Far from her early-career princess days, Hathaway gets her hands dirty when it comes to work, such as her tough turn as Catwoman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. She’s also downright fearless when it comes to the brass tacks of her craft, i.e., singing live without a pre-record as the luckless Fantine in 2012’s Les Miserables, a feat that earned her a best supporting actress Oscar. This year Hathaway takes her range further as Amelia Brand, the determined astronaut opposite Matthew McConaughey in Nolan’s Interstellar. Hathaway was more than ripe for the role. “I have an interest in physics and science,” she admits. “Dark Knight Rises was a pretty long shoot, so it came up a couple of times (with Nolan).”

What attracted you to Amelia Brand? She’s not only different from other characters you’ve played, she’s also the coldest.

She makes some monumental mistakes. She makes a life-altering decision for what she thinks are the right reasons, and she can’t give up. And I was really drawn to playing someone who undergoes a transformation. From the beginning she’s all theory, and that has made her arrogant. And during this journey, that ego is knocked flat on its behind. By the end, she’s reborn a humbler person, way more in tune with who she truly is, which is a scientist and a spiritualist. Once I understood who she was, then it became fun calibrating her. This time (on a film) I gave myself permission to go a bit more Method. As a result, I was not my most fun—this is a character who has a deep social awkwardness. I felt bad for anyone who had to talk to me between takes.

Most actors shy from revealing their bag of tricks.

Well, I always feel shy about it. That was one of the things I loved when I stepped on set for the first time to do my camera test for the costume in Dark Knight Rises. I’m hanging out, trying not to fall apart in this catsuit in front of people, trying not to panic by the enormity of the part at hand. Chris (Nolan) comes up and asks, “What’s your process?” And I had gotten to a point in my career where I had a string of experiences where I didn’t feel connected to my director, and that my process was a burden to them. I told him, “It’s been awhile since I’ve really engaged with it. I’m going to have to get back with you on it.” The method for me is more organic. I don’t actually like it when people call me by my character’s name, although Matthew (McConaughey) did and it was helpful.

How did Christopher Nolan prepare you for a role that’s laden with physics-techno dialogue?

Chris was the best resource. He understood the physics well enough to explain it; it’s the world he created. We had access to (executive producer/physicist) Kip Thorne and Marsha Ivins, an astronaut who’s been in space five times… Brand arrives in the movie a bit of a question mark. So that Chris and I were on the same page, I created a backstory that he completely signed off on. He’s incredibly generous when it comes to his own material. That being said, he’s upfront when he knows he wants a line a certain way and he’s really good at having a light hand in getting you there. I don’t think a needy actor would do well on his set. But I remember there was this one day on the Dark Knight Rises. Chris came up to me and said, “Listen, I want you to know we’re going to do a lot of takes and it won’t have anything to do with you. I’ve just had this shot in my head for a long time and I won’t be able to move on until it looks just right.” I thought that was remarkable of him to do that—to know himself well enough to know that he didn’t want me to become anxious or self-doubting. It’s his prerogative to tell me to do it 300 times if he wants. That day illustrated a lot of who he was.

Do you remember what shot it was?

It was that shot where I’m in front of the safe and I’ve pulled my goggles back and they look like cat ears.

Since The Devil Wears Prada, most of your studio films have been $100 million-plus hits. Do you feel pressured to produce hits? Can you smell one in advance as the script, director and costars come together on a project?

All of a sudden this conversation got very Day of the Locust. Can I smell it? I have questions that I do ask myself. For me it’s all about the director. If the director I want to work with needs a waitress to walk across the screen and say two lines to the leading man, I will absolutely do it and try to create the most interesting character I can with those two lines. That for me is what being an actor is, and it’s worth it to just show up and be on that person’s set and witness them work. That’s not always an option. Sometimes it’s a director that maybe wasn’t on your radar, but it’s a fantastic part. And when that’s the case, it’s more of a leap of faith. I just think I’ve been very lucky to be in a lot of successful ensemble films… But no matter how impressive an actor’s C.V. is or what they represent or what their films have racked up, it’s a director’s medium. We are all there to serve the director’s vision in its purest form.

 Anne Hathaway photographed by J.R. Mankoff