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Anna Kendrick embraces her "really complicated" side

The Alice, Darling stars gets candid about portraying psychological trauma, and her upcoming directorial debut

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Anna Kendrick
Anna Kendrick
Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for History (Getty Images)

Anna Kendrick isn’t one to shy away from candor or vulnerability. It’s part of what makes her one of Hollywood’s most relatable celebrities off-camera, even as the Oscar-, Tony-, and Emmy-nominated star continues to wow on-camera. Her latest film, Alice, Darling, is the perfect example: her emotionally profound performance precedes a press tour in which she’s detailed how closely the material matched her own traumatic experiences. More recently, Kendrick has mentioned to outlets, including The A.V. Club, that discussing such personal work in interviews has provided another lesson in setting safe, healthy boundaries. “I’m just figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t,” she tells us with welcome frankness.

Directed by Mary Nighy and written by Alanna Francis, Alice, Darling paints a detailed psychological portrait of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. Unlike most such depictions, however, Alice lives through manipulative emotional abuse, which as Kendrick points out is inherently more difficult to convey in a film. Embracing how little is straightforward in such a relationship became Kendrick’s north star, and it’s emblematic of what she’s accomplishing in Hollywood as actor, producer, and soon as a first-time director (The Dating Game, which just wrapped filming, stars Kendrick as real-life game-show contestant and serial killer-dater Cheryl Bradshaw). Here she covers that behind-the-camera transition, why collaborators are more than just collaborators, and whether acting is always therapeutic (spoiler alert: it’s not).

Alice, Darling (2023 Movie) Official Trailer - Anna Kendrick, Kaniehtiio Horn, Wunmi Mosaku

The A.V. Club: So you’re making your directorial debut! What was it like stepping behind the camera?

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Anna Kendrick: I remember saying to [my director of photography Zach Kuperstein], maybe a couple days before we were filming, that I have this terrible habit of having just the job of being an actor yet feeling like everything is my responsibility, in a way that is super not helpful and very counterproductive. And I was very excited for it to actually all be my responsibility and see how that feels! I had the time of my life, it was so exciting. I haven’t had that much fun in years. We just wrapped filming in December and yeah, I just couldn’t be more grateful and over the moon about it.

AVC: What was it like directing the actors and overseeing the technical stuff?

AK: The behind the camera stuff, I definitely, fully went into it hands up, going, “I have visual deficits.” Like, I’m never going to be the color palette guy. I think that so often there’s stuff that we don’t want to step into because we’re like, Well, if I’m not an expert on it, I don’t deserve to try. I was really excited to work with actors and that was a total joy. But I also realized that usually my best friend on any set is A-camera [operator]. So I’m around the camera all the time, thinking about the camera. And I’ve really tried to become the kind of actor who is helpful in the edit, you know? Like I think about what the editor needs. And I think that that kind of thought process was helpful in transferring that to directing.

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AVC: The film sounds intriguing, I’m excited to see it. We also need to talk about Alice, Darling, which details a form of abuse we haven’t often seen on screen. Were there other depictions of this psychological dynamic that inspired you?  

AK: Someone else was just asking me about that and they’re a huge, huge movie buff and they couldn’t think of anything, which made me feel better, because I haven’t been able to think of any movies quite like this. I think it’s a really difficult thing to capture on screen. And the combination of the screenplay and the direction and all these amazing performances from the entire cast have really helped put something impossible into film. It’s challenging because the experience of being in that kind of relationship, it’s so fucking difficult to even describe. So how the hell do you put it on screen? But I think that we all had this common goal of never taking the easy way out—like having at least one scene where Simon shoves Alice into a wall, so that we can all kind of agree, okay, so he’s the bad guy and she’s the good guy. [Instead it was about] forcing the viewer to live in a space of not being sure if they can trust Alice, in some ways. Because, yeah, when you’re in that, you don’t know whether you can trust your own thoughts or your own feelings. And I think that’s the most insidious thing about it, it really robs you of your self-trust.

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AVC: In that vein of unreliable narration, how did you approach the gradual unveiling of what’s really going on with Alice? It seems to me that you, as an actor, had to signal to us that something is amiss without yet specifying what that is.

