Fall movie season is one you’re pretty familiar with at this point: For years now, every time Oscar season rolls around, you have a project in contention. Does this hoopla ever get old for you, or does it still excite you?
Look, expectation is hard to live up to, but at the same time, when I go into doing a film it’s not something I’m thinking about, so I try not to get caught up in it. A good friend of mine said, “Look, it’s not anything you thought about when you made the film, so it’s nothing you need to think about.” So I don’t have to think about it. But some years that’s easier than others.
When you learn that a project of yours is opening during awards season, in the back of your mind do you go, “Well, shit” —
That’s a lot of dresses. I guess I’m not eating nachos. [Laughs] No. I don’t know. I mean it could be a lot worse. It could be, “Well, we don’t like the film, we’re going to bury it somewhere else.” So I really try to stay on the positive side of it. It means that they have belief in the film and that they’re standing behind it, so that’s a great thing to be a part of. But, there’s been a lot of dresses over the years. [Laughs] But if that’s the worse thing that’s happening in my life right now, I’m not going to complain. You can’t!
Speaking of dresses, you looked phenomenal in “American Hustle” and in this, albeit in two very different styles of wardrobes. To see you in “American Hustle” as this brazen, sexual character, and then to watch you as Margaret, who’s arguably the most reserved character you’ve ever played — what was that transition like?
It was kind of awesome. I shot “American Hustle” first, and I don’t know how long after, but it wasn’t much more than a month after that we started shooting “Big Eyes.” It was a pretty quick transition. It was strange because coming off of Sydney [in “American Hustle”] I was feeling so beat up.
Why beat up? That’s interesting.
It’s funny ’cause everyone saw her as brazen, sexy. To me she was just desperate. She was so desperate. It always is very telling when people say, “Oh my god, she was so sexy.” She’s so damaged! Oh my gosh, men find damaged women sexy. This is what I’ve been doing wrong my whole life! They always put on a happy face and act like everything’s normal, when really they’re just damaged. Forgive me, I’m just going way off — but it actually felt really good to climb into Margaret’s skin. Not that what she went through felt good to play, but I really related with her in the sense of someone who is more comfortable executing their art than talking about it, somebody’s who’s more comfortable with somebody else talking about them rather than talking about themself. I do it because I need to, and I want to have a good attitude about it. The Amy part of me is you get in there and you do it. But I understand where Margaret was coming from. I think being a mom, I also understood how you can get into something for the right reasons and then become manipulated. I can’t imagine if someone said, “If you tell the truth, they’re going to take your daughter away from you.” And living in a time when that could happen.
It’s so funny because when I was playing her, I was worried about being to big. It’s so funny now to see it.
Especially opposite Christoph Waltz. You can’t be too big next to someone like him.
[Laughs] I guess just because I knew Margaret. I know how subdued she is. She’s quick witted and smart, but very quiet. When she talks about her art she starts to enliven.
She’s extremely passionate about her art, going so far as to describe her portraits as her children. Do you feel that strongly about what you do for a living?
To a degree. I’ve had to get used to the idea that it belongs to the director, to the editing suite and to the audience. It doesn’t belong to me. I can only control what happens between action and cut. That’s been something I’ve had to learn.
Now Tim Burton, my god. You must have been so psyched to work with him.
Oh, yeah. I’ve wanted to work with him forever.
What was the first Tim Burton movie you saw?
“Pee-wee” and then “Beetlejuice,” which I was obsessed with. And then it just keeps going.
What most surprised you about the way he works?
I thought it would be harder to get in, as far as his psyche.
Because he’s such a visual artist?
Yeah, and he was not hard at all. He was so collaborative. You really felt like a participant in the film. It wasn’t like, “This is my big art project and you’re just this piece of it.” It can happen sometimes and I’m OK with that too. But it never felt like that. He has a lot of patience for every department.
Tim Burton, David O. Russell — you’ve worked with some of the best in the business. Do you ever pinch yourself?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been so lucky. I completely still do. I actually wrote Tim.
You had to fight for it?
I mean it wasn’t a drag down, but I got the phone call saying, “Tim’s going to direct ‘Big Eyes,’ and would you read it again?” I felt like I needed to play Margaret. I got her. They said there’s a list of actresses he’s considering. So I wrote him a note, which I don’t do often. I think I’ve written two notes.
Do you handwrite these?
They were emails. I think I would prefer to write, but everyone communicates in emails. Maybe we’ve learned our lesson about that! I would prefer phone calls.
I just came from interviewing the “Big Eyes” writers and they expressed anger at news outlets for posting these Sony leaks.
Of course they are. Think about what they did when the actresses were exposed. There’s no honor among thieves.
You worked with one the best, Steven Spielberg, so early in your career in “Catch Me If You Can.”
That was sort of the first big role that I’ve been given. I was terrified, but by the time I got to set, I was so entrenched in Brenda, I thought, “Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be Brenda and there will be no question.” I’m not typically 100% method, but I knew her inside and out so that was my defense. By the time I got there I was so focused on being this character I didn’t have time to be nervous. That’s sort of been —
Your M.O. since.
Yeah. I mean I still get nervous at times. The first day on “The Master” I was terrified. But you get past it.
What terrified you most? The scale? PTA? Joaquin?
No, it’s ’cause Paul Thomas Anderson…I knew Phil [pause], so I was glad that he was there. Just watching the genius — I call it genius — that was being executed between Joaquin and Phil, I just was like, “Alright, just go in and do it.” You just have to surrender. It’s easy to step back and just be a witness to what’s happening instead of being involved. You just sometimes have to plug back in and work, instead of just watching it. Every once in a while I’ll step back and watch the work that the people I’m working with are doing, and it’s like, what am I doing here?
Oh my god, please.
No, but seriously! Because it’s beautiful work. I don’t see myself as others see me, and I have so much respect for people who give so much to it. Working with Christian [Bale], the same thing. Doing scenes with him on “The Fighter.” I’m like, “Stop watching him Amy, just be in the scene!” Because I’m like, “This is really good! Is everyone seeing what I’m seeing?”
It’s a huge vote of confidence that directors like Tim and David want to work with you. Do you feel more secure than ever about your craft?
I mean, more than when I started. But I like staying scared a little bit. I try to take on new challenges. I feel like I work really well in a place of fear. [Laughs] But I’m a worrrier and a try-hard. I hate the word try-hard, but I really am a try-hard. It’s annoying.