YorkU: The rise of Rachel

Published: February, 2006

Editor’s Note
We’re delighted to have Rachel McAdams on the cover just as her old friends in York’s Theatre Department, along with the rest of the Faculty of Fine Arts, gear up for a great leap forward. This spring, York will celebrate the official opening of the two-building Accolade Project on the south side of the Com- mon, and Accolade East will house superb new fine arts facilities, including a new proscenium theatre to augment the boards that McAdams once trod. We have long thought of McAdams as a fitting symbol of the achievements of the Faculty, Canada’s leading training ground for fine arts talent. Long enough, in fact, to get a close-up view of the rise of Rachel.

I’ll never forget my first talk with her LA-based manager, Shelley Browning. It was soon after Mean Girls and The Notebook had become hits in rapid suc- cession. According to Browning, things were wild at the office – people from Robert De Niro to Leonardo DiCaprio were calling, trying to set up projects with McAdams. It was too crazy a time to pin her down for a substantive inter- view, but we agreed to stay in touch. McAdams headed out to film Wes Craven’s Red Eye (“it’s not horror, it’s a thriller,” Browning stressed), and began to win awards like the ShoWest industry convention’s supporting actress of the year and the MTV Movie Awards’ Breakthrough Female, for Mean Girls (and Best Kiss for The Notebook). Then came the success of Wedding Crashers last summer. As a story, McAdams just got better and better – even as her schedule got ever more crowded. But although we were competing for her time with the likes of David Letterman and Vanity Fair, she made space for her alma mater. On page 14, managing editor Michael Todd offers a finely crafted story that I think captures her engaging nature and her strong professionalism in equal measure.

Cover Story

Rachel McAdams, star of Mean Girls, Wedding Crashers and The Family Stone, is taking Hollywood by storm.

Still, she’s not interested in celebrity – at least not on Tinseltown’s terms.

A round southwest Ontario, St. Thomas is well known for two things: as the place where Jumbo the elephant (who lent his name posthumously to the jumbo jet) was killed accidentally by a train, and for its psychiatric hospital. But now this small town can stake a cheerier claim to fame – as the childhood home of York theatre grad Rachel McAdams, Hollywood’s new A-list star of Mean Girls, The Notebook, Wedding Crashers and, most
recently, The Family Stone. McAdams (BFA ’01) now divides her time between film sets stateside and a house in Toronto. In fact, the 27-year-old McAdams is on record as stating she cherishes her St. Thomas roots, but likes hanging out in T.O. when not filming because she can ride her bike, shop for vintage clothes, and generally not be hassled.

But already her acting rep is firmly established among a whole sub-group of adolescent females who grew up with Mean Girls and The Hot Chick, her first Hollywood film (done a year after she graduated). On the night I attended a screening of her late summer thriller Red Eye, the McAdams’ mystique was instantly recognizable to the three teenage girls giggling and whispering behind me. As the opening credits rolled and McAdams’ name flashed on-screen, one girl said to her friend, “You know who that is, don’t you? That’s Rachel McAdams. She’s Canadian, you know!”

In fact, due to Hollywood’s global reach, she is now easily York’s most famous graduate. So how does McAdams feel about all this new-found celebrity? “Ohhhh,” she says with a deep sigh, “celebrity is such a bizarre concept for me. This obsession with a person’s life based on what they project in their art. I really don’t understand that leap. In the old days you fell in love with a character like Clark Gable and you didn’t know anything about his life. It didn’t matter. Honestly? I hate the thought of losing my privacy. Celebrity isn’t an exciting idea for me.”

McAdams admits, though, she does think about her image as a role model. “It’s nice to come to Canada and hear that you’ve inspired young girls to want to do something. That they admire you. I’m conscious of that.”

The eldest of three children, life for McAdams, up until a few years before her York graduation, was a classic story of small town existence. Her dad, Lance, drives a truck (“I used to love being picked up by him from my grandma’s, going into fast food places in my pajamas. I would snuggle up in the back part of the cab – the sleeper”), and her mother, Sandra, is a nurse.

