McAdams has received numerous awards and nominations, including winning one Screen Actors Guild Award, out of three nominations, and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Spotlight.
In 2001, McAdams made her television debut in the MTV pilot Shotgun Love Dolls as Beth Swanson, which was filmed during spring break from York University. She also made her Canadian film debut that year in the comedy My Name is Tanino. The Italian-Canadian co-production was filmed in Sicily when McAdams was 22 years old, and it marked her first time on an airplane. McAdams later earned a Genie Award nomination in her native Canada for her role in the drama Perfect Pie. In 2002, she made her Hollywood film debut with Rob Schneider and Anna Faris in the comedy The Hot Chick, which McAdams has described as a "huge milestone" in her career. She played a catty high school student who swaps bodies with Schneider's character, a small-time Criminal. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times felt she "emerges as a young Actress of much promise" while Christopher Tookey of the Daily Mail described McAdams and Faris as "talents to watch, but they are let down by everything around them". The film grossed $54 million worldwide. Afterwards, McAdams returned to Canada to star as Kate McNab in Slings and Arrows, a comedy mini-series about backstage theatre life at the fictional New Burbage Shakespearean Festival. She was written out of the second season of the program following her success in the United States. She received two Gemini Award nominations for her work on the program, with one win.
In 2002, she made her Hollywood film debut in the comedy The Hot Chick. McAdams rose to fame in 2004 with roles in the comedy Mean Girls and the romantic drama The Notebook. In 2005, she starred in the romantic comedy Wedding Crashers, the psychological thriller Red Eye, and the comedy-drama The Family Stone. She was hailed by the media as Hollywood's new "it girl", and received a BAFTA nomination for Best Rising Star.
Later in 2004, McAdams starred opposite fellow Canadian Ryan Gosling in the romantic drama The Notebook, based on Nicholas Sparks' novel of the same name. She played Allie Hamilton, a wealthy Southern belle who has a forbidden love affair with Gosling's poor labourer, Noah Calhoun. McAdams spent time in Charleston, South Carolina, prior to filming to familiarize herself with the Southern accent, and took ballet and etiquette classes. Filming took place from late 2002 to early 2003. Although McAdams and Gosling became romantically involved in 2005, they had a combative relationship on set. "We inspired the worst in each other," Gosling has said. "It was a strange experience, making a love story and not getting along with your co-star in any way." At one point, Gosling asked the film's Director Nick Cassavetes to "bring somebody else in for my off-camera shot" because he felt McAdams was being uncooperative. Stephen Holden of The New York Times praised the "spontaneous and combustible" performances of the two leads while Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times was won over by the "beauty and clarity" of McAdams's performance. Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune declared her "a real discovery" who "infuses young Allie with that radiant, breathlessly winning ingénue grace and charm that breaks hearts". The film grossed over $115 million worldwide. McAdams won an MTV Movie Award and four Teen Choice Awards. Entertainment Weekly has said that the movie contains the All-Time Best Movie Kiss while the Los Angeles Times has included a scene from the film in a list of the 50 Classic Movie Kisses. The Notebook has appeared on many Most Romantic Movies lists. "I'm so grateful to have a film that people respond to in that way", McAdams told Elle in 2011. "It was a big deal."
Afterwards, McAdams starred opposite Cillian Murphy in Wes Craven's psychological thriller Red Eye, where she played a young hotel manager who is held captive by Murphy's character while aboard a red-eye FLIGHT. Craven has said McAdams was the only Actress he considered for the part. She was drawn to the relatable qualities of her character: "She was not some sweaty, tank-top-wearing, Uzi-carrying super woman". Robert Koehler of Variety found her "increasingly impressive" while Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times asserted that "she brings more presence and credibility to her role than is really expected; she acts without betraying the slightest awareness that she's inside a genre. Her performance qualifies her for heavy-duty roles." Upon release, the film, which was made on a budget of $26 million, earned over $95 million at the worldwide box office. In late 2005, McAdams starred with Sarah Jessica Parker and Diane Keaton in the seasonal family comedy-drama The Family Stone, which gave McAdams an opportunity to play a dishevelled and sardonic sister, rather than the usual "obvious" girlfriend or wife roles. She was eager to work with Keaton and remarked, "It's never about line counts for me. It's about the people I get to work with." Justin Chang of Variety noted that "a deglammed but still radiant McAdams proves once again that she's the real deal, delivering a deliciously feisty performance". Manohla Dargis of The New York Times felt that her "engaging screen presence holds your attention and sympathy despite the handicap presented by her character's personality." The film was a commercial success: it cost $18 million to make and grossed over $92 million worldwide.
In 2006, McAdams took part in the "Day Without Immigrants" demonstration in Los Angeles, protesting the federal government's attempts to further criminalize illegal immigrants living in the United States. In 2011, she attended the Occupy Toronto demonstration. In 2013, McAdams volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in her hometown of St. Thomas. She has also worked with charities including the Sunshine Foundation of Canada, the Alzheimer's Association, the READ Campaign, and United Way of Canada. She is a member of Represent.Us, an anti-corruption Activist organisation, and is part of its creative council.
