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Since breaking out as a high-school debater in 2007’s Rocket Science, Anna Kendrick has chalked up a string of preternaturally smart, endearingly awkward characters: The latest is Katherine, the eager but painfully inexperienced therapist to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s cancer patient in 50/50. While she was still in junior high, Kendrick picked up a Tony nomination for her role in the Broadway revival of High Society, and she made her film debut as a scheming theater-camp soprano in 2003’s Camp. Since then, she’s been a corporate hatchet woman opposite George Clooney in Up In The Air, and played an ongoing role as a dimwitted high-school student in the Twilight franchise. During a whistle-stop press tour following 50/50’s Toronto première, Kendrick sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about her belated introduction to onscreen romance, her formative experiences at theater camp, and why even her idiots are precocious.
The A.V. Club: In 50/50, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is playing writer Will Reiser, and Seth Rogen is playing himself. Your character is wholly invented. Is that a weird place to be, playing a fictional role opposite actors who are drawing from real life?
Anna Kendrick: No, it was a nice place, actually, because I had the freedom to create her from the ground up. Someone was misinformed and told me that she was real, and that she only became a therapist because her dad was a therapist, and she felt like she had to, and her heart wasn’t in it. And when I spoke to the director for the first time, I was saying, “I can’t reconcile that with what’s on the page.” And he told me, “She’s not real, so we can go ahead and do whatever you want.” We felt like she has probably always been a good listener, always been the person her friends came to for advice, and thought that doing it professionally would be just as easy as it always was for her. Now she has to channel that through her textbook lingo. She’s really getting tripped up, and that’s what is causing her to be what I lovingly referred to on set as the worst therapist in the world. I feel pretty badly about how bad she is. There are times when I felt really embarrassed and said, “Can we give her some great moment where she really helps [Gordon-Levitt’s character] Adam?” I was terrified, but hopefully it’s endearing. I think the moment where I forgive her, anyway, is when she says, “I’m really trying my best,” because I think anybody in their 20s understands that feeling.
AVC: Part of what she’s illustrating is that no one really knows how to deal with cancer, especially when it strikes someone so young. She embodies that feeling of being at sea.
AK: I weirdly feel like she’s indicative of so many people Will Reiser knew in real life, people who didn’t know how to cope, or people who weren’t equipped to deal with cancer. Of course, Katherine should be the one person who is equipped, but because she’s so inexperienced, she’s really not that helpful. She’s more of an obstacle for Adam than a help. My heart really goes out to her and what she’s trying to do, because what she’s trying to do is help, and like so many of us when we’re faced with a friend in crisis, we’re just failing horribly, because we’re trying too hard.
AVC: You told The A.V. Club last year that you thought Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World would be the last time you played a teenager. But there’s still a precocious quality to this character, as there was to your character in Up In The Air. They’re adults, but their intelligence has taken them past the level of their emotional maturity. Is that just a matter of one role leading to the next? Is that precocity something you relate to?
AK: I guess. The thing that interested me about her was that she has all the trappings of precocity, but none of the real follow-through. She’s saying all the things she thinks she’s supposed to be saying and using the voice she thinks a therapist is supposed to use, and the body language. In fact, she’s terrified and suspects that Adam sees through that. I liked that she was vulnerable in that way, because if she was Doogie Howser and she did have all the answers, it would be an entirely different character. The fact that she’s got the Psych 101 thing that all our friends get freshman year of college, where you just blurt out the first thing, the first genius diagnosis you come up with—she’s doing all of that, which is a damn shame for our hero. I guess it just interested me because it’s the most vulnerable part of people who are trying to be advanced for their age.
AVC: You were nominated for a Tony when you were 13.
AK: Twelve. [Laughs.]
AVC: So you got a high level of recognition at a very young age. That’s kind of what Camp is about, too.
AK: Oh, Camp. [Laughs.] I know what you mean, but I think it’s maybe because it’s just more interesting. A genuine idiot onscreen is not that interesting. Jessica in Twilight is an idiot, but some of the dialogue they give me is clever. One of the things I improvised in New Moon was about zombie films being self-referential; a girl like that wouldn’t say things like that, but it makes sense because it’s more interesting. It’s almost like Calvin And Hobbes, where it’s more interesting to let a character articulate what they mean. You can see how vulnerable or how ignorant or inexperienced they may be, but we’re just articulating that in a way that the audience can see it.
