Elle: Next Stop Wonderland

Published: March 12, 2007

We whisk Rachel McAdams off to Paris for some haute couture dress-up.

The art deco labyrinth of the Los Angeles Public Library is her home away from home. Beyond the high metal gates, past the Children’s Courtyard with its lotus flower fountain and bas-reliefs of Robin Hood, the Cat and the Fiddle, Ali Baba, Alice and the Queen of Hearts…through the Egyptian-inspired doors, up one worn marble staircase, down another, along the Ivanhoe friezes, across the atrium, beneath the light of the enormous cast-bronze globe chandelier ringed by the zodiac, Rachel McAdams sits on a bench writing in a spiral notebook, looking much more Alice in Wonderland than Hollywood movie star. “You won’t be able to miss her,” her manager said. “She has pink stripes in her hair!” Indeed she does. Lingering in the golden gleam. So cool. So curious. So clever. So the perfect complement to the bright fuchsia dress and copper platform shoes.

My dress is actually soy,” McAdams says, happily holding out the hem, inviting a feel. “It’s made of, like, edamame.” Scrumptiously soft. As for her short black trench coat: “Target.” Or, as they say in France, Tarjay. The actress will soon be in Paris to attend the spectaculars of haute couture week, which—for a girl whose taste runs more bohemian than Balenciaga—will be quite like falling down a rabbit hole.

Picking up her cotton book bag, McAdams announces, “I have to show you something,” and leads the way up, up, up to a huge sunlit ballroom, where all the children’s books are napping. Inside and to the right, she enters the children’s theater, where rows of small, attached wooden chairs face a proscenium stage. “There’s never anybody in here,” McAdams whispers, though there isn’t anybody in here. “Look at this little auditorium! Isn’t it cute? Look at these tiny chairs!” She sits, dwarfing a seat, her knees nearly up to her chin. “Adorable!”

Excuse me, excuse me,” says a pair of brown orthopedic shoes attached to a plaid-skirted gargantua with tightly curled gray hair. “No one is allowed in the theater.” That goes double for actresses. McAdams apologizes sweetly and, taking your hand, pulls you into the outer room toward two oversize club chairs by the windows, stepping between the roosters and turtles and squirrels and bears woven into the carpet. “I keep getting in trouble today,” she giggly whispers. “I took out a book on slow cooking—you know, Crock-Pot? And I got a call this morning, ‘Bring it back! The slow-cooker book is in demand! You have to bring it back.And then I got pulled over by a cop on my way here for running a red light on my bike.” She rode a bicycle, in a dress? “I did!” Her eyes dance. “And now we’re getting kicked out of the kids’ auditorium!” All before noon.

McAdams curls up in a corner of a big leather chair, making herself teensy in the process. Whistle thin, she has the diminutive dimensions of a figure skater—a former incarnation. That grounded weightlessness has served her in embodying a quick succession of disparate characters in highly successful films—the nasty teen queen in Mean Girls; the World War II-era ingenue in The Notebook; the action heroine in Red Eye; a winsome, woo-able bridesmaid in Wedding Crashers—the box office sum of which added up to “The next Julia Roberts!” or so the Tinseltown criers cried. “There’s always that need to turn everything into something you can recognize,” McAdams says, understanding the inclination without being so inclined. Beyond that, she can’t explain herself, because she’s not Herself, you see. But on-screen the two actresses do share a rare effervescent, incan descent, superlunary power that prevails upon you to root for their happiness as if your very own depended on it. And it does. Who could stand to see Julia go back to hooking on Hollywood Boulevard or Rachel marry the one who isn’t The One?

You feel almost vulnerable watching them. They’re giving you something so intimate,” says Ira Sachs, who cast McAdams in the upcoming Married Life. “They take the everyday and turn it into something enormous.”

When Wedding Crashers came out, everyone was hyped up, calling Rachel the new It Girl,” recalls Tom Bezucha, director of The Family Stone, in which McAdams costarred with Diane Keaton. “I felt anxious about that because it’s so diminishing to her talent. You get the impulse—you want to put her in everything. But her selectiveness shows wisdom greater than her years about her place in the industry. She’s very purposeful in side stepping Hollywood. She has the opportunity to be this huge, huge movie star, but in her heart she’s a character actress.”

Echoes Keaton: “I hadn’t been that impressed with someone since I worked with Meryl Streep.”

I’m not going to make movies just to make movies,” McAdams says. (She’s turned down loads of roles, including the romantic leads in Mission Impossible 3 and Casino Royale, Anne Hathaway’s part in The Devil Wears Prada, and Agent 99 in the upcoming Get Smart, starring Steve Carell.) “I have to be passionate about it. And at the same time, I can get very distracted when I’m working, and I like to get back to my life a lot“—a love-wise life with Ryan Gosling that she fictionalized in The Notebook in 2004 and factualized with him “quite a while after the movie.” Two years-ish to be exact. She’s a serious sort, not one to have her head spun on a set all flibbertigibbety, hand-feeding the tabloids. They’re a well-matched pair of hearts. She admires him. Her cheeks bloom when she speaks of his Oscar nomination for Half Nelson. “He did such an amazing job,” McAdams says, her voice positively aching. “He worked so hard, too! He never does the same thing twice. He’s very brave. I don’t think he sees the point [in taking a role] unless he can find out what he’s made of every time. He just doesn’t back off. He goes into everything from that place.”

