Anne Hathaway arrives for lunch with her brother and a thick, dog-eared copy of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography. Her brother leaves, Gandhi stays, and both signify. Hathaway, who turns 26 this month with 16 films on her résumé, is in the throes of a career rise that’s meteoric in more ways than one. Those aren’t just any films. To surf from the instant fame at 19 of The Princess Diaries (2001) and its sunny follow-ups to the sophisticated challenges of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), David Frankel’s The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Julian Jarrold’s Becoming Jane (2007), Peter Segal’s Get Smart (2008), and Jonathan Demme’s newly opened Rachel Getting Married could give any young actor a DUI-inducing case of ego bends. Not Hathaway. At the mention of prestigious A-listers Lee and Demme in the same sentence, she lets out a laugh as healthy as it is incredulous and says, “Can you believe it?”One can, not least because of Hathaway’s talent, which has been blossoming so fast it looks like a time-lapse effect in a nature documentary. In Demme’s excellent film, her lead performance as Kym, an upscale Connecticut junkie on leave from rehab long enough to embarrass everyone but her oblivious self with an interminable, self-centered toast at her sister’s wedding, is a tour of human complexity, at once comic, awful, raw, and wrenching. Hathaway has held her own opposite such top shelf stars as Julie Andrews, Meryl Streep, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Steve Carell. She did memorable work in Brokeback as an exuberant if pampered daddy’s girl who goes burnt around the edges when the Mr. Right she marries becomes Mr. Incredibly Wrong. By contrast, she was deft and graceful in Prada, playing the earnest, fresh-faced foil to Streep’s seen-it-all comic dragon. Still, she’s never done anything so alarmingly fine as the fierce, damaged Kym, repeatedly going down in spectacular flames only to struggle up from the ashes like a bedraggled phoenix with the world’s worst haircut.
But as any paparazzo will show you, talent doesn’t keep stars steady. Hathaway’s own trial by tabloid fire began last spring when her now former boyfriend of four years was charged with perpetrating a massive financial con. The novelty of the media feast was a reminder of how little grist she offers the scandal mill. “I’m a boring person, really,” she says hopefully, but what keeps her grounded is her unabashed love for her family, New Yorkers all, and theirs for her. Anticipating a reunion at the Jersey shore, she says, “I’m going to get to relax; they make fun of me for five minutes, and then everything’s cool.” She brags about her brothers, the older one she’s spent the morning with, a poet and fiction writer, the younger off to Oxford for his junior year. “He’s such a little know-it-all,” she says fondly, “just like I was at his age.”
About that Gandhi autobiography: Hathaway, who got three semesters in at Vassar and a fourth at New York University before the movies carried her off, is joyfully, avidly brainy, eager for knowledge and the wisdom it might bring—and, as she often does, is laughing at herself. “I know a fact about everything,” she says mockingly. Some day she might. She’s persuaded a director she admires to let her work as his production assistant so she can learn even more about how movies are made. Jarrold, who directed her in Becoming Jane, credits her with bringing a scholar’s knowledge of Jane Austen’s work and life to the film. As for Demme, “Annie is like a genius,” he says. “She’s going to have a body of work eventually that will stand with Katharine Hepburn, Denzel Washington—the greats. She’s a great American actress.”—Karen Durbin
ELLE: Are there any women you’d like to play?
AH: I get asked sometimes if I’d like to be a Bond Girl. I’d want to be Miss Moneypenny. She gets all the best lines, and she never dies.
ELLE: Describe an all-time low in your career.
AH: That feeling in the pit of your stomach when you’re about to begin a project and you realize it’s the wrong thing, you made the wrong choice.
ELLE: A peak experience?
AH: When I wrapped Rachel Getting Married and Bill Irwin asked how I was feeling, I said, “Satisfied.” That was astonishing to be able to unequivocally say, I left my guts out there on that one, and I couldn’t have done better.
ELLE: Any directors you’d like to work with?
AH: Tim Burton, absolutely. Almodóvar—mmmm!—and Jonathan again. Also Guillermo del Toro, Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, Sarah Polley, and Sofia Coppola—but I don’t think I’m cool enough for her.