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The alluring mystery of Doctor Strange co-star Rachel McAdams

Rachel McAdams feels keeping her core private makes her a better actor: ‘I need to have a normal life, so I can bring that back to my job.’

Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press

Rachel McAdams knows how to hide in plain sight. More on that in a minute.

She knew she wanted to be an actor from the day, age 12, that she stepped on stage at a children's theatre camp in her hometown, St. Thomas, Ont., playing a fairy in A Midsummer Night's Dream. All her senses were firing. She remembers every single thing about it – the curtain going up, the sound of the audience. "There was something inexplicable about it," she said in an interview in Toronto last week.

The jobs she's landed since keep proving her 12-year-old self right. Her first gig, playing the head of an all-girl, alternative-universe crime-fighting squad in the 2001 telefilm Shotgun Love Dolls, conflicted with a Caribbean cruise she was about to take with her parents, but she didn't care. She was much more excited about being employed. The Canadian series Slings & Arrows gave her the opportunity to be a luminous Ophelia. Then it released her to Hollywood, where she played the archetypal high-school evil queen, Regina, in the smash hit Mean Girls, followed directly by the archetypal spunky romantic heroine, Allie, in the even smashier hit The Notebook, the weepie that shot both her and her cute Canadian co-star, Ryan Gosling, to stardom. In any career, that's known as an excellent start.

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McAdams, who turns 38 this month, has a reputation for saying no more often than she says yes. "If I can't hook into a role, I feel like I'm going to let everyone down," she says. "That's the only part I can control." The first half of that statement strikes me as extremely Canadian. The second half, though – that's experience. She certainly looks like a star, in a sleek white dress with black mesh accents and ankle-challenging studded strappy sandals. Her hair is shiny golden blond. She wears a couple of diamonds in each ear, and a couple of delicate, webby diamond rings on several fingers – including the ring finger of her left hand, which we don't talk about. (Her ex-boyfriends include Gosling and actor Michael Sheen; her current one is screenwriter Jamie Linden.)

Her strategy seems to be working for her, though, because McAdams has said yes to some good stuff. Though she claims she's not funny, she was smart enough to surround herself with pros in splashy comedies: Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in Wedding Crashers; Diane Keaton and Harrison Ford in Morning Glory. She kept her romance fans happy with The Time Traveler's Wife, The Vow and About Time. As a cop on the (to me, underrated) second season of HBO's True Detective, she had a magnificent scene, running through a factory with gun brandished.

She also worked with auteur directors on smaller films: Woody Allen on Midnight in Paris, Terrence Malick on To the Wonder, Wim Wenders on Every Thing Will Be Fine – and of course, Tom McCarthy on Spotlight, where her role as real-life Boston Globe journalist Sacha Pfeiffer earned her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. The journos in that film were charged with listening to wrenching stories of sexual abuse, and no one listens on screen better than McAdams – her steady gaze is alive with thoughts; her brow furrows as if her soul is being dented. She gave the film a heart that helped it win best picture.

In the latest tightening of Marvel's death-grip on our eyeballs and wallets, Doctor Strange (opening almost literally everywhere Friday), Benedict Cumberbatch is the title character, a brilliant physician who unlocks the secrets of multiple universes; Tilda Swinton, bald, is the Ancient One who teaches him; Mads Mikkelsen is the baddie; and McAdams is once again charged with providing the heart. She plays Christine, an ER doctor and Strange's ex, and her reaction when he whooshes into her or from another dimension gets the film's most earthy laugh. "It was an interesting challenge to keep her feet on the ground in that scene," McAdams says wryly, "with Benedict flying through the air on wires."

Here's where the hiding in plain sight comes in. Over time, most actors reveal some biography in their film choices. McAdams – nada. "My motto is to keep myself guessing as much as anyone else," she says. "I want to do things I'm not quite sure I was meant to do. See if I can get there or not. I'm not a creature of habit."

In Toronto, where she lives part-time (alternating with Los Angeles), she walks in the Don Valley, goes to yoga, rides her bike around town and hangs out with family and friends, some of whom she's known since high school – without ever being hassled. (Her best friend now was her neighbour in St. Thomas when she was 4.) She even takes the streetcar. "I just keep my nose in a book, it's the best way to disguise myself," she says.

In interviews, she freely talks about her co-workers. Swinton is "wise and enlightened and timeless, and her heart is so pure." Cumberbatch is "extraordinary, really a humble guy at heart." A week before they began shooting, she saw him play Hamlet on stage. "He was at the end of his run, and he was giving it everything he had," she says. Then a few weeks before they wrapped, she watched him work on reams of dialogue for the next season of Sherlock. "He's tapped into some Doctor Strange magic or something," she says. "He's an animal. And he does it all with a smile on his face."

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Ask McAdams about herself, however, and words will come out of her mouth. She'll be polite and present and appear open. But you'll realize she says next to nothing. There's a lot of "Gee, that's a good question," and "Gosh, I've never thought about that." She's like an emotional goalie, flicking away questions before they get near her.

Keeping her core private "makes me a better actor, I feel," McAdams admits. "I need to have a normal life, so I can bring that back to my job."

It also keeps her from getting jaded. "I gain incredible insight and compassion from doing my job – about people, about the world," she says. "I love that I get to have so many lives in one. Life is so short, but being an actor allows me to cram a lot into a brief period of time. I can never see myself getting bored with it."

By hiding in plain sight, McAdams ensures we never get bored with her, either.

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