"THE HAMMER terrifies me," says Rachel McAdams, referring to a powerful overhead Frisbee throw and not the tool. While many actresses in her position would be living the high life in Hollywood, this 28-year-old has actually spent the past couple of months at home in Toronto, playing ultimate Frisbee in a recreational league. "It's better than going to the gym," she says of the sport that's a combination of football and soccer with a disc. "It's really social, you're outside with other people - such a better way to get in shape. I'm hooked." Sure, she could be out schmoozing with any one of her recent co-stars - from Owen Wilson, whose character falls for her in the much-anticipated Wedding Crashers, to Diane Keaton and Sarah Jessica Parker. But McAdams, who's been relying on pals to keep an eye on her newly purchased house while she's working, has more pressing matters. "My friend called when I was in Los Angeles and said, 'A pipe burst, I patched it up, but you might want to call someone when you get home.' One day my friend dropped by, and a raccoon had been playing with the wiring or something and there was this huge explosion. And I'm a million miles away."
Despite her low-key Canadian existence, McAdams, who was raised in St. Thomas, Ont., is primed to be the most-watched actress of 2005, starting with Wedding Crashers (July 15), in which she plays the daughter of the U.S. treasury secretary (Christopher Walken) and love interest of a playboy. She's the lead in Red Eye (Aug. 19), a Wes Craven-directed hostage thriller, and portrays Keaton's daughter in the ensemble Thanksgiving holiday film The Family Stone (Nov. 4). McAdams is Canada's only A-List big-screen actress, and she's just begun to bring home the Hollywood hardware - even if for now it's only MTV Movie Awards. This year, she and fellow Canadian Ryan Gosling recreated their passionate make-out session from The Notebook while accepting the award for best kiss. And when she picked up the trophy for best breakthrough performance by a female, for her turn as a villainous ringleader in Mean Girls, she slyly told the audience, "I guess this dispels the myth that Canadian girls are nice."
McAdams is just as riveting, however, when she plays the good girl. In The Notebook, she took what could have been a flat character in a schmaltzy movie and infused her performance with a rare combination of comic sweetness and smouldering intensity - she and Gosling had real chemistry. McAdams, a product of working-class, small-town Ontario, completely transformed herself into a rich 1940s Southern belle. But it took some work. "Nick [Cassavetes, the director] had me take ballet and etiquette classes. And I went to a few weddings and talked to some debutantes." He also wanted her to work out. "I'd never trained like that," she says. "I was even taking protein powder. It got to the point where I turned to my trainer, pointed to my bicep, and said, 'This doesn't look 1940s anymore, it's gone even beyond pin-up girl.' So we had to tone it down."
Things weren't so intense on the set of Wedding Crashers. During the Maryland shoot, McAdams, Wilson, fellow lead Vince Vaughn and other members of the cast spent time sailing, picnicking and bike riding - not unlike the good clean fun she and Wilson's character have in their scenes together. But other parts of the movie aren't as family-friendly. "I've heard it's pretty raunchy," says McAdams, who hasn't seen the final cut. "I know the guys must have done so much that I wasn't privy to." While she appreciated the time spent with "comic geniuses" Wilson and Vaughn, her most memorable moments were with Walken. "One of the last scenes I shot was with him. We were in the flower market, and I don't know, there was this synergy. I don't know how to explain it, but every so often something happens between two actors - and it happened with him. Of all people, I was really happy to connect with Christopher Walken."
Then came The Family Stone - and Keaton. "I couldn't even talk to Diane," says McAdams. "In the rehearsal process, I was terrified. I had a dry throat, and my tongue was not working properly. I couldn't even look at her, I was so shy." But their onscreen relationship helped McAdams get over her nervousness. "We were playing partners in crime, against Sarah Jessica Parker." After reviewing her recent string of celebrity colleagues, McAdams states the obvious: "Wow, I have been so lucky. I've worked with such amazing people. I could die happy."
