[6 August 2009]
The Seattle Times (MCT)
Julie Powell doesn’t look — or sound — a bit like Amy Adams.
Nor do most of us, for that matter. But Powell’s connection to the movie actress is unique: Adams stars in the upcoming movie “Julie & Julia,” in the role of an unhappy government secretary and would-be writer who in 2002 had an idea that changed her life: Over a year, she would cook every recipe in Julia Child’s landmark cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” with readers following along on her blog. That would-be writer was Powell, now a happy full-time author — portrayed on the big screen by a glamorous movie star — laughing her way through a friendly interview in Seattle last month.
Powell, whose blog became a 2005 book (one of two inspirations for the movie; the other is Child’s memoir “My Life in France”), said that her dream choice to portray herself on screen had always been Kate Winslet. But, over a long process of selling movie rights to her book and meeting with writer/director Nora Ephron, she knew it wasn’t her call to make.
“The whole thing was so surreal and bizarre it wasn’t like I was going to make any kind of judgment,” said Powell of the experience of imagining herself on screen. “But when they came to me with Amy Adams, I kind of cocked my head and went, ‘Huh, that is just never someone I would have thought of.’ She’s so wee, she’s so tiny. You think of her in roles like ‘Junebug’ and ‘Enchanted,’ all these movies where she’s such a sweet girl. And I’m not particularly sweet.” Powell laughs, still amused by the comparison. “But she’s obviously beautiful and a tremendous actress, so I’m cool with it.”
Powell said she’s met Adams only once, very recently; Ephron and the actors decided it would be best for Adams and Chris Messina (who plays Powell’s husband, Eric) not to meet the Powells until after production was complete. “I think they just thought, and probably rightly so, that it just made more sense to work from the book and the script and develop characters based on that, and not have that confusion of seeing me and worrying, ‘Oh, I don’t look like her and I don’t talk like her,’ ” said Powell. She was nervous about meeting Adams, but said the actress was “very gracious and sweet.”
The movie, which also stars Meryl Streep as Child and Stanley Tucci as her husband, Paul, has been in the works for several years; Powell said that movie interest happened early, around the same time as her book deal. Her blog slowly gathered followers over the course of its year, with readers soon cheering Powell along as she struggled through difficult techniques (aspic, for one, gave her some troubles). Late in the year, an article by New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser suddenly launched her into the big time. “I came home (that day), and my answering machine was smoking,” Powell remembered. “It was very dramatic.”
Dramatic is the right word for the progression of Powell’s life over the past seven years: realizing via her blog that she wanted to be a writer, getting her first book deal, having lunch at Balthazar with Ephron — “She’s hilarious, she is Sally (from ‘When Harry Met Sally’); every time you eat lunch with her and she deals with the waiter, it’s totally Sally” — recognizing details of her former apartment as she watches “Julie & Julia” on the big screen.
“I would sit there looking at the set, going, ‘I have that lamp. How does she know that I have that lamp?’” Powell said. She’d taken Ephron on a tour of the apartment (after moving out), but was amazed to see how meticulously the movie set re-created the layout — though not the low-rent grubbiness Powell chronicled in her blog. “It’s the shiny happy version of our apartment,” she said of the set.
Now living in a nicer Long Island City place with Eric, Powell documents her changed life on a new blog (“What Could Happen?” at juliepowell.blogspot.com) and has a new book coming out later this year. “Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession” describes Powell’s experiences during “a troubled spot in Eric’s and my marriage” and a six-month apprenticeship as a butcher at a shop in upstate New York. The upshot, to tide you over until the book appears: They’re still married, and Powell now waxes rhapsodic about butchery.
“It’s hard work, heavy work, but it’s actually very delicate,” she said. “It’s not really about hacking apart, it’s about finding where the separation lies. I love it, I think it’s very poetic and beautiful work.”
Though she no longer cooks exclusively from Child’s oeuvre, Powell said she still goes back to “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” for some favorite recipes, most often the fragrant braised dishes like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin “that cook for a long time and make your kitchen smell great.” And she’s still a big fan of the book, particularly as a vehicle to teach French cooking techniques.
“If you pick it up and start flipping through it, it’s very daunting,” Powell said of “MtAofFC” (to use the bloggy abbreviation). “But if you turn to the first recipe of the book, it couldn’t be any simpler. She starts the first recipe saying, ‘this is simplicity itself.’ And it is. It’s very clearly, concisely written, and if you follow it, wow, it’s easy. And the next recipe is the same thing, only we’re going to add watercress this time. And she goes through all of it step by step, and by the end you’re making bouillabaisse, and you’ve built up all this technique. It takes time and it takes commitment, but that’s the way to approach the book, as it’s structured so much like a cooking course.”
While she’s happy with what she calls “this great souffle of a movie,” Powell admits that, despite several viewings, it’s still strange to watch a year of her own life depicted on screen. “I’ve gotten fairly used to watching it,” she said. “I can sit through it and not freak out every time (Adams’ character) calls herself Julie Powell or does something I wouldn’t do, but there’s always this little bit of, ‘Huh, this is weird.’ I don’t think (for me) it will ever be just a pure moviegoing experience.”
A FEW OF JULIE POWELL’S FAVORITE FOOD MOVIES
“Mostly Martha” (and not the “terrible” Catherine Zeta-Jones remake, “No Reservations”): A 2002 German film about a tightly wound chef whose motherless niece comes to live with her. “I like movies where the food is not just purely glorified — it’s love, it’s good great healthy sex, it’s family. Here you deal with a difficult woman who’s lonely and prickly but finds sustenance in the food that she makes. And the fact that it’s about the making of it, it’s something she does well when the rest of her life is falling apart — that kind of resonates with me.”
“Babette’s Feast”: 1987 Danish film and classic food movie in which a housekeeper in 19th-century Denmark prepares a feast to remember; winner of the Academy Award for best foreign film. “Gorgeous. It never touched my soul or anything, but the food is great.”
“Tom Jones”: The 1963 multiple Oscar winner, based on the Henry Fielding novel about a lusty young man in 18th-century England. “I’m still a big fan. I like it when the food is sexy and greasy and kind of dirty.”
“Heartburn”: From 1986, Nora Ephron’s adaptation of her own semi-autobiographical novel about a cookbook writer (Meryl Streep) with an unfaithful husband. “I love it, though I actually love the book more than the movie.”