McAdams is an Environmentalist. She ran an eco-friendly lifestyle website, GreenIsSexy.org, with two of her friends for five years from 2007 to 2011. Her house is powered by Bullfrog renewable Energy. She travels around Toronto by bicycle and does not own a car, but drives when in Los Angeles because it is "a harder town to cycle in". She volunteered in Biloxi, Mississippi and Louisiana in fall of 2005, as part of the clean-up effort following Hurricane Katrina. McAdams sat on a TreeHugger/Live Earth judging panel in 2007. She appealed for donations during the Canada for Haiti telethon in 2010. She was involved in Matter of Trust's "hair boom" efforts following the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. In 2011, McAdams supported Foodstock, a protest against a proposed limestone mega quarry in Melancthon, Ontario. In 2013, she filmed two promotional videos for the Food & Water First Movement, aiming to preserve prime farmland and source water in Ontario, Canada. In 2014, she narrated the feature documentary Take Me To The River, which investigates what is being done to try to save iconic rivers.
McAdams returned to her film career in 2008. 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. In preparation for the role, McAdams studied old films, particularly those of Kim Novak. She has said the film shoot re-energized and re-inspired her and made her eager to continue working more often again. Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly found McAdams "a particularly delightful vision after her two-year intermission". Todd McCarthy of Variety criticized her break from the big screen but felt that, despite a performance of "tender feeling", "her natural vivaciousness and spontaneity are straightjacketed" by the film noir format. The film had a limited release and was a box-office failure. It grossed just over $2 million worldwide, failing to recoup its production budget of $12 million.
In late 2009, McAdams starred in the mystery/action-adventure film Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. She played Irene Adler, an antagonist and love interest of Downey's title character Sherlock Holmes, and welcomed the opportunity to play a character who is "her own boss and a real free spirit". Todd McCarthy of Variety felt her character was "not very well integrated into the rest of the story, a shortcoming the normally resourceful McAdams is unable to do much about". A. O. Scott of The New York Times stated, "Ms. McAdams is a perfectly charming Actress and performs gamely as the third wheel of this action-bromance tricycle. But Irene feels in this movie more like a somewhat cynical commercial contrivance. She offers a little something for the ladies and also something for the lads, who, much as they may dig fights and explosions and guns and chases, also like girls." The film was a major commercial success, earning over $524 million at the worldwide box office.
In 2010, McAdams starred with her The Family Stone co-star Diane Keaton and Harrison Ford in the comedy Morning Glory. She played a television Producer attempting to improve the poor ratings of a morning television program. The film was billed as a starring vehicle for McAdams. She initially felt she was unsuited to the role saying, "I'm not funny. So I said, 'if you need me to be funny, you might want to look somewhere else'". The film's Director Roger Michell had a number of dinners with McAdams and persuaded her to join the cast. Since working with Keaton, McAdams has described her as a mentor figure. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said McAdams "gives the kind of performance we go to the movies for" while Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times felt she played "as lovable a lead as anyone since Amy Adams in Junebug" in an otherwise "routine" movie. Lou Lumenick of the New York Post was impressed by "her gift for physical comedy", as was Variety's Andrew Barker. While Manohla Dargis of The New York Times felt she "plays her role exceptionally well" and is "effortlessly likable", it called on Hollywood to give her parts "worthy" of her talent. "Ms. McAdams has to rely on her dimples to get by. She does, but she could do better." The film was a modest commercial success, grossing $58 million worldwide from a production budget of $40 million. McAdams later expressed her disappointment that the film failed to find a larger audience.
In 2011, McAdams starred in Woody Allen's fantasy romantic comedy Midnight in Paris with her Wedding Crashers co-star Owen Wilson and Michael Sheen. The film opened the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. McAdams played Inez, the shrewish fiancée of Wilson's character Gil. Allen wrote McAdams' part for her, after hearing "glowing reports" from his friend and her former co-star Diane Keaton. He said that he was "crazy about Rachel" and wanted to give her the opportunity to play something other than "beautiful girls". The film was shot on location in Paris and McAdams has said that the experience "will always have a great place in my heart". Hadley Freeman The Guardian criticized that she "has morphed from the sweet thing in Wedding Crashers to the dream-crushing bitch that, according to American comedies, women become once they ensnare their man". Richard Corliss of Time "felt sorry for McAdams, whose usually winning presence is ground into hostile cliché". However, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times felt she "deftly handles a part that is less amiable than usual for her" and A. O. Scott of The New York Times found her "superbly speeded-up". It became Allen's highest-grossing film ever in North America and was the most commercially successful independent film of 2011. With a production budget of $17 million, the film has grossed over $151 million worldwide. McAdams, along with six other members of the cast, received a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture nomination. Allen won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and the film itself was nominated for three other Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
In 2012, McAdams starred opposite Channing Tatum in the romantic drama The Vow, based on a true story. McAdams and Tatum played a newlywed couple who try to rebuild their relationship after a car crash leaves the wife with no recollections of who he is or their marriage. McAdams was drawn to the "roller coaster" faced by her character and found it interesting that the story was told "through the guy's eyes". A. O. Scott of The New York Times stated that "the dimply and adorable Rachel McAdams" brings "enough physical charm and emotional warmth to distract from the threadbare setting and the paper-thin plot". Joseph Amodio of Newsday felt that McAdams, "exuding her usual uncanny warmth on-screen", "is the real draw". However, Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times felt she was "wasted" in the role: "She is such an appealing Actress that it's hard not to wish someone could make better use" of her. Mary Pols of Time found the film an Example of McAdams "coasting" in "unabashedly romantic" movies and asserted that "she's a much more versatile and clever actress" than such projects would suggest. The film, financed for $30 million, was a major commercial success and became her biggest box-office hit in a leading role. It topped the U.S. box office and has grossed over $196 million worldwide.
