Elle: The Romantic

Published: May 17, 2011

Woody Allen wrote a movie for her. Diane Keaton is her biggest fan. She’s fronted blockbuster romcoms, seduced mouthwatering stars, and made girls old and young believe that we, too, will get swept up in an epic love story one day. Tom Shone finds Rachel McAdams 2,168 miles from the L.A. limelight

While shooting his latest movie in Paris, Woody Allen came across Rachel McAdams in the lobby of his hotel, playing with his daughter’s puppy. A few days earlier, he’s ask her not to be so touchy-feely in her scenes with costar Owen Wilson, because to be at each other’s throats. “I think you may be the most affectionate actress I’ve eve come across,” he said to her. “Is that a Canadian thing? What is that all about?

Maybe it’s a Canadian thing. Maybe it’s the indefatigable pluck of her performance. Maybe it’s the dimples. At 32, McAdams provides as close to a pure Doris Day high as can be gotten from movies right now, wether beautifully rain-sodden as the ’40s heiress smitten with Ryan Gosling’s laborer in The Notebook, resourceful as a Hitchcock heroine fighting off Cillian Murphy’s psycho in the mile-high thriller Red Eye, or displaying almost vaudevillian verve n last year’s Morning Glory as a producer trying to whip an ailing breakfast show into shape (a performance inspired in part by Rosalind Russell in the 1940s screwball classic His Girl Friday).

She’s not caught up in the whirlwind of Manhattan or the whirlwind of Los Angeles. There’s no of that actress nonsense with her,” says Allen, who first saw McAdams in Wedding Crashers. “Usually you’ll find someone who’s great-looking and they’ll be a little weak with the acting or the comedy. Or you’ll find someone who’s great at that but not so amazing-looking as Rachel. All of a sudden, here was this girl who had it all.”

He wrote this month’s Midnight in Paris with McAdams in mind, after many years of receiving “glowing” reports on her from Diane Keaton. “She’s like a violin,” says Keaton, who played McAdams’ cancer-stricken mother in The Family Stone and a veteran TV anchor in Morning Glory. “She can do anything, and she can play anything. She’s a dynamo, but she’s also soft. She can be bitchy but also light. She can do serious drama; she can do comedy. She has a lot of things going on, which makes her absolutely captivating.”

In person, McAdams is funny, smart and precise, with the impregnability that comes from a secure family background – unusual for an actor, although, as she says, “I’ve come across all walks of life in this business.” Her mother is a nurse, her father a retired mover, they raised Rachel and her two younger siblings in tiny St. Thomas Ontario, the kind of town, she has said, “where the mayor bags your groceries.” GreenIsSexy.org, an eco-lifestyle website the ardently green McAdams runs with friends, describes an idyllic childhood of “summers spent at the cottage, swimming in the Canadian Great Lakes, riding her banana-seat bike around the neighborhood. Winters consisted of tobogganing through the treacherous woods and building dangerous snow forts.”

She still uses a blue Pathfinder bike to get around Toronto – either that or the city’s famous streetcars. Though she’s been acting since 12, when she played a witch in a theater-camp production of Macbeth, she’s never strayed from the area for long; she earned a four-year theater degree with honors at Toronto’s York University and today hole up between acting gigs in the Victorian brownstone she bought in the city with her brother, Daniel. (Her sister, Kayleen, is a makeup artist who often preps McAdams for public appearances, as long as she gets adequate warning: “If I give her, ‘We have 10 minutes Can you do a great smoky eye and fake lashes?’ then she’s like, ‘No’” McAdams says. “I have a wraped sense of time. I think everything can be fit into 10 minutes“)

McAdams is a dainty thing: 5’4”, wasp-waisted – “a figure skater’s body,” she says, having competed on the ice from the ages of four to 18, at one point dreaming of Olympic glory (“my Sporty Spice side“). She still works with an athlete’s muscle memory – it may be why alighting into the embrace of leading men seems to come so naturally – as well as the unmistakable competitor’s drive that thrums beneath that beautiful hood. She locked horns with Rusel Crowe over character motivation on the first day of shooting 2009’s political thriller State of Play. “Sometimes I just find myself in situations and my my mouth is going and my brain can’t keep up,” she says. “‘What are you doing?‘ Oops, too late. Afterward I realized: We were actually getting into character.”

