idea,” she says. “But as you get older and more successful, you realize it’s pretty lonely at the top. There’s a lot of responsibility. It’s difficult to maintain that.”

You sound like you’re talking about your own career trajectory, I tell her. “I didn’t think of it that way,” she concedes, her voice small and resigned. “But yes.”

What McAdams wanted more than anything as a child growing up in a small town in Ontario was to be an Olympic figure skater, an ambition that brought her into a rarefied and peculiar world of ceaseless athleticism and vibrant cosmetics. “Powder blue eye shadow, tons of blush, and fuchsia lipstick” is her recollection of the rainbow palette necessary for that destiny. “And I had this bottle of sparkle spray that my godmother had given me. We used to lacquer our hair with it. And I also had a sparkle roller, and we’d sparkle-roll all over our faces. Just so we could be seen on the ice from the nosebleed area – way up.”

She gives a little giggle, then turns serious. On ice, she was Olympic material, some told her. But, she says, “there’s a turning point that comes when you’re rather young. You have to decide: Am I going to try to be an Olympic hopeful? Or is this just a hobby?

But what did she want, really? High school for her was a terribly lonely ordeal. “I think shyness was my problem,” she says. “I was nervous about approaching people. Therefore I became unapproachable.” And, at the same time, an object of derision. How was she supposed to know she had to shave her legs – a subject on which the boys in high school teased her mercilessly. Mrs. McAdams had never told her this was a vital teenage rite of passage. “How could toy let this happen?” young Rachel demanded of her mother.

Maybe my anger was a little bit different from other people’s …. I didn’t feel like I was learning anything really pertained to me,” she continues. “And I didn’t feel like I was having any kind of conversation with anyone. At all! And the cafeteria! I hated the cafeteria. Oh, it was like a death march every day. I just felt I didn’t have a purpose at all.”

Until she entered the theater program of York University in Toronto, one of the few drama conservatories in the whole country, which offers a severe four-year stint. No outside acting jobs is one of its rules, which McAdams promptly broke one spring vacation (with the eventual, although reluctant, blessing of her teachers) when MTV came calling. The network, too, had its demands: If McAdams concealed those beauty marks, she could play the lead in something MTV called Star Babes. “It was also called Shotgun Love Dolls,” she says dryly. “In case Star Babes didn’t quite articulate the theme.”

A year after that debacle, her phone rang while she was washing dishes in one of the many shabby apartments she’d tented over the years. The voice on the other end told her news so startling that, as McAdams recalls, she couldn’t even speak for about three hours. Against all odds, she had landed the lead in The Hot Chick and would play a catty blonde high school honey. The twist: The goofy persona of Rob Schneider invades her lithe little body like an alien. What made this even more astounding was she had just failed to land the lead in a Nancy Drew pilot for NBC.

I wasn’t the sure thing,” she says comparing herself to more experienced American actresses. “I was Canadian. I could be trouble!” She laughs again. But she isn’t joking, not completely.

In fact, in some ways the actress is, well, not exactly trouble, but so different from her Hollywood glamour-girl counterparts a to provoke genuine puzzlement. She refuses to get cable television, fear of TV addiction begin the reason, and is thus reduced to renting tapes from her local video store of Sex and the City (her favorite) as well as Arrested Development (“It’s to die for“).

She buys $1 necklaces from a neighbor and scours small town in Ontario for vintage garments, emerging most recently with a $4 Dior gown from the 1950s in emerald green satin, just her size (0-4). She eats like a trucker and weights 120 pounds. Small and nimble though she is, she tends to trip over her own stiletto shod feet quite a bit, the latest instance during a guest spot on Late Show with David Letterman (“He offered me an ice pack ,” she says, eying with disgust the large purple bruise on her knee).

She’s stayed in Toronto so long that, as she puts it, “I’m almost embarrassed,” but she has yet to move to Los Angeles. Shouldn’t she be in California, where the hottest directors can actually tun into her at brilliant parties? Maybe not. “There’s a great deal to learn from American culture, how to do it, and how not to do it,” she says, a subject she won’t elaborate upon. On the other hand: “The problem with Canada – I just don’t think we find ourselves interesting enough sometimes. And when we do, we tend to go to a very dark place no one can access.” What is the Canadian identity, exactly? I wonder. This time she guffaws even louder. “We don’t have one.” she explains. “We get stuck in that a little bit.”

And there are other issues, besides. “Noo, I don’t have a new boyfriend, and not an old boyfriend either now – no boyfriends,” she says, flatly. “I don’t know why. Maybe they would rather be nonboyfriends.”

So it turns out that men are daunted by your success? “Right. Yes. It’s an odd thing.” She nods unhappily. “I’m blessed that I’ve had the most amazing men in my life. But it’s complicated, for sure.”

Nonetheless, there are compensations. Just this August, for example, the actress appeared with former costar Ryan Gosling at the Teen Choice Awards, where the unsinkable Pamela Anderson was scheduled to bestow on The Notebook one of its eight awards, including, naturally, “Best Liplock.” In honor of that last distinction, McAdams had plotted a new makeout target. “I wanted to kiss Pamela Anderson,” she recalls wistfully, but Anderson wasn’t able to be there.

The awards ceremonies are, however, by no means the only perks that accompany her newfound success. In fact, it begins to emerge that some of the other, more material rewards of her new stardom are, well, pretty damn rewarding. A charming pair of pale pink Christian Louboutin heels that set her back $600. “For thins like that, I splurge,” she acknowledges. And yet the shy nervousness that dogged her all through high school has yet to evaporate. The fear of the unknown is a persistent as ever.

What’s next for you in the way of movie roles? I wonder. “I don’t know,” she replies bluntly. Too new to equivocate. Too smart to lie. “Yeah. It is a little scary.” Do you eve think of failure? “All the time,” McAdams says. “All the time.”

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