BORN ON Oct. 7, 1976, the eldest of three to Sandra, a nurse, and Lance, a truck driver, McAdams starting figure skating at the age of four, and carried it on competitively until just before high school. In the summers, she took part in local children's theatre programs. "I did Shakespeare in this outdoor Greek amphitheatre at 12 years old," she recalls. "We were playing fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream. We wore our beach towels as capes, and our director would play Enya. He'd turn on this beautiful music, it was nine in the morning, and I just remember peering out through my beach-towel cape, seeing incredible trees and the sun coming through, and thinking, 'All right, I can see doing this for a while.' "
During high school, she won an award for her role in I Live in a Little Town, a play written and performed by students at Central Elgin Collegiate Institute, which made its way to the 1995 Sears Ontario Drama Festival showcase. "For Rachel to get that award tells how even in her high school years, she stood out," says Linda Maskell Pereira, her drama teacher and co-director of the play. "This was an ensemble - the lines were evenly distributed between 22 people. But Rachel held your attention." Christopher Pereira, Rachel's English teacher and co-director of the play with his wife, remembers it vividly. "Rachel comes to the front of the stage, sits down and she says, 'I have something to confess to you, I think I may have a drinking problem.' That was 10 years ago, and I can still remember Rachel doing that role."
While McAdams loved acting, she didn't think you could seriously study it - let alone be hired to do it. "Mrs. Maskell Pereira is the reason I'm doing what I'm doing," says McAdams. "She literally grabbed me the day before university applications were due and said, 'Why aren't you going into theatre?' It just ignited something that had been there and that I hadn't been brave enough to follow through with." McAdams immediately changed her application from cultural studies to the theatre program. When she arrived at York University's theatre department, professor David Rotenberg's first impression was that, "She was shy, but sort of had a twinkle. By the time she got to me in the fourth year, she was landed, she had feet." That final year, he gave her a lead in Frank Wedekind's Lulu. "It was fascinating to watch the agents watch her, their eyes rolling back into their heads. They came chasing me after the first act."
Rotenberg, founder of Toronto's Professional Actors Lab, continues to be McAdams' personal coach. "She and I worked extensively on the new Wes Craven film," says Rotenberg, who also coaches Scott Speedman. "She found it difficult. There's an old actors' saw that the actor's job is to protect the chaos of the character and the director's job is to make stories - and this is in direct conflict with each other." Off-screen, McAdams has to protect herself from the chaos of a Hollywood life. "She's learning to fight and defend herself," says Rotenberg. "She's grounded. We teach up at York that you've got to know where you come from - it's a big part of the training."
McAdams hasn't forgotten. She prefers to stay based in Canada and feels at home in her Toronto Queen Street West neighbourhood, where she has said her favourite haunts include Stones Place, a Rolling Stones memorabilia bar where she plays pool, Black Dog Video for Sex and the City tapes, and Oyster Boy, for the best fish and chips in town. She also makes it back to St. Thomas on a regular basis. Last summer, she hosted a United Way charity screening of The Notebook at the Galaxy Cinemas in the Elgin Mall. Organizer Beth Spicer recalls that when she first proposed the event to McAdams, the first thing the actress said was, "Do you think anyone would come?" Tickets sold out in three days, and those without tickets showed up to greet her outside the theatre. The night culminated with a Q & A, lots of autographs, and more than $6,000 for the charity. The town truly adores her, but it has yet to make it formal. "We have signs that say St. Thomas is the home of [Boston Bruin] Joe Thornton, and I feel like defacing them," jokes Maskell Pereira, who would much rather see her prize student celebrated.
Besides keeping roots in her community, McAdams has tried to stay connected to the Canadian film and TV industry. She received a Genie nomination for the movie Perfect Pie (2002), in which she played a believable 15-year-old - despite being 21 at the time. After she filmed The Notebook, but before it was released, she joined the Canadian cast of Slings & Arrows (The Movie Network) - about a Stratford-type theatre company. While her U.S. agents made it clear to director Peter Wellington that McAdams was being groomed for success, he played it cool. "Naively I said, 'I appreciate the fact that there could be people who think she's going to become a big shot, but I don't care. If she wants the part, she's going to have to audition,' " recalls Wellington. "And she did, she was quite unassuming about all that stuff. And I remember Sarah Polley telling me, 'The biggest punchline four years from now will be that you auditioned Rachel McAdams.' It's a feather in my cap."
But Wellington wasn't able to steal her back from Hollywood for the entire second season. McAdams took advantage of the American Thanksgiving holiday to leave the set of Red Eye and fly to Toronto for one day of shooting. She came back for one more day after Red Eye wrapped. Her ingenue character, Kate, appears in only the first episode, in which she must decide between pursuing a career in the U.S. or staying in Ontario to play Juliet. A veteran Canadian theatre actress offers this advice: "Dear, Hollywood is not the place for an actress of your calibre." A bit of postmodern dialogue that didn't go unnoticed. "Yeah," says McAdams, "are they making fun of me? I felt like it was a little tongue-in-cheek." Actually, it's just another myth she's poised to dispel.
Maclean's July 18, 2005