The Times (UK): Rachel McAdams: the $100 million queen of the screen

The Times
Published: August 22, 2013

Rachel McAdams does this thing. It’s a trademark thing. It’s a little burst of gorgeous luminosity, designed, it seems, to bring any man to his knees. It consists mainly of smiling, looking down, tilting her head, looking up again, giggling, and smiling again. And when the 34-year-old actress does this on screen, opposite a suitably swarthy male co-star, her films generally make more than $100 million at the box office. Commercial mega-hits The Notebook, The Time Traveller’s Wifeand The Voware all testament to this unequalled pulling power in the world of tear-streaked screen romance and to McAdams’s uncanny ability to beguile at will.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that when she walks into frame in About Time, the new tear-streaked screen romance from Richard Curtis (Four Weddings, Notting Hill), our male narrator and stuttering would-be suitor, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), can only gush: “And then, out of the blue, something miraculous happened.” Cue trademark burst of gorgeous luminosity.

Thing is, I sort of dread those scenes sometimes,” says McAdams today, neatly sipping tea in her modest hotel suite and reflecting on her status as a romantic totem. “Mostly I’ll just hope that the director of photography has lit the hell out of the scene, so I can just step into the light and hope for the best.”

McAdams chuckles to herself, naughty-me style. In person, she is sweet, petite, polite, quietly coy — and yet very much engaged, it seems, in a battle with her more sugary screen personas. She is keen to emphasise her movie work outside of romance, including as a school villain in Mean Girls, an investigative journalist in State of Play and a ball-busting businesswoman in the recent Passion. “From Mean Girls onwards, I’ve shown that I can play villainous characters,” she says. “I can play complicated people. I like playing messy people.”

She has no qualms about bursting a few bubbles when it comes to the mechanics of her famous celluloid romances. In The Notebook, it turns out, she wasn’t exactly enamoured of her on-camera lover, Ryan Gosling. “We weren’t throwing Ming vases at each other, so it wasn’t loathing, but our relationship was not what you saw on the screen,” she says, carefully. “I would say that we were both, well, professional.” She admits that she was more surprised than anyone when she eventually started dating Gosling, two years after the film was made. “It certainly wasn’t something that either of us had expected would come out of that filmmaking experience,” she says, giggling. “Which goes to show you that you can engineer chemistry on screen just by telling the audience that these two people love each other. And, unless your actors are doing a really terrible job, I think people will want to see that. As an actor you don’t have to feel it. You don’t have to feel anything. Just imagine it.”

For About Time, however, she is careful to clarify that she spent quality time with co-star Gleeson beforehand (“He’s delightful“), going to Jordanian restaurants and “hashing out the characters’ back stories“. The result, perhaps unsurprisingly, is some convincingly heartfelt chemistry in a movie that immerses itself in the giddy flush of true love (very Richard Curtis) while purporting to be about time travel. Here, Tim’s father, gamely played by Bill Nighy, delivers the movie’s high concept in the opening act — namely, that the male side of the family have the ability to travel backwards in time — and then subsequently sits back and watches the plot unfold, as a so-called Typical Richard Curtis Comedy (eccentric English lovables in supporting roles, London property porn, tons of posh white people) is put through the time-travelling mill. And though the narrative results are occasionally mixed (the time-travel rulebook appears to be very flexible indeed), McAdams and Gleeson hold the movie’s focus, both as the couple struggling for young love against increasingly bizarre obstacles (one of Gleeson’s time trips changes the sex of their baby), and as the couple, says McAdams, “that you want the audience to root for, all the time“.

She was drawn to playing Mary, her About Time character, not because here was yet another luminous femme to add to her résumé, but, she says, because the role, and Curtis, allowed her to go “messy and difficult“. We segue directly, and perhaps tellingly, into the paucity of meaty screen roles for actresses in contemporary cinema. Unfortunately, she says, “there are only so many really juicy parts to go around, so sometimes you have to try and make the less juicy ones a bit more juicy“.

McAdams is speaking from experience, and as someone who, in 2006, at the peak of her nascent career (after three back-to-back hits: The Notebook, Red Eye and Wedding Crashers), simply dropped out of the industry because she didn’t like what she saw. “Everything was happening really quickly, there were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, a lot of voices around me, and I wanted to step away so I could hear my own voice again,” she says. “There was no instruction book available about how to deal with it, and also, truthfully, I never really wanted to be a big movie star. I never even wanted to work outside of Canada, or outside of the theatre.”

A homespun girl who grew up in small-town Canada (St Thomas, near London, Ontario), McAdams is the eldest of three children born to a nurse mother and furniture-mover dad. Her childhood, she says, was a happy one, and yet from an early age she craved a career on stage that would allow her to escape, as far away as possible from the real person that she was. Musical theatre — specifically, Broadway — was in her sights until, as a teen: “I discovered that I couldn’t sing or dance, so that had to change.”

A Shakespeare summer camp followed and the dramatic bug bit, sending McAdams for a four-year theatre degree at York University. She went from York straight into popular Hollywood movies (The Hot Chick and Mean Girls) and difficult Hollywood stardom. She has yet to leave Canada (“the world has become so small these days, and most films aren’t shot in Hollywood any more, so there’s no point living there“), and maintains that she has managed her career and her personal life just fine from there, thank you very much. She announces, cautiously, that her love life is a subject that’s “off the table today“. Although, with a string of past actor boyfriends, including Gosling, Michael Sheen and Josh Lucas, I wonder if she’s currently sworn off dating self-obsessed actorly types. “I don’t think so,” she giggles. “I would say that they’re not any less difficult than dating anyone else.”

Professionally, she says that she’s learnt the most from her recent experiences with legendary director Terrence Malick (Tree of Life) on the set of the dreamy globe-trotting romance To The Wonder. The director, famed for leaving actors’ work on the cutting-room floor and for seeking truth in nature photography rather than screen performances, taught McAdams some sobering lessons. “The camera would be coming towards me, and tears are streaming down my face and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God! I’m having an Oscar-winning moment here,’ and then the camera zooms past me, and goes to the bird on the branch behind my head. It teaches you not to be too precious.”

As for the future, McAdams’s packed schedule includes an adaptation of the John le Carré novel A Most Wanted Man (directed by Control’s Anton Corbijn), a new as-yet-untitled movie from Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire), and a starring role opposite James Franco in Everything Will Be Fine for the German director Wim Wenders.

Hang on, what about, well, romance? Doesn’t she have any more roles of beguiling luminosity on the way? No more hundred-million-dollar tear-drenched love-busters? She equivocates for an age. “I don’t know,” she says, seemingly on the verge. “No.” And then again: “I don’t know.”

Will she follow the model often espoused by her Hollywood counterparts, where they shoot one movie for the system (read: pay cheque) and one movie, a personal movie, for them? She looks aghast. Genuinely so. As if the thought had never crossed her mind. “But they are all —” she says, with the confidence of an actor who’s in it for the long haul, “they are all for me.”

About Time is released on September 4

© 2013 The Times. No copyright infringment intended.

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