From Mean Girls to True Detective, Rachel McAdams could give a TED talk on how to navigate Hollywood. But it's her off-screen approach to life that we'd like to emulate.
You can imagine Rachel McAdams living and loving in the Seventies. From the solar panels she is having fitted, to an affinity for backpacking, from the fact that cycling is her default mode of transport to her love of Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac, it’s clear she’s a free spirt – albeit a very grounded one – who has rejected many of the traditional trappings of Hollywood.
She has three requests at our shoot in West Hollywood: green tea, an eco-taxi and her younger sister, make-up artist Kayleen McAdams, to do her make-up. Family is, clearly, important: a result of McAdams’ small town upbringing in St Thomas, Ontario, alongside Kayleen, younger brother Daniel, mother Sandra, a nurse, and father Lance, a removal man, “He preferred to call himself a relocation engineer,” she laughs. Alongside wanting her sister by her side, McAdams still lives in Toronto – a decision Stylist suspects is unlikely to change.
Anointed Hollywood’s latest ‘it’ girl after her role as Regina ‘I-was-half-a-virgin’ George in 2004’s cult film Mean Girls her success was cemented in weepie The Notebook with Ryan Gosling (a former boyfriend, as is Michael Sheen) and Wedding Crashers. And then McAdams, now 36, did what stars normally don’t when they’re on a career high: she took a break – or what she calls a ‘pause’ – reportedly turning down roles in films such as The Devil Wears Prada and Casino Royale. Since then she’s navigated the business in all its forms, from The Time Traveller’s Wife and Sherlock Holmes, to Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris and Brian de Palma’s Passion. She’s made us laugh, she’s made us weep but we’ve never seen much grit. Until now.
Currently starring as hard-living cop Ani Bezzerides in the second series of True Detective – a role in which she’s utterly convincing, and barely recognisable – McAdams is showing her true mettle. Is she ‘doing a McConaughey’? (it was in True Detective that the Oscar winner displayed the most dramatic shift change of his career). It looks likely, especially when her latest movie Southpaw is an equally gutsy choice. A powerfully taut story about what happens to a boxer (Jake Gyllenhaal) when he has to rebuild his life, McAdams will follow it up with Spotlight alongside Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo – a film about child molestation in the Catholic Church. “I have no qualms about playing someone who is living in their shadow side permanently,” she explains.
There is not much shadow side to McAdams today, who after a long shoot is still exuding positive vibes and easy living. She flops onto a sofa, a mug of green tea in hand, her hair the perfect mess, to discuss activism, adventures in Costa Rica and Alain de Botton…
Why is it so important to have Kayleen by your side?
We have so much fun together, she’s such a solid person and the fact we get to work together is the cherry on top. I said to her the other day, “Did you ever think we would be sitting in LA in a sushi restaurant?” It is surreal when I think back to us growing up together.
How do you think that small town upbringing has impacted on you?
My parents have been together for 39 years. They have always treated each other with a lot of kindness, so that was a great thing to watch. They are both worker bees and passed on a work ethic. They weren’t strict but we were expected to pull our weight and be independent. When my brother was nine he was like, “I can’t do laundry. I’m nine” [laughs]. By the time I got to college I appreciated it because I knew how to take care of myself.
Was yours a happy childhood?
I had a lovely childhood. For family holidays, we went as far as the car could take us – we would drive to Florida, even though it would take three days. I didn’t know we didn’t have a lot of money because there was always food on the table. I didn’t have a lot of stuff but I did figure skating for a long time and I always had my skates.
Did you watch a lot of TV and films growing up?
I watched a lot of soap operas like General Hospital and Days Of Our Lives. When it came to movies, my parents were quite strict. They would watch Flashdance but wouldn’t let us see the whole film because Jennifer Beals’ character was a stripper. It was so funny when I finally saw the whole film. I thought she was a ballerina!
Did you always want to be an actress?
I was 12 when it really hit me. I did children’s theatre camp during the summers and played a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The next summer I played Clytemnestra in Agamemnon and I was like, “OK, this is amazing.”
Why did you take a break just as your career was taking off?
It wasn’t a conscious break as much as a reassessment. I felt like I was getting swept up with the current and wanted to make sure I was making my choices from the right place.
Has it been important to hold on to that?
Living in Canada helps, and I’ve always valued the time I have off in between jobs. There’s an exorcism that happens after each part. I grew up in a very small town and didn’t realise till later that I had an adventurous side. When I went to theatre school at 18, I came into my own and let loose.