Like many stars with a reputation of supernova niceness – Tom Hanks, Matt Damon – McAdams’ friendliness doubles as a handy cloaking device. She adept at steering clear of conversational trouble spots – her four-year on-off romance with ex-fiancé Gosling, for example; the shorter fling she had with Josh Lucas; or recent sightings of her with Midnight costar Michael Sheen, including a Valentine’s Day trip to Dublin. McAdams is all crisp borders, soft humor, and good manners, but just when you find yourself wondering what so sensible a head is going in movies, she looses a rich, low laugh that carries a hint of something racier – the wind-in-her-hair transports of a woman who gets carries away for a living. She’s that most beguiling of personality types: the shy exhibitionist, the bashful streaker.

Her daredevil side inspires occasional risk-taking, such as signing on for an as-yet-untitled film by director Terrence Malick costarring Ben Affleck, the plotline of which – even after filming – remains a mystery to her. “I have bits and pieces, I have fragments, I have moments,” she says. “I could try to string them all together, but I would probably wind up with a different story than the one he’s telling.” Midnight, too, brings her out of her comfort zone; she delightfully skews her wholesome image by playing a cold-eyed literalist, basically a younger version of Allen shrew as seen in films like Husbands and Wives. As the pampered fiancée of Wilson’s tortured screenwriter, she’s too busy shopping to pay any heed to his wistful yearning for the golden age of Picasso and Hemingway. The role required some “sexually potent enough to manipulate [Wilson’s character], to get what she wants from him,” Allen says. And besides he thought “it would be fun for her not always be the beautiful girl who gets married at the end of the picture.”

Elle: How was it working with Woody Allen?
Rachel McAdams: You hear such ridiculous stories. “He hates the color blue. Don’t ever show up wearing blue.” And I wear a very clearly blue shirt at one point. When the costume designer put it on me, I said, “What are you doing? I’m just going to have to wear something else.” We debated how blue the blue was, and in the end I’m sure he didn’t even notice that I was there that day.

Elle: In Wedding Crashers, you and Owen Wilson were basically love’s young dream. Here, the dream has curdled a little.
RM: It’s definitely a different dynamic from the last time we were together. It wasn’t as fun being mean. I love that Woody likes good guys to be good guys and bad guys to be bad guys. Owen seemed to respond really well when I was a really bad guy.

Elle: He liked it when you were mean to him?
RM: Yeah, he found it really funny.

Elle: It’s not the first time you’ve played mean: Regina, the queen bitch in Mean girls, Amy the Machiavellian sister in The Family Stone. These were not nice girls.
RM: With Mean Girls, I originally auditioned for the part that Lindsay Lohan played. I wouldn’t have seen myself playing Regina at all. But when I read the script, I thought, Oh, this part is way more fun; I wonder who will play that … And the same thing with The Family Stone. I thought I’d probably play Claire Danes’ character [the grounded sister of Sarah Jessica Parker’s workaholic], and they went, “Now we want you to play Amy.” I tought, Oh, that’s way more fun; I’d love to do that.

Elle: A big theme of Midnight in Paris is nostalgia; your character pours cold water on Owen’s romantic attachment to the past.
RM: I think Woody’s made such an excellent point, he’s dragging us out of the reverie for the past. It’s really just not living in the present.

But your own career seems to have such an old-fashioned tint to it: The Notebook, The Time Traveler’s Wife …
RM: You’re saying I’m old-timey? [Laughs]

Elle: Maybe. But in a good way. You seem such a romantic.
RM: I am. When Billie Holiday comes on, I can’t help but be transported – and I’m sure it wasn’t as romantic then at all – but that’s the wonderful part of my job: dressing up and walking down the street in New York or Toronto, pretending I’m in the ’40s. Whenever people ask me what’s I’d like to do next, I always say that I really miss epic films. My mom and I watched The Thorn Birds every summer and The Ten Commandments every Easter. I grew up with films that took my breath away – Giant, Gone with the Wind, The Found of Music – stories that spanned time and place. I loved movies that were so long you had to take bathroom breaks and make a snack. They stay with you such a long time.

Elle: A sweeping love story helps.
RM: It helps everything. It does make the world go around.

Elle: Your parents are still together.
RM: Still together and still in love. I’m very blessed that way. I had a great example of love in front of me, and that’s probably what makes me such a romantic, because I’ve seen it firsthand.

Elle: Doesn’t that also set the bar impossibly high?
RM: You grow up and you assume that everyone is like that, and you quickly realize that they’re not, and then you have those days when you wonder if you’re going to find it for yourself. It’s such a hard thing to find. I think it was more that realization that rocked me.

Elle: I read somewhere that you like writers.
RM: I like anyone who can work from home. I know that’s quite romantic of me.

Elle: I don’t know about romantic. Charitable, certainly.
RM: Why? Are writers having a hard time finding love?

