(Anna Kendrick in UP IN THE AIR.)
By Terry Keefe
Anna Kendrick has always excelled at playing the smartest person in the room, and one who you definitely want to watch your back around. We were introduced to Kendrick in her big-screen debut, Todd Graff’s Camp in 2003, when she played young teen actress wannabe Fritzi Wagner in a notable supporting role. Described by one adult character in the film as a “scary little girl,” Wagner begins the story as a mousy sidekick to blonde theater star diva Jill (Alana Allen), but then manages to quite literally push Jill off the stage in a fierce All About Eve-style turnaround. In 2007, Kendrick won critical acclaim for her work as manipulative high school debate champion Ginny Ryerson in Rocket Science. Like Fritzi Wagner, Ginny Ryerson had a freaky air of intelligence well beyond her years, and she also had bite. The character reminded a bit of Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick in Election from a decade earlier, except that Ginny felt considerably more dangerous. In a Godzilla vs. Mothra battle between these two high school over-achievers, Ginny Ryerson would have eaten Tracy Flick whole.
Director Jason Reitman notes Rocket Science as the film where he first learned of Kendrick, and consequently, he started writing the role of Natalie Keener in his new film Up in the Air for her. Says Reitman of Kendrick after watching her in Rocket Science, “I thought she was simply incredible, different from any actress her age. She has a completely unique voice.” The voice of Kendrick is, in fact, very fresh in her generation of actors, and her work in Up in the Air is the showcase her career has been waiting for.
Up in the Air stars George Clooney as a corporate down-sizer named Ryan Bingham who fires people for a living. Kendrick’s Natalie is a young upstart at Ryan’s company who has come up with an efficiency plan whereby these firings can be done via teleconferencing, rather than in person, to save costs. Natalie is consequently sent on the road with Clooney’s Ryan to learn what it is like to fire people face-to-face, and she has an unexpected life turn along the way. The role of Natalie is a breakthrough for the actress, because it showcases her penchant for playing characters with icy intelligence and ambition, but Natalie also has an arc which smashes that ice and delves into the personality forces that drive such a person. Without revealing too much, Natalie is ultimately revealed to be very human, with a real heart, and Kendrick runs with the role, possibly all the way to an Academy Award nomination, as she is currently making the predictions list of just about every Oscar handicapper in town.
Kendrick has also been seen (by just about everyone on earth) in her role as Jessica in the Twilight Saga of films. She will also appear soon in director Edgar Wright’s film adaptation of the graphic novel Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Jason Reitman has said that he wrote the role of Natalie with you in mind, but you did, in fact, have to read for it also. I know that was the case with Vera Farmiga as well.
Anna Kendrick: Yeah, but, I mean, it made a little more sense with me, than it did with Vera, just because I’m not famous. I’m not a name. I’m sure they could’ve gotten anybody they wanted, and I had to kind of prove myself to people who had doubts, I guess. In the end, I guess, I’m glad that I had to go in and prove that I had the goods, because otherwise I would’ve just gone into the movie being unsure that he really wanted me, and thinking, you know, “Couldn’t somebody else have done it better?” [laughs]
This is a character that in a lesser writer-director’s - or actor’s - hands could have been fairly one-note, but Natalie has a full arc.
It’s a really rare thing to find a role this meaty for a girl in her twenties. Yeah, she’s really complicated and really messed up, and that’s sort of what I love about her [laughs]. I think a lot of roles for young women are, like, you know, the girl that the guy falls in love with, and she doesn’t actually do anything other than, I dunno, understand him, or something [laughs]. And it’s really nice to have this character who has so many good qualities, but also so many flaws.
The scene where Natