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For actress Amy Adams, role was a turning point

'Junebug' changed her outlook on life

Today, Amy Adams has the look of a woman in need of a mint julep and a parasol.

While she's not exactly in costume, the Colorado-born actress admits that, quite in keeping with her impossibly cheery ''Junebug" character, she woke up at 5:30 this summer morning, went for a run along Commonwealth Avenue, and said to herself, ''I need a sunny day dress!" Which is why, instead of her usual jeans and T-shirt, she's decked out in a billowy, sleeveless number (teal, dotted with tiny pink rosebuds) accented by fuchsia Dorothy heels and a tangerine-tinted handbag.

''Junebug," opening Friday, hasn't just put Adams on the acting map; it's changed her whole outlook on life, says the entertainer. Normally that would be hard to believe, but you can never underestimate the power of playing a woman who's discovered Cinnamon Fizz nail polish, and anyway all kinds of breakthroughs seem possible with the level of buzz this film is generating.

The quirky story of ''Junebug" is mostly set in North Carolina, where first-time feature director Phil Morrison and writer Angus MacLachlan grew up. It involves a worldly Chicago art dealer (Embeth Davidtz), who ventures south with her new husband, George (Boston native Alessandro Nivola), to try to sign an oddball local folk artist. The couple's trip provides an opportunity to visit George's dysfunctional family in a nearby town, and the clash of sensibilities that inevitably results is entertaining while being careful not to exploit its setting or fall prey to a self-conscious hyper-reality.

Adapted from MacLachlan's play ''Divertimento," ''Junebug" doesn't swerve to avoid stereotypes, but it doesn't flatten their contradictions to more easily hold them up to ridicule either. George's mom (Celia Weston) is both judgmental and accepting, his dimwitted dad (Scott Wilson) avoids playing the buffoon, and younger brother Johnny (Ben McKenzie, in a solid effort that strays far from the ''O.C." hunk comfort zone) is a disgruntled good ol' boy who might really be the film's biggest softie.

And then there's Adams, who, in a remarkable wide-eyed performance that won a Special Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, brings to life a pregnant, pure-hearted chatterbox named Ashley, Johnny's unbreakable wife, prone to such perky affirmations as ''God loves you just the way you are, but he loves you too much to let you stay that way." Ashley isn't the sort of role that generally wins awards; in fact, she's a part most fame-seeking actresses wouldn't even want to play. In the real world, people like Ashley tend to get clobbered; in Hollywood, they seldom even register.

''I'm a pretty open person, but I would probably dismiss her," Adams admits. ''I'd be like, 'Oh, she is going to work my last nerve.' "

So it's impressive that Adams wanted this job from the beginning, and even more impressive that she won Morrison over by taking the character at face value. As he explains: ''Lots of people looked at Ashley and thought, 'What's the sorrow she's masking?' To me, the fact that Amy didn't approach it from the angle of 'What's she covering up?' was key."

Both actress and director agree that Ashley is a genuinely good person. But what makes her great viewing is the depth that Adams imparts, which comes not in the foreshadowing of deep dark secrets -- there's no Rosebud in ''Junebug," Morrison jokes -- but in acknowledging the character's keen awareness of what's right and wrong in her life.

''Happiness is not Ashley's defense, it's her path," concludes Adams. ''It actually makes her open."

And that alone would be interesting enough, even if Adams didn't allow this conversation to let us in on everything that was going on in her life last summer, when ''Junebug" was filming on location in and around Winston-Salem. Not to put too big a bow around the experience, but the actress claims, ''I discovered my strength as a woman there. . . . I'm not over-exaggerating."

She was turning 30 at the time -- a pivotal threshold in Hollywood -- and her career had progressed from Minnesota dinner theater (yes, ''Brigadoon") to mostly stupid movies (''Drop Dead Gorgeous," ''Serving Sara," ''Cruel Intentions 2") and disposable TV shows (''Dr. Vegas"). A few people might have noted her brace-faced innocence in ''Catch Me If You Can," but by no one's estimation had she ''made it."

At the same time, two of her six siblings were pregnant while she was only acting the part (tick, tick, tick), and gaining a few pounds to enhance Ashley's condition was making the 5-foot-4 former ballerina feel very out of sorts. What all this added up to was a period of percolating and prioritizing that Adams freely admits she used to inform her character.

''I think it's important not to deny anything when you're working; that's my philosophy as an actress," she says. ''I just acknowledge everything that's going on and figure out a way to use it. And I think that comes from working in dinner theater, because you're like, 'OK, that person just put their potato on the stage, what am I going to do?' It's all about accomplishing your goal within the parameters of the space you're working in."

Adams says that playing Ashley has reminded her to be patient, positive, hopeful -- ''all of those adjectives that seem idealistic and therefore we dismiss as stupid."

She can't yet know if the buzz of ''Junebug" will bring her any lasting benefit, just as no one could have predicted that her breakthrough redheaded moment would coincide with that of Isla Fisher (''Wedding Crashers"), whom she resembles at least enough to confuse the inattentive moviegoer. As Adams's own recent farce about nuptials (''The Wedding Date," starring Debra Messing) proved when it tanked earlier this year, things don't always go as planned in this business.

''Junebug" is a small enough indie that it could easily come and go without changing anyone's box office status, but whatever happens from here on out, the newly empowered actress isn't inclined to overthink it. ''I feel like I've been really lucky in that my life has sort of found me, more than me seeking it out," Adams says.

It's a testament of faith that Ashley herself might have offered in all earnestness, just before applying another coat of Cinnamon Fizz.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage22@hotmail.com.

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