Amy Adams finds quiet strength in Margaret Keane
Los Angeles – — Amy Adams didn't connect with the character of Margaret Keane when she first read the script for "Big Eyes."
She cannot remember whether it was right before or right after she'd given birth to her daughter, but for Adams, who was determined to play more confident characters after she got a taste of one in "The Fighter," the story looked to her like victimization.
But then she read it again, later, and everything came into focus.
"Big Eyes," which opened Thursday, tells the almost unbelievable true story of one of the most commercial art movements in recent history and the deep fraud that lingered below the surface.
Popular tiny waifs with big eyes were credited at the time to Walter Keane (played by Christoph Waltz), who amassed enormous wealth and notoriety. It was later revealed the paintings were the work of his wife, Margaret, who participated in the deception for decades for her own complex reasons.
"When I read it again, I didn't see her as victimized at all," said Adams. "She has this quiet strength and this complicit nature, but there was a sense of confusion. … I think that in the beginning, it's easy to make the choices for the right reasons, but in the end to stick with the choices for the wrong reasons."
Her first step, once she wrapped "American Hustle" and officially signed on to the film, was to meet the woman she'd be portraying. Adams wanted to know things that weren't in the script: Did she have siblings? What did she do when she graduated from college? What was her first marriage like?
The opening scene in director Tim Burton's movie shows Margaret and her young daughter fleeing a house and a marriage. It's a bold introduction to a character seemingly stripped of her agency for most of the movie, but, it's also one that goes unexplained.
"I wanted to understand the woman before we met her because that would help inform everything after. I was just seeking the small details that I feel bring texture to that sort of character," said Adams. "Even though she has a very quiet sensibility, her choices were quite bold."
Keane is an intensely private person, though she did let the actress watch her paint in her San Francisco studio. Adams quickly realized she'd be best served by watching and observing.
"She's not the sort of person to stand up and invite you in to tell you all about herself," Adams said.
While Adams had caught on to the narrative that Margaret Keane wasn't, in fact, victimized, she was surprised to learn that Margaret shared her view.
"She still had a sense of guilt for her part in it. That was something that I really responded to because she says, 'Well, I went along with it and I did lie. A lot.' Whatever the reasons were, she still admits that she lied," said Adams. "She felt very manipulated, but she never phrased it like, 'I don't know why Walter did this to me.' She says, 'I don't understand how I put up with this. How I went along with it for so long.' "
The voice was one of the bigger challenges. At age 86, Margaret Keane doesn't sound the way she did in her youth, so Adams had to improvise. "I won't say who it is, but there is a woman in my life who is quiet and I'm terrified of her, and I know she's going to know who I'm talking about, but she's from Texas and she is steely strong but very, very shy, very quiet," said Adams. "She doesn't talk loud, but boy when she talks, I listen."
Beyond a nagging hope that Margaret Keane would be happy with her performance, Adams wasn't nervous about bringing this private person to the masses. "I actually felt very relaxed. There was something about Margaret that's incredibly grounding," she said.
On the set, Burton's calmness helped, too.
"I didn't have to pretend to be anybody else," Adams said, which let her dive into the character. "I'm very confident when it comes to work."
Adams, who recently snagged a Golden Globe nomination for her work in "Big Eyes," said she tries not to think about awards while making films, or even after.
"You try to just set expectations aside and hope that people enjoy the performance. Whatever accolades come or don't come with it, you just really hope that you've been able to communicate the character in a way the audience really responds to," she said. "That's all you can do."