AVC: The flip side of having played these high-achieving teenagers is that you played your first onscreen romance at age 25, which is almost unheard-of for an actress.
AK: Yeah, really weird. I hadn’t really thought about it until we shot some of those scenes and I told Joe [Gordon-Levitt], “I just realized that I’ve never done a romantic scene before, and this is exhausting.” I always play such weirdos that I don’t do much of these flirtatious scenes. It was startlingly difficult territory, but Joe was amazing. Joe certainly pointed out that it helped that we got along, which you don’t always, which I completely took for granted. That was nerve-racking, but it was fun and exhausting. I guess I’m still figuring out what that’s all about, the flirtatious scenes. They’re tough.
AVC: Well, you have chemistry. Viewers are rooting for your characters to get together.
AK: Yeah, in various situations where it’s a chemistry read or something you just feel like, “Oh, my God, I’m sweating buckets trying”—we both are, because we don’t have natural chemistry. Joe was a wonderful first partner.
AVC: You’ve talked about how any actor wants to play interesting roles, and how that’s steered you away from playing wives and girlfriends, which is why you’ve come so late to the romantic angle.
AK: That’s definitely a common thing. It’s hard, because you don’t know when you’re going to have a real opportunity to create a character and when you won’t. I won’t name names, but I was talking to someone recently who said when they read Brokeback Mountain, they didn’t really see what you could do with the Michelle Williams role until Michelle Williams turned it into this incredible character. I’m sure we’ve all done that, and vice-versa. You think, “Oh, I have a real opportunity to do something here,” and then when you make it, you think, “Oh no, you just want me to be the proverbial girlfriend.” It’s tough, because women are often relegated to that. But I hope when I’m in that situation, I try to do something interesting with it.
In End Of Watch, I play a wife who doesn’t have her own storyline outside of being married to Jake Gyllenhaal. That freaked me out a little bit, because I thought, “Oh, this might be really bad,” but I feel like the wives in that movie, even though they don’t have their own storyline, they ground the entire thing, because if these men are putting their lives on the line in a vacuum, it feels like a videogame. It doesn’t matter. If you see their lives outside of that, it means something. There’s a reason for those kinds of roles, in a lot of cases.
AVC: Given that David Ayer’s past projects include Harsh Times and the Training Day script, can we assume that End Of Watch is a laugh-a-minute comedy?
AK: It’s pretty tough. The script is really startling, but then surprisingly, you find moments of levity in places where you wouldn’t, necessarily. I was thinking about that, like, “Oh God, this is my first movie where there’s no comic angle, no infusion of comedy.” But then you get on set and you think, “Oh no, real life, when it feels honest, is really funny and really light, as much as it can be really dramatic.” I was surprised at that. It’s a startlingly brutal script, but I think there are moments of levity.
AVC: You started out in musical comedy. Is that still close to your heart? Does that training come into play in other genres?
AK: I felt maybe a little bit of that with this, and maybe in this movie Rapturepalooza, because it’s this over-the-top comedy. That kind of theatrical timing feels like it comes into play, or I hope it comes into play. I think you make different choices when you’re onscreen, but I think a lot of the attention is still the same, where the principle or the instinct, it’s a different choice, but it comes from the same place.
AVC: You’re squirming a bit. Does this feel like a dorky subject to talk about?
AK: Yeah, sure. Sometimes I feel like such an asshole when I talk about [theatrical voice] “the craft of acting.” I don’t know, this is just the language that I have to try to talk about what I do. I guess that’s how I feel. [Film] comes from the same place in your gut, and it comes out of you in a different way, because you’re not surrounded by 3,000 strangers you’re pretending aren’t there. You’re surrounded by 20 strangers who are very close to you, moving around doing something, who you pretend who aren’t there.
AVC: You flinched a little when Camp came up before. Was that because it was early in your career?