You should see her now, so in love. Note the dimples—the right one deeper than the left. They contribute to the illusion that she is younger than her years—which IMDb states is 30, but is really, truly, ask her mother, 28. She has a high, unlined forehead, clear gray-green eyes, a rosebud mouth, and a beauty-marked chin, all floating in a pool-of-milk complexion blushed cotton-candy pink. She’s a confection of perfection that would be too-too if it weren’t for the fact that she’s playing with a full deck and a half. And so sincere it’s nearly queer! Guile-free. Yet knowing.

Something’s happening behind the eyes that’s different from what she’s saying,” Sachs says. “There’s a whole life going on within the gaze.” Clearly smitten; she’s run off with his head. “Yes! You fall completely in love with Rachel when you work with her. And I’m a full-grown gay man!” Such bewitchery was required for her role in Married Life. Based on the John Bingham 1953 noir novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven, the film stars McAdams as a ’40s femme fatale involved in a murderous menagerie with Pierce Brosnan and Chris Cooper. “This man wants out of his marriage, so he decides rather than breaking his wife’s heart by leaving her, he’ll just kill her—avoid the emotional damage altogether,” McAdams says, smiling. “I play the lover.”

She has a movie star’s entrance in the movie,” Sachs says. “In that moment you understand why two men will fall so madly in love with this woman as to put their own lives on the line to have her. She embodied that mythological cinematic quality.” He compares her to “Kim Novak in Vertigo, Grace Kelly in Rear Window, and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest.”

It was in London, Ontario, Canada, that McAdams bounced into this world, soon to be the eldest of three. Her father is a mover, and her mother a nurse. It was an idyllic growing-up in which you could believe impossible things. “My parents were so supportive,” she says. “They believe you can learn just as much from your children as you can teach them. They’re getting more and more environmentally minded because that’s where my interests lie,” McAdams says. “I bought my dad a composter for Christmas. He’s so excited—’I can’t wait until spring and I can turn my composter!’ It’s so cute.

There isn’t a sense that Rachel’s come to the craft as an act of exorcism,” Bezucha says. “She’s not working out her own stuff on set. If she comes with baggage, it’s a carry-on.” The dramas in her life were relegated to the stage.

I started by doing Shakespeare when I was 12,” she says. “It was very intimidating at first—Macbeth. I played one of the witches—and reprised my role in college, coincidentally. We did little excerpts from it, and our swimming towels were our capes. We performed in a Greek outdoor amphitheater that had stone tiers. It was magical.… One year we did Agamemnon, and I played Clytem nestra, who is this blood-seeking terror of a woman. It took place in a ravine, and I was just blasting the chorus, who were judging her for murdering her husband and his lover. I can’t describe the feeling I had standing there.” She sighs. “I’d love to go back and do that again. It would be different at 28 than it was at 13.”

Alas, the stone stomping grounds of McAdams’ amphitheater are forever no more. “They’ve torn it down,” the actress says, pressing her lips together, furrowing her brow.

My ears perked up when I heard she started in theater,” Cooper says. That background has helped her pull off complicated performances. “I’ve worked with some wonderful American actors, but I’m afraid that for a piece like [Married Life], they usually cast from Britain, Australia, Canada. There’s a maturity in these women that the American film industry…well, look at what’s happening with the awards this year—Meryl is the only American up for best actress.”

Standing up to just the right size, McAdams clasps her rumbling stomach. “I’m starving!” says the former vegetarian. “I stopped eating meat for a few years and got so tired I fell asleep during a Chris Rock show—live, front row. And I was like, ‘I’m picking up some bacon tomorrow!’ You have to be so strict to be a vegetarian. And I’m only human.”

She rouses the children’s books as she’s leaving, tickling their spines. “I love Beatrix Potter,” she says wistfully. “My mother took me to the library so much when I was a kid. That was like my whole summer. I just got lost. The library and the grocery store are my favorite places to go.” Which reminds her: “I’m so excited to leave for Paris—I’ve never been! I’m hoping to take a little cooking class. Do they do Crock-Pot cooking in Paris? Is that a faux pas?

Back through the stacks, down the stairs, along the hall she stops and declares, “That makes me anxious!” McAdams enters the library’s Getty Gallery and rights the left-leaning painting hanging on the wall. “I have major anxiety about crooked pictures. They just make me mental.” She steps back. “I’m spatially sensitive,” she says. “In the shower, I have to have the shampoo bottles set up right. I don’t want the writing facing out. I want the label facing out. I’m learning to relax about bookshelves. I think the books look nicer if the heights are mixed up.”

An etching catches her eye, a graveyard, one plot in particular. She reads the headstone aloud: “Here lies worry, aspiration, stress, hunger, thirst, and lust.” McAdams stares, contemplating. “I don’t want to have a tombstone,” she says, matter-of-factly. Slipping on her Target trench coat, she’s struck by a bolt of cheerfulness. “You can now be made into a reef! I was reading that they can make your remains into a reef and put you into the ocean, and the fish can feed off you!” Human compost. She kisses goodbye on both cheeks. “I just want to go back into the earth the same way I came.”

Then she vanished quite slowly, ending with a grin, which remained some time after the rest of her was gone.

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