She got her start in St. Thomas’s little theatre and remembers being in love with Stratford. “We went there on school trips. I was really, really a theatre snob, I think. I liked movies too, but I thought only plays were serious acting. Our family would get together every Saturday night and we’d rent a film. We started out with those big 12-inch movie reels and then got Beta. Our first family VHS machine was a big event! And I remember my parents bought a tape of ET to celebrate. I was so scared by it! I was only four.” (Laughter.)

McAdams began acting Shakespeare at age 12 in an outdoor replica of a Greek amphitheatre in her hometown. “It’s probably decrepit now. But it was an amazing experience, a wonderful time and place to act in. It really shaped me and gave me my start and I’m eternally grateful.” In 1995, she received an acting award for her role in the one-act high-school play I Live in a Little Town when it was presented in the prestigious Ontario Showcase at the Sears Drama Festival. And while studying theatre at York she appeared in numerous stage and student film productions as well as playing a child characterin The Piper (Necessary Angel Theatre Company).

Ironically, McAdams now says she’s “terrified” of theatre. “I kind of feel like I’ve fallen off the horse and don’t know how to get back on,” she says, laugh- ing. But if Stratford called her? “Oh god, of course I’d come in a minute! I’d be so honoured.”

At York, McAdams proved to be a quality student and actress, and quickly garnered the attention both of York faculty and people in the industry. Theatre Professor Peter McKinnon remembers her as immensely talented, but also grounded (she worked three summers at McDonald’s), conscientious and – nice. “She came in one day to talk to me about her assignments. She was worried that she wouldn’t be able to get everything done by the deadline because of work she was already doing in film and TV [she had begun her professional on-screen career with an appearance in Disney’s The Famous Jett Jackson that aired in early 2001]. But she came through. I remember her project on Sam Shepard’s play Buried Child was one of the best I’ve ever received in my teaching career. She got an A in the course.”

Was there anything that set her apart? “I think that the hallmark of our most successful students has always been that they have a genuinely broad interest in all things to do with the theatre,” says McKinnon. “And Rachel is typical of that – every area of the department wanted her to be in their area, because she was an excellent student of all aspects of theatre.”

York theatre Professor David Rotenberg (now McAdams’ personal acting coach) says he remembers her as a stand-out. “I decided to showcase her with a lead in Frank Wedekind’s Lulu for our fourth-year production. I saw something extra special there. I called a few agents beforehand and suggested they come out to the performance. They all rushed up to talk to me after seeing her. She’s done amazingly well. And, you know, the Hollywood term ‘A-list’ means people will now pay to see movies because Rachel’s in it. That’s big.”

Now that McAdams has an impressive list of Hollywood hits, she can be choosier about future roles and scripts she accepts. “So many scripts I read now are about rich people and their problems,” she says. “I can’t really relate because that’s not the way I grew up. And if they’re not about that, it’s a role where they want me to play the ingenue.”

What McAdams is really searching for in a script is a good story and a character she can sink her teeth into. “If you can connect to a character, chances are you can touch people. Your job as an actor is to be vulnerable and accessible, and it’s hard to do that because then your heart is kind of on a plate. But if you can get there the audience will feel it. For me, that’s always been what’s exciting about making films. My goal in life these days is to tell new stories with really great directors.”

Good scripts aren’t the only thing McAdams is pursuing, though. Intensely interested in how new technologies are changing film, she says she’d love to do something more experimental. “For instance, I love moving. It’d be great to do a fantasy film, something magical.” How about a character’s voice for an animated film? “Absolutely.”

When not thinking about her next big thing, McAdams seems to have found time to ponder life’s larger questions, and what shape her own career might take 10 years down the road. Where does she see herself in a decade? “I’d like to have kids, maybe open a restaurant, do one movie a year, or every two years. One of the big things I’ve been thinking about is a way to give back. Ideally I’d like to facilitate some kind of kids’ art program, or get involved in children’s theatre – after all, it got me where I am.”

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