AK: I wish the color was better on it. I wish it looked like a real movie. Camp was so above and beyond our expectations that I will love it forever. But it’s really something… [Laughs.] It was so special. People talk about making movies and how it feels like summer camp. We were at summer camp. We had no phone, no TV, no Internet. We had each other, and we were completely stripped of technology. A bunch of theater dorks running around this camp—all we did all day was play Scrabble and Taboo. It was incredible. I sobbed like a widow when I left. And then the movie gets into bloody Sundance? It was extraordinary. We didn’t even think we were making a real movie. None of us had been in a real movie before, so it didn’t feel like it was ever going to see the light of day.
And then we make this movie where people still come up to me in the supermarket—a guy came up to me in the supermarket the other day and said, “At drag night at this club, I play you from Camp, I do your number.” And I thought, “This is the best compliment a theater geek could ever get.” That was incredible, this wonderful gentleman. It was also really important to me, because it was my transition from theater to film, but it was about theater. It was directed by a theater guy. It was really special. I haven’t seen it in a long time, and I know it must look like crap, visually. But it was really great, and it will always be really special to me.
AVC: You feel like your interests are more in film at this point?
AK: Yeah. I want to do stage again, because there just aren’t words for how great it is. People say that all the time, “There’s nothing like live theater, blah blah,” but it’s really true. I see a show and I know how they feel, and it feels great. I’m interested in that. I do love film sets, too. I love that chaos. It’s like the best worst.
AVC: Plus with theater, you have several thousand years of great material, rather than whatever scripts happen to be in the pipeline at the moment.
AK: Yeah. I’ve been thinking if I had a dream thing—if someone would do something because I wanted to do it, what would that be? But that’s just as daunting, really. Someone mentioned to me [Henrik Ibsen’s play] A Doll’s House, and I thought, “Oh, my God. I’m old enough to be Nora in A Doll’s House. That is bananas.” That was a little mini-crisis. Not because it’s like, “Oh, gee, I’m getting old,” but because I remember seeing that when I was like 13 and thinking, “This is a crazy dilemma to be in.” This woman is married and had a child. That’s the scary thing, that I’m old enough to play a character that’s in this situation. It’s definitely exciting, because God knows they’re not going to put A Doll’s House on film anytime soon. I guess I don’t have any plans to, but I hope to.
AVC: How did you end up in the video for LCD Soundsystem’s “Pow Pow”?
AK: It was David Ayer. My roommate said this really clever thing. He asked me if I was supposed to be cocaine, because I seem really sweet and innocent, and then at the end I’m dressed in white and I’m the stealer of souls. I thought, “That’s really clever.” David was saying he wishes he could take credit for that retroactively. I’m totally not sure what it means, but I like my roommate’s explanation.
AVC: Was that the first thing you did with David Ayer?
AK: Yeah, that’s how we met. He just asked me to do it. We met up and my bucket list was to do a voice in an animated film, which I got to do, and do a music video. I jumped at the opportunity. We met up, and he was pitching to me, and I said, “You don’t have to pitch it to me, I’m in! Let’s do this!” I was really psyched.
AVC: Is the animated film ParaNorman coming out next year?
AK: I don’t know exactly when it’s coming out, but that was exciting. I got to see the first couple frames of my little figurine moving around, because it’s stop-motion.
AVC: You just thought that would be something fun to do?
AK: Voiceover excited me and terrified me. I thought I was going to be really bad at it. It was so freeing and fun to not have to wait for 10 minutes between every setup. They just throw you a direction, and you just say it. It was so fun to not have to over-process something, and by the time you do the take, you think, “Was that what they meant by the direction they gave me?” It was so freeing. I felt like I was in the best acting class in the world.
AVC: Do you have to worry about whether everything you need is coming out in your voice? As an actor, you use your whole body, but that doesn’t translate in animation.
AK: Well, they film you. I had to have them reassure me so many times that that tape was not going anywhere but into the hands of the animators, and it would never be leaked onto the Internet somewhere, because I’m making the biggest idiot out of myself. But to not have to worry about what your face is doing, what your body’s doing—I was recording once with Casey Affleck, and he was saying “You need to have the camera on her feet.” I was doing all this weird stuff with my legs and feet while I was doing it, because I wasn’t thinking, “Look super-cool, Kendrick.” To not be self-conscious of your appearance is huge, and something that I desperately hope to carry into film at some point in my useless life—to not be thinking, “My ear looks weird from this angle, why is the camera over there?”