by Sam Trewick
photography by Randall Slavin
“Do I see something I can bring to this that maybe somebody else can’t?”
Researching” an actor whose work is as singular as Anna Kendrick’s can barely be called work. In fact, it reminds me of a Noel Coward quote she used when describing her approach to her own career: “Work is more fun than fun.”
As I watched as many of her films as I could get my hands on (50/50, the Twilight films, Up in the Air, CAMP, and very notably Rocket Science), one phrase kept repeating itself in my head: “She seems so alive.” Even in roles that I thought on paper must have looked mundane at best (Twilight’s Jessica), Anna is able to find the soul of the character and truly bring them to, well, life. It is this skill – borne of equal parts talent and hard work – that has lifted her into prominence… that and what can only be called her innate delightfulness.
It was a treat to speak to her at this phase in her career – after her ‘takeoff’ in Up in the Air (with George Clooney, in which she received a Best Supporting Oscar nod) a couple years ago, she has hardly had time to breathe. Anna is, in the next two months, launching the animated ParaNorman (a “bucket list” project for her), End of Watch (a police action film with the “beautiful” Jake Gyllenhaal), Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep (“My agents told me ‘you don’t have to kill yourself to do this,’ and I was like ‘Yes, I absolutely do!’”), and the movie-musical Pitch Perfect, which she stars in. However, one would not describe Anna as necessarily “ambitious.” She is not her character from Up in the Air. It comes back to that Noel Coward axiom – she truly enjoys her work. “I’d so much rather be at work than anywhere else. Sometimes I think ‘I love being on set, I love working with these people,’ – and I think you learn something from every experience.”
Anna seems to truly extract meaning from her job, and looks forward to whatever comes next without over-designing her own experience. She denies any kind of “master plan,” and instead looks for what truly engages her, and what she can contribute to: “Do I see something I can bring to this that maybe somebody else can’t?”
That system seems to be working. Out of the gate after ParaNorman is End of Watch, in which she plays the love interest of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character (a cop who finds himself in a mess of trouble). I asked her if she intentionally chose this role to show more vulnerability. “Absolutely,” she said, “I just find myself drawn to something because it’s a completely different girl I get to live in for a little while.”
She elaborated, describing an unorthodox rehearsal process during which the director asked she and Gyllenhaal to improvise a “first date” scenario. “[It was] one of the few scenes where we tried it like 100 different ways, to really find where it feels right and where the characters live… We tried it a couple times with the first date being in a really flirty, confident, kinda sassy way – you know, that’s a pretty comfortable place for me – but it just felt so wrong, and it was really great to find that vulnerability and that insecurity, but also to discover how clearly these two people needed each other within this scene. It was really lovely.”
True-to-gracious-form, Anna immediately shared credit with her co-star, for whom she shows flowing ardor. She describes Gyllenhaal as “a very sincere person,” with generosity and patience that inspire her fawning. “Jake should direct actors immediately. I think he would get the most stunning performances out of people. He’s just so connected and so willing to go the extra mile to help everyone out in their performance. He doesn’t think like an actor, he thinks like a director and it’s really beautiful.”
No wonder ‘work is more fun than fun.’
Immediately after End of Watch premieres in September, Anna’s musical Pitch Perfect hits theaters. As the face of a movie-musical for the first time, Anna does not hide her anxiety. She says she’s “happy to talk about” her other films at parties, but describes singing and dancing in a movie as “absolutely terrifying!”
Not that this is the first time, mind you. One of her first movies was CAMP, in which she stole the show with her undermining character’s rendition of Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company (in a hilarious moment that’s part Single White Female, Anna’s adolescent nerd poisons the show’s lead with Woolite just in time to step into the big number – martini, pearls and wig already in place). She was also one of the youngest Tony-nominees in history for her performance in High Society at age twelve.
Once again, however, Anna seems to quell her nerves by turning to the process and learning from her fellow actors. Bridesmaids’ breakout star Rebel Wilson is her comrade-in-arms in Pitch Perfect (she plays a character – really – named “Fat Amy”). She says she, as Anna, was able to take comfort in Rebel in the same way their characters do on-screen.
“My relationship with Rebel in Pitch Perfect was definintely friendly on paper, but as we filmed it became more like ‘this character is the reason my girl stays in the group.’ [My character] loves these girls and that’s really the reason she ends up being in this activity that she thinks is kind of lame, and Rebel was a big part of that. Finding another outcast, even though she’s utterly different from my character – but ‘I respect that you are who you are’ kind of thing.”
Still, I think, the consummate professional that is Anna Kendrick must have had her work cut out for her when teaming up for scenes with the rebel that is Rebel: “Absolutely! There would be so many times that she’d be improv-ing and then at a certain point I’d be like ‘How did we GET here? How is this happening?’ And we’re all just trying not to cry because we’re, like, sucking in our laughter. She really has this absurdist voice that works so well in this movie – a very, like, female-Zach-Galifianakis kind of thing – she’s so smart and so unpredictable. You never know what you’re going to get.”
But Anna’s experience and joy in her craft make her the (excuse me) ‘pitch perfect’ actor to meet such a challenge. She talks about acting in films “like algebra, in a way.” In addition to looking forward to working with her peers (and she’s worked with some pretty great ones at the ripe young age of 27), she loves the problem-solving – picking out what the director is looking for and doing her best to deliver. “A lot of actors really don’t like the limitation that film brings,” she says, “and obviously there are times where that’s very frustrating for me, too. But I kind of like being a part of the puzzle, and helping as much as I can to get the thing accomplished.”
The ‘thing’ they are accomplishing together is of no small consequence to her. She seems to view film as giving voice to the voiceless; as a way to transmit and communicate compassion – and she’s justifiably pleased that she gets to make a contribution to that end game.
“The most important thing to me, and the most impressive thing to me, is when, whether it’s the writer, director, actor… they put something across on-screen that makes me think ‘I wish I were brave enough to say that.’ I think that’s the only reason to create anything. To stand up and say ‘I’m this way, I don’t know if anybody else is, but I feel like I need to communicate that.’ And that is something that I think is the most noble and courageous thing to do with art – to say ‘Maybe you should forgive yourself for whatever it is that you’re embarrassed about.’”
The delightful, frank Anna Kendrick certainly has nothing to be embarrassed about. Enjoying a brief respite from the work marathon she’s recently completed when I spoke to her, she was using her spare time to prepare to welcome her mom to her new (first) home. “I kind of like not having the next thing moving, so I can concentrate on my real life,” she says. “I’m not unhappy about it.” Work may be more fun than fun, but a break can make the work that much more fun.