AK: One of the interesting things is that when I shot anything with Charlie [Carrick], who played Simon, he and I would always give a lot of variation to each other. There were times where even I would really step into the role of the perpetrator and he would step into the role of the victim. And that way, when I was shooting the scenes where I knew that Alice was going to be having these flashbacks, I, as an actor, didn’t even know what version Mary was going to use. And I think that was a perfect thing. Because again, the experience—like, what do I remember? How did that go down? Like, I’m not even sure. We kind of played with the idea of Alice having flashes to both versions, something we ended up not needing. But that was always something that I found to be helpful in terms of knowing the world of the film and the tone of the film. That this person is in so deep that every memory is just kind of a dealer’s choice of, How do I remember that going down? And was I the abuser or the injured party at any given moment?

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AVC: That goes back to your idea of giving the editor lots of options, that performances are made in the editing room. Playing so many different versions of a scene must have really deepened the dynamics of Alice’s relationship with Simon.

AK: Yeah. And I asked Charlie if he would be comfortable with that and then asked Mary if we tried the scenes like that. Because he was such an incredible creative ally and he was being so thoughtful about a character who I would understand any actor not really wanting to give a ton of thought. But he was really able to find this balance of having some compassion for Simon, which is the only way for him to play it grounded and real.

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ALICE, DARLING: Wunmi Mosaku as Sophie, Anna Kendrick as Alice, and Kaniehtiio Horn as Tess
(L-R:) Wunmi Mosaku, Anna Kendrick, and Kaniehtiio Horn in Alice, Darling
Image: Courtesy of Lionsgate

AVC: Without getting into too many personal details about the relationship that you’ve said informed your approach to these characters, you said at one point you were worried that you might be filming this too soon after your own real-life experience. Have you seen actors who use storytelling to work through something only to have it further traumatize them? 

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AK: Oh, yeah.

AVC: Or is art, like some have claimed, always therapeutic?

AK: No, I don’t think art is always therapeutic, I really don’t. I think we want it to be. And I think that it can be in different ways. The thing you’re talking about, I’ve watched that happen, and I’ve felt like retraumatizing yourself is not helping anybody. Yeah, so there was a point when I spoke to Mary for the first time, we weren’t exactly sure when the movie was going to start filming. But I did tell her if the movie suddenly was shooting in two months, I think it would be a mistake for me to do it. And some time went by—and it wasn’t obviously just the time going by and supposedly healing all wounds that was helpful to me—it was like, by that time I’d built up a lot of resources that I could rely on. Ultimately, the thing that I didn’t expect was the fact that the people who decided to come and film this tiny, tiny movie on a lake in Canada, they showed up because the script really spoke to them personally. So to be surrounded every day by people who had intimate knowledge of what this experience was meant that I felt incredibly safe. Because that’s all we can hope for when we’re in crisis, is to be around people who really see you and believe you. And I never really even felt like I was in the danger zone. If anything, some of the press stuff has been a little tricker to navigate. And I’m just figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t and making changes based on that. But frankly, even the skillset to make those changes instead of just going, “Okay, well, I’ll just grit my teeth and keep doing what I’m doing,” is something that I wouldn’t have been able to do without some time. And a lot of therapy. [Laughs]

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AVC: I hear that, and so appreciate your sharing—it comes through in your interviews and in the film itself. Overall, what is your artistic mission, the overlap between your storytelling and your values? Because it feels like Alice, Darling is in keeping with what you’re trying to accomplish in Hollywood: telling honest stories, destigmatizing shame and mental health and such.

AK: Oh, wow. Sorry, did you say the connection between my storytelling and my value? Or values?

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AVC: Values and beliefs, yes. Not value as a person!

AK: Okay, yeah. [Laughs] Because I was like, Oh, you want to get into that shit? ... I always feel really pretentious, like, “What do I [believe] about stories?” But yeah, something that was important to me in this movie that I hope to carry over into any other project that I do is just—if somebody watches it, would they find it grounding and validating? Or would it be an oversimplification of a really complicated problem? And look, there are also films that are comedies or have just a different goal in mind. But I think that was my constant, daily mission with Alice, Darling, was to keep it in the world of things being really complicated. Because I really wanted an Instagram video or a self-help book to tell me what was happening in my life and what to do. And I’m so disappointed to say that that doesn’t exist. [Laughs] So letting this movie just be really complicated and at times maybe not even the most helpful, I think, was the most valuable thing to me.