After playing roles in a handful of Canadian TV shows and two homegrown movies (including one in which she appeared topless), the 28-year-old actress broke out in the 2002 Rob Schneider comedy The Hot Chick. She has gone on to captivate audiences with memorable roles in films as diverse as the romantic drama The Notebook, the thriller Red Eye, and comedies like Wedding Crashers and Mean Girls.
No one who knew McAdams in her hometown of St. Thomas, Ontario is surprised by her success.
“She was a very sweet person and a good student,” recalls Judy Regan of the guidance department at Central Elgin Collegiate Institute. “Rachel was just a super kid.”
McAdams was one of about 800 students at the school between 1992 and 1997 and was very active in student life. In addition to playing sports, she served on the students’ council, participated in the Crimestoppers program and helped other students as a member of the Peer Helping Team.
McAdams was also a drama student who loved writing and acting in school plays.
Drama teacher Linda Maskell Pereira remembers seeing early signs that fame was inevitable for McAdams.
“She certainly stood out in anything she was in,” says Pereira, who taught McAdams for three years. “She just had that certain sparkle. I don’t know what it is.”
McAdams won an award in 1995 for her role in I Live in a Little Town, a play written and performed by students at Central Elgin, after it was featured in the renowned Sears Ontario Drama Festival.
“Rachel was part of an ensemble so winning that award shows how she was able to hold your attention,” says Pereira, who co-directed the play.
But McAdams had acted well before high school. As early as 10 years old she was involved with the Original Kids Theatre Company in London, Ontario, and by 12 was performing Shakespeare in amateur productions.
Born at London’s St. Joseph’s Hospital on Oct. 7, 1978 as the first of three – her siblings are Daniel and Kayleen – to Sandra, a nurse, and Lance, a truck driver, McAdams grew up in a brick house on a quiet block of Chestnut Street in St. Thomas.
Her first passion, at age four, was figure skating and McAdams spent many hours on the ice rink at the Elgin St. Thomas Memorial Community Centre.
She skated competitively through high school, winning the Gold Dance Award from the St. Thomas Figure Skating Club in 1997. Her achievement is marked by an inscription on a plaque in the hallway of the arena – on which her surname is misspelled.
Pereira remembers that even though McAdams loved acting, she wasn't planning to pursue it professionally until the two had a conversation on a school stairwell in her graduating year.
“I asked her where she was going after high school and she told me she was going to university to study social sciences. I asked her why she wasn’t going to study drama and she said ‘There are no jobs! How am I going to support myself?’ Rachel is a very practical, bright girl.
“I told her if it was something she loved to do, she should go for it. So she switched to drama and the rest is history.”
McAdams enrolled at York University in Toronto, more than two hours away from her hometown. There, she studied with Professor Daniel Rotenberg at the Centre for Film & Theatre.
Today, a showcase outside the building’s Alumni lounge contains clippings of articles about McAdams.
Andy Williams, who grew up in St. Thomas and now works at an insurance company in London, dated McAdams for six months while she was at university. He says McAdams had her sights set on the stage.
“She wanted to do live theatre, like Broadway plays, because that’s what she was doing at York,” he recalls.
Williams says he wasn’t surprised to see McAdams make it as a movie star. “She’s very talented.”
Although busy working in Hollywood these days, McAdams remains a Toronto resident, although friends say she doesn’t get to spend much time in the modest house she owns in the eclectic Queen Street West neighbourhood. When she is home, McAdams rents DVDs from the small independent Black Dog Video, enjoys a game of pool with friends at Stones Place bar, and chows down on fish and chips at Oyster Bar.
The actress also enjoys playing in an ultimate Frisbee recreational league – a game that blends football skills with a plastic flying disc.
Friends say McAdams goes back regularly to St. Thomas to visit her family. Little has changed in the town, whose biggest export until McAdams was professional hockey player Joe Thornton.
At the McDonald’s restaurant where she worked as a teen, the regulars remember the star.
“I saw a commercial for one of her movies,” says one young man, “and I said to my buddy, ‘Hey, isn’t that the drive-thru girl?’”
Two summers ago, the Galaxy Cinema in the Elgin Mall offered a double dose of its hometown celebrity by showing both Red Eye and Wedding Crashers.
McAdams’ high school drama teacher says these are the only two movies starring her former student that she didn’t see.
“They’re not my type of movies,” admits Pereira. But she loved McAdams' previous efforts.
“What was so amazing is that I expected to see someone who reminded me of Rachel but it was her,” she says. “It was exactly how I remembered her. It was quite an interesting experience watching her movies. She’s mesmerizing.”
Pereira’s husband Christopher, who was McAdams’ high school English teacher, says his former pupil has a Katherine Hepburn quality on the big screen.
Ex-boyfriend Williams has only seen one of McAdams’ films, The Notebook. Was it uncomfortable watching McAdams getting intimate with co-star Ryan Gosling (who, incidentally, was born in the same hospital as McAdams)?
“Not really,” he says, adding their split was amicable and the two have stayed in touch.