Arrival is the kind of intellectually driven sci-fi movies we need more of, says Amy Adams

Amy Adams, who plays a linguist trying to figure out alien speak in the film Arrival, struggled with her Mandarin lines, but now wants to learn the language

In Arrival, a science-fiction drama that opens in Singapore on Jan 12, Amy Adams plays a linguistics professor tasked to crack an alien language.

In order to portray a language expert, she has to rattle off a few lines in Mandarin and this proved so difficult for the actress, it might as well have been an alien language too.

Speaking to The Straits Times in Los Angeles late last year, Adams says her Chinese dialogue was the most intractable part of the script to learn, and she is the first to admit she did not quite nail it.

"Arrogantly, I thought, 'Oh, Mandarin? Well, it's only four lines - I can spend two weeks studying these four lines and learning them.' So I worked with someone on that and then I realised it was really, really hard.

"It was a little bit of a struggle. But I did my best," adds the 42-year- old, who played Lois Lane in the Superman movies Man Of Steel (2013) and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016).

Arrogantly, I thought, 'Oh, Mandarin? Well, it's only four lines - I can spend two weeks studying these four lines and learning them'... and then I realised it was really, really hard.


Adams - a four-time Oscar nominee for films such as The Fighter (2010) and The Master (2012) - is widely expected to pick up another nomination for Arrival, which has already earned her a Best Actress in a Drama nomination at the Golden Globes on Sunday.

Making the film has deepened her interest in languages, particularly Chinese, which she now wants Aviana, her six-year-old daughter with 42-year-old artist Darren Le Gallo, to pick up as well.

"I really fell in love with the language because of its intricacies. It was interesting to see how I couldn't find a place in my brain to put Mandarin because the sounds were so different to me.

"But it became kind of an obsession and now it's one of the languages I want to learn and teach my daughter because I feel like it's a really beautiful language."

Incidentally, the film has also piqued an interest in Chinese among some moviegoers in the United States, where the film opened last year - a line uttered by the Chinese general character in a pivotal scene was left untranslated, prompting curious viewers to Google what it meant in order to better understand the plot.

Adams found her own intellectual curiosity being sparked, too, as she did research on linguistics, the scientific study of languages, which features prominently in the story.

The actress consulted with several linguists to get an insight into the field.

"I had wrongly assumed that a linguist was like an interpreter or just a translator and that's not the case - he actually studies the culture and the history of language and there are different types of linguists. I didn't know any of that," she says.

"I talked to a linguist who works at a university in Montreal and she gave me a whole bunch of books to read, which were all over my head.

"But I did do some reading and the way that they break down language is fascinating. When you're breaking down a language, you start to examine the history of a culture, which helps you understand the present-day culture. That's one thing I'd never really thought about - that there's a history of language and a culture behind each word and how that word's used."

In addition to arcane linguistic theories, the film's cerebral narrative refers to mind-bending concepts in philosophy and theoretical physics, the finer points of which most laypeople would struggle to understand, its star concedes.

She herself understands them only "in theory", she says.

"I had to just embrace it instead. Because me trying to (fully) understand it would get in the way of the performance as I would have had to explain it to myself as I was explaining to the audience."

However, she is not worried about viewers being too confused to enjoy the story, which is also a moving meditation on themes such as love and loss.

"I trust audiences. If they find it confusing, I hope that they will care enough to invest in searching for answers and in conversations (about the film)."

Adams says Arrival also has a great deal of emotional resonance, not unlike another Golden Globe- nominated film she recently starred in, the psychological drama Nocturnal Animals (2016), where she plays a woman moved by a manuscript sent to her by her ex-husband, a struggling writer.

Both films "delve into the idea of choice - the choices we make, and what we feel pulled towards, and are shaped by our upbringing, by our fear and by loss".

Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, 2015) and adapted from an award-winning short story by Chinese-American writer Ted Chiang, is a hit with critics - scoring a 94 per cent score on review website Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates reviews. But it is rather different from, and commercially more risky than, the usual science-fiction films featuring explosions and battle scenes.

Adams says she "saw it as risky not because I didn't think people would get it, but just because it's a different idea - it's a woman leading a sci-fi film and a story that's kind of being told in an emotional way".

Hollywood movies do occasionally feature female scientist characters, "but it's not as common", she observes.

"But I felt like this is one of those movies where if we get it right, it's going to be really special. And if we miss the mark, then I'll be accepting that Razzie," she says with a grin, referring to the awards for the worst films and performances of the year.

The film is doing well so far - it has made more than US$150 million (S$217.5 million) globally and opens in more countries this week.

If it is deemed a commercial success, more movies like this will be made, Adams says.

"A lot of decisions about what films get made are based on the bottom line - there are a lot of artists in the film industry, but there are also a lot of business people," she says.

"And that's why I encourage people to go see movies that are intellectually driven because then they'll make more of them."

•Arrival opens in Singapore on Jan 12.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2017, with the headline 'Mandarin - it's so alien'. Print Edition | Subscribe