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After graduating from a four-year theatre degree program at York University in 2001, she worked in Canadian television and film productions, such as the drama film Perfect Pie (2002), for which she received a Genie Award nomination, the comedy film My Name Is Tanino (2002), and the comedy series Slings and Arrows, for which she won a Gemini Award.In 2002, she made her Hollywood film debut in the comedy The Hot Chick.

She starred with Pierce Brosnan and Chris Cooper in the 1940s film noir Married Life where she played Kay Nesbitt, a young widow who wins the affections of Brosnan and Cooper's older characters.Mc Adams was 25 years old when she was cast as the mean high school queen bee Regina George, and she modelled her character on Alec Baldwin's performance in the drama Glengarry Glen Ross (1992).Tina Fey, who co‑starred in the film and wrote the screenplay, has credited Mc Adams with teaching her how to act in front of a camera rather than an audience: "She's a film actor. And so I kind of learned that lesson from watching her." Later in 2004, Mc Adams starred opposite fellow Canadian Ryan Gosling in the romantic drama The Notebook, based on Nicholas Sparks' novel of the same name.In preparation for the role, Mc Adams studied old films, particularly those of Kim Novak.Todd Mc Carthy of Variety criticized her break from the big screen but felt that, despite a performance of "tender feeling", "her natural vivaciousness and spontaneity are straitjacketed" by the film noir format.

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