By David Templeton
“I like language,” says Amy Adams, addressing the audience at Corte Madera’s Century Cinema on opening night of the 39th annual Mill Valley Film Festival. A second after saying it, the award-winning actress smiles, then laughs lightly, as if suddenly aware that praising language while in the very act of using it, is, if nothing else, a symmetry worth smiling about. Here to present her new film Arrival—in which she plays an emotionally wounded linguistics professor called in to communicate with a race of mysterious alien creatures who’ve recently arrived on Earth—Adams (Enchanted, American Hustle, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice) is aware that, in playing a master of languages, she’ll be asked how multilingual she is herself.
“I like words, of course,” she says, “but I don’t really have a lot of facility for different languages, which is weird, I guess, playing a linguist. But then, I am an actor, and pretending we’re something we’re not is pretty much what we do for a living, right?”
Arrival, which will hit theaters on November 11, was directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, the upcoming Bladerunner 2049), a French-speaking native of Montreal, Canada. While Adams may not have picked up a lot of French while filming the movie alongside co-stars Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, she can do a pretty entertaining impression of her director.
“I dee-eeply loove that you have aaall come to de fee-elm,” she demonstrates, adding, “I just wish Denis were here—because he does it so much better.”
Suddenly laughing at herself again, she says, “Wow! Imagine that! Denis does an impression of himself better than I can!”
Shortly before appearing at the theater to introduce the film, Adams met with a small group of local journalists at a pre-show reception in Mill Valley, where she displayed the same sense of quick-thinking and gently self-deprecating humor that she revealed before the sold-out house of moviegoers.
“When I read the script,” she says, “I immediately loved the story, because it seemed different from anything else I’d read before. Then I met Denis, and he has such a special quality to him, such a strong emotional intelligence. He really wanted to make this movie feel like a very intimate, very personal story—even though we are dealing with elements from the sci-fi universe. That seemed very unique to me.
“While filming,” she continues, “he would often say, ‘This is a mother’s story, Amy. You can get caught up in all these other elements, but at the end of the day, this is a mother’s story.’ That really intrigued me.”
Asked to elaborate, she pauses a moment, thinking it through, careful not to accidentally give away any of the movie’s many clever twists or revelations.
“There’s a scene in the movie where Louise [her character] says, ‘It’s the moments in between,’” Adams says. “It’s the moments ‘in between’ that matter. And I now think about that line at least once every day. Because it’s so true. Sometimes, it’s the little moments in between the big moments that really matter in all of our lives. The big moments are the ones we celebrate, but it’s the little moments where the really good stuff is.
“Last night,” she says, “I was helping my daughter sound out a word, helping her learn how to read. It wasn’t a big moment—but it was a really good moment, and I made sure to notice it. That’s something I’ve taken away from the film that I think will always be with me.”
In response to a question about any political relevance the film might have, it being about communication between very different cultures and viewpoints, Adams nods.
“What’s interesting is, when we made the film two years ago, that wasn’t as relevant a part of the movie as I think it is today,” she says. “But I do think it’s become relevant, these ideas about the importance of positive communication and understanding, and the dangers of accidental misinterpretation. So, yes, I think the film has something to say about how the human race needs to proceed if we’re going to move forward as a species.”
A wine glass suddenly clinks loudly from somewhere in the room.
“Cheers!” Adams exclaims, instantly pantomiming a toast of her own. She goes on to talk briefly about the science fiction films that have inspired her.
“My first experience with science fiction, like a lot of people of my generation, was E.T., she says. “I know that’s not as sophisticated a film as other science fiction movies, but I think there’s just something so intimate about that film. It’s a very human story, a story about relationships. There have been so many others along the way. I loved Contact and of course I love Close Encounters, the movies that focus on characters and relationships within these broader science fiction stories.”
As she gets the sign that it’s time to wrap up and head off to the screening, Adams takes one last question about remaining present and real, on screen, even when having to act opposite an alien creature that doesn’t actually exist on the set.
“Well, I think that’s our job, isn’t it?” she says with a laugh. “To create something that isn’t there, whether it’s a relationship, or an alien creature communicating with swirls of smoke. It definitely helps when you have actors like Jeremy or Forest to play off of in the human-to-human scenes, and if it’s something entirely imaginary you are talking to, you usually do have strong actors standing next to you, doing it, too—and that makes it feel not quite so weird and vulnerable.
“But again, Denis is so good,” she concludes. “The way he talked us through those scenes was brilliant, reminding us of our emotional link to the moment. As an actor, I think it’s really important to have that emotional connection to my character, to know clearly what she’s feeling and why. If I can manage to be present in that moment, and I know who my character is, then the reactions I show will always feel authentic and believable.”