In late 2013, McAdams starred in Richard Curtis' romantic comedy-drama About Time opposite Domhnall Gleeson. Zooey Deschanel was originally slated to play McAdams's role but dropped out shortly before filming began. A fan of Curtis for years, McAdams wanted to work with him on what he stated would be his last project as a Director. The film was a commercial success at the international box office, and McAdams had a positive reception among critics, with Leslie Felperin of Variety praising her and Gleeson for their "radiant, believable chemistry" which "keeps the film aloft." The following year, McAdams starred opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in an adaptation of John le Carré's espionage thriller A Most Wanted Man, directed by Anton Corbijn. McAdams' attempt at a German accent was criticised by some reviewers. Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair noted that McAdams had a "little less success with her accent" than her co-star Hoffman but, nonetheless, she "proves as intelligent, soulful, and magnetic a presence as ever". In late 2014, McAdams received a star on Canada's Walk of Fame.
The following year, McAdams voiced The Mother of The Little Girl in an animated version of The Little Prince, and co-starred with Benedict Cumberbatch in the Marvel superhero film Doctor Strange. Peter Debruge of Variety said McAdams played "the most competent—and human—of Marvel’s window-dressing girlfriends," while Gregory Ellwood of Indiewire remarked: "It goes without saying that McAdams will never get the credit she deserves for transforming the barely sketched out role of Strange’s former medical colleague Christine Palmer into a captivating three-dimensional character that feels like an integral part of the storyline even when she isn’t." Also in 2016, McAdams narrated an audiobook version of L. M. Montgomery's novel Anne of Green Gables, released by Audible.
She co-starred with Jake Gyllenhaal in the boxing drama Southpaw (2015), where she played the wife of Gyllenhaal's character. The film received mixed reviews, but A.O. Scott of The New York Times conceded: "It features some pretty appealing players. There are worse things to see at the multiplex than Ms. McAdams playing a tough cookie standing by her man." She co-starred with James Franco, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marie-Josée Croze in Wim Wenders' drama Every Thing Will Be Fine. The film received an U.S. limited release in December 2015. Guy Lodge of Variety remarked: "Poor McAdams, sporting sensible hair and a truly mystifying cod-Continental accent, continues her thankless run of needy, tossed-aside love interests in big-name auteur projects." That same year, McAdams returned to television and starred as Det. Ani Bezzerides in the second season of HBO's anthology crime drama True Detective with her Wedding Crashers co-star Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch. While the season received mixed reviews, McAdams's performance was praised. Richard Vine of The Guardian remarked: "If there's anyone with any chance of enjoying a McConaughaissance here it's probably McAdams – an actor whose characters are more usually associated with the death of the romcom than murders involving people with eyes burned out by acid. Here, her Ani is a convincing mess." She received a nomination for the Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Movie/Miniseries for her role. Also in 2015, McAdams played Buttercup in a one-off, staged LACMA Live Read of The Princess Bride.
On April 10, 2018, it was reported that McAdams had welcomed her first child, a son, with boyfriend Jamie Linden.
She next starred with her Wedding Crashers co-star Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone and John Krasinski in Cameron Crowe's romantic comedy-drama Aloha. She played the ex-girlfriend of Cooper's character, who is married to Krasinski's character with two children. While the film received a negative reaction and controversy from critics and audiences alike, McAdams was praised. Wesley Morris of Grantland remarked: "Someone who can speak Crowe’s language really helps. McAdams might be the best he’s ever had ... [She] puts the perfect amount of air in her lines, giving the words a lightness that conflates optimism, amusement, and resignation. She’s never seemed lovelier, more instinctive, or more present." Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times felt she "plays likely the strongest, most rounded female character Crowe has ever written, a woman suddenly face to face with the life she has and the one she might have had, and the Actress brings a grounded, unforced earthiness to the role that is a joy to watch."