In “American Hustle,” the latest film by director David O. Russell, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) plants a lipstick-smearing kiss on Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a grifter having an affair with a fellow con artist (Christian Bale), who just happens to be Rosalyn’s husband.
The kiss caps off a scene of rage-filled accusations and not-so-veiled threats. The possibility that members of the Mafia might kill all three of them only ratchets up the heat.
The kiss, Adams admitted, was her idea. “Rosalyn’s crazy,” she said. “And I thought, ‘What’s the craziest thing she could do?’ ”
A suggestion was made to Russell; Lawrence, it turned out, was game. As sudden as it is sloppy, the kiss is equal parts threat and assault, akin, in both feeling and execution, to the one Michael Corleone shares with his brother Fredo.
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If Lawrence stuck the landing on the kiss, Adams hits about a half-dozen different emotions — from shock to fear to rage — with her understandably stunned response. Her character has already had the lousy night to end all lousy nights, and now this?
Sydney “is the most miserable human being I’ve ever played,” Adams said. “She is not — happy. I’m used to playing people that, even if they’re survivors, there’s some sort of light in them. I don’t know that she has that, necessarily.”
With a laugh, she added, “I think I like playing happy people.”
Fans of Adams know the type. For many of them, Adams, 39, will always be the wide-eyed, would-be princess who fell to Earth in “Enchanted,” or the chatty, cheerful Southern wife in “Junebug,” for which she received the first of four Academy Award nominations.
But over the past several years, she has expanded her range of characters considerably, mixing plenty of light (“The Muppets,” “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” “Leap Year”) with ever-increasing doses of, if not complete darkness, something like it.
In “The Fighter,” she plays a bartender tough enough to stand up to the greedy, shiftless family of her boxer boyfriend (Mark Wahlberg). In “The Master,” she is the domineering, largely unlikable wife of a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Her role in “American Hustle” may be her darkest to date. But then, in a couple of months, she’s off to play, well, Lois Lane for the second time.
Not many actresses get the chance to make those sorts of jumps, and if things had gone differently, if she had been less ambitious or more risk-averse, Adams might have spent these past few years in one rom-com after the next. It’s been her willingness to experiment — and the trust of a growing line of admiring directors — that has kept her from that fate.
Over lunch, Adams described the film. It was a struggle for her because while the film is R-rated, her mouth is a solid G.
So why won’t she say the f-word? “I just think it’s rude,” she replied. “Mormon upbringing. I’ll say it in film. But that’s a character. I just won’t say it in print.”
The fourth of seven kids, Adams still has the air of a person who sang in her school choir and performed in a dinner theater in Minnesota without a thought about Hollywood. She won’t speak ill of anyone, even when prodded.
She still calls people “sir” and “ma’am”; the occasional reporter or busboy gets “sweetie.”
When asked a question, she’ll sometimes pause for so long that it seems like she might have forgotten the topic. But then she’ll come back with an explanation for why the question gave her pause, followed by a thoughtful answer.
It’s a bit of that Amy Adams, perhaps the one still more familiar to audiences, on display in “Her,” the latest film from Spike Jonze, due out Dec. 25. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Adams plays his best friend, a gentle soul in spare makeup still hopeful about finding love, preferably human, but not necessarily.
“It’s a friendship love,” Adams said of her on-screen relationship with Phoenix. “Joaquin and I were able to create a male-female friendship on camera, and you don’t get to explore that very often without undertones and overtones. We’re friends, and you really believe that. Or, I believe that. I can’t speak for anyone else.”
Russell said he would love to work with Adams again, perhaps on something that would show off her skills as a singer and dancer.
Whatever the project turns out to be, he said, Adams will no doubt be up to the task: “Appetite has a lot to do with it. And she has an enormous appetite. It’s almost athletic. She rises to the challenge.”