I started travelling by myself. I went to Australia and Costa Rica as soon as Mean Girls was over. I’m pretty spontaneous so I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was kind of stupid. I got off the flight to Costa Rica and got on a little four-seater Cessna plane and was dropped in the middle of the rainforest as the rain was pelting down. I got in a cab with no doors and asked the driver to take me to this hotel, and he told me in broken English it had burned down, so I wound up in a place costing five dollars a night.
What was it like?
There was a cold shower and guys pounding on my door all night. I slept with my Swiss Army Knife in my hand, thinking: “I’m going home tomorrow!” Of course, things always seem worse in the night. Dawn broke and I thought I’d keep forging ahead. I took a five-hour taxi ride through the rainforest with the locals as they dropped their kids off at school and the guys went to the fields to work. Then we carried on to a volcanic black beach. A mule pulled my luggage to the beach then I walked for two hours to a cabin with no electricity.
Were you scared?
I was terrified and lonely. I’ve actually never talked about this before. You see incredible things and there was no-one to share them with. But I think it gave me a bit of chutzpah and ended up being one of the best things I’ve ever done. It taught me I could survive on very little too.
Would you do it again?
I would do it that way all over again, it was life-changing. You get to prove to yourself what you’re made of. In this business it’s allowed me to not become too attached to material things. Now I feel like if [the success] all went away tomorrow, I know I would be OK. I think it’s also allowed me to make choices in my career that are coming from the right place.
Where do you travel to now?
Northern Ontario has become a family getaway. I love to go to a cottage in the woods. And the Eden Project in Cornwall is amazing. You feel like you’re on another planet.
Southpaw is a brutal film – the boxing scenes are intense and bloody – what appealed?
Jake and I have been trying to work together for years and this came up and he was so passionate about it and Maureen is a totally different character to anything I’ve done before.
In Hollywood, men are invariably paired with much younger women. That’s not so in Southpaw…
No, I’m actually a bit older than Jake. It still happens a lot. I think it’s fulfilling some sort of male fantasy, but we’re slowly getting past that. People want to see their own stories reflected back to them. Technology has exposed us to so many different lives; so I think the entertainment business is catching up to that.
You’re the sole female lead in True Detective how was that?
I felt connected to Ani on a gut level. I understood her as soon as I read her. Working with Colin [Farrell] was a delight. He would come to my trailer for a chat and a cup of tea every day. We got really into chocolate coconut chips.
What research did you do?
I did a ride-along with the police and I learned that everybody is lying to everybody else. I get it now when police officers are cynical, because the criminals are always trying to pull one over on them.
Your upcoming film Aloha, with Bradley Cooper, came under a lot of criticism in the US. How difficult is it when something gets panned?
What I find frustrating, and what I’ve come to find peace with, is that the end product never reflects the journey of making the film. Whenever you put your heart into something, you want it to resonate. It’s unfortunate but I had the time of my life working in Hawaii so I’m just going to take that all the way to the bank [laughs].
You were recently protesting against offshore drilling, do you want to change the world?
I would consider myself an environmentalist, but I also ask myself: do you keep trying to clean everything up or do you just let it go to sh*t, then you can rebuild. For example: let's use up all the oil and then we can finally figure out something else. I know that sounds a bit jaded but it’s coming from a good place. I'm trying to get solar panels up on my roof, but the guy keeps telling me I don't have enough roof space!
And you don’t drive?
I've never owned a car. I cycle everywhere and love it. I try to do a bike tour in every new city I go to. You feel like you're seeing everything really up close and personal.
Tell us about your home
At the moment, I’m having my kitchen gutted so I literally have a hotplate on top of the washing machine. It's amazing what you can make with a hotplate, a kettle and a toaster oven.
Do you like to read?
I'm reading Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton. It's made me think I might go back to religion. His books have become staples.
Looking back at your career could you pick out your one particularly memorable moment?
Oh, God, there are so many. I have a great picture, a panoramic shot of my sister and I standing on the red carpet at the Oscars in 2010. It was in the newspaper and my parents put it up in our bedroom that we share at their house when we're home for Christmas.
What do you have left to achieve?
I would love to own a farm or even just work on a farm, grow organic vegetables and keep chickens and pigs. That is my fantasy.
Words: Elaine Lipworth Photography: Brian Bowen Smith