Elle: We tend to be rather unglamorous creatures, I’m afraid.
RM: [Laughs] Maybe I’m very naive, but I always think you can persuade them away from their desk. “C’mon, let’s play.” Heal their wounds. Bring them tea. Soothe them.

Elle: What do you think has held your parents together?
RM: One thing I’ve learned is that they really like each other, and they really help each other out. My dad was just saying this morning, “I would never ever say anything negative about your mother.” And when I hear someone trashing their partner, I have a really hard time of it. I was reading something in Wired Magazine – they’ve found that couples who idealize one another tend to stay together. And people who are conscientious and neurotic – that combination – are supposed to be good togehter.

Elle: Which one would you be?
RM: A little of both, but I’m definitely neurotic.

Elle: Is that why you turned down The Devil Wears Prada and Iron Man you had to be talked into doing Morning Glory? Its director Roger, Michell, called you “clinically hesitant.”
RM: Sometimes I don’t think I’m the best person for the job. That was the case with Morning Glory. Sometimes I think, Really? You see me as this? Just because I don’t see myself that way, does that mean I shouldn’t do it? I tend to go, Is this the right decision? What are the ramifications of doing this part You start to over analyze. But once I make the decision, it’s full steam ahead. I just had this experience para gliding off a mountain in Switzerland. It seemed easy when I was sitting at the table and somebody came by and said, “Do you want to sign up for para gliding?” because I had two feet on the ground and no idea what I was in for. Then, when I was standing on the top of a mountain and he was saying, “You’re going to run off the mountain; I’m going to ski right behind you,” suddenly I felt the magnitude of what I had really agreed to. And I started to panic.

Elle: Maybe you have to be choosy because you commit so fully?
RM: That’s pretty much it. You could be my therapist. It’s a very Scorpio quality. If we’re not in, we’re so not in. But once we’ve committed, you won’t be able to get rid of us. “You thought you wanted me? Now you’re going to find out.”

Elle: When you first decided you wanted to act at age seven, you wrote your parents a note.
RM: I remember hiding under my bed after I gave it to them. I was really shy about that declaration. They were very good. “That’s wonderful; we’re so proud of you, and you let us know if you get a call or if you have any leads, and then we’ll take it into consideration.” When I was still in high school, I found this agent in a rundown building in Toronto with a men’s-only bingo bar down the hall. We could hear hollering and shouts of “Bingo!” throughout the meeting – it was a very strange place. He asked for a lot of money up front for pictures and acting classes. My parents wisely canceled the check when we got home.

Elle: But you knew you wanted it.
RM: I didn’t know what it was exactly that I was looking for – some sort of outlet – and when I found it, it awakened something in me.

Elle: You’ve based yourself in Toronto, going to L.A. only for work. Were you scared of moving to L.A.?
RM: Definitely. I assumed I would work here my whole life, but then you quickly realize that’s just fear of the unknown. Once you go there, and you go to many auditions and you get turned down many times, it loses its mystique a little bit. Then it’s just about plugging away at it until you find a crack, and you sort of try to fit in there.

Elle: Was there ever a moment in which you breathed easy, thought, Phew I can do this; I can make a go of this …?
I don’t know that I have ever thought that. Things change, and they can change overnight in this business.

Elle: Not even after The Notebook?
RM: That one seems to have had staying power. I’m so grateful to have a film that people respond to in that way. It was a big deal.

Elle: I was surprised Morning Glory – which pulled in a relatively modest $31 million at the box office – wasn’t a bigger hit.
RM: It’s funny, because so many people said to me, “It’s the kind of film you don’t see anymore, done in a way that isn’t done anymore.” I thought that was a really positive thing, but apparently not. I only hear these businesspeople: “Well, no one was sure who it was for.”

Elle: What do you do when you get back home after a job?
RM: I have to open the windows and get a breeze going and reacquaint myself with things. I love being able to have a neighborhood. Getting home and being able to cook a meal. These are the little things. I love being away – the life of a gypsy suits me quite well – but it’s nice to come home and reconnect. Because when I do work, I’m quite myopic. It was great working with Terrence Malick recently. He took me around a town where my character would have lived and pointed out, “Perhaps you grew up in that house, and your dad worked at that building, and you went to that school.” I found it incredibly helpful.

Elle: You really have no idea what Malick’s film is about?
RM: [Laughs] You don’t know with Terry. He really creates a family. The crews are very small, intimate. All I can say is, it was a very satisfying unique way of shooting. And [the film] will probably be very beautiful.

Elle: So you don’t ride off into the sunset at the end?
RM: [More laughter] It’s probably not a romantic comedy but … I still can’t be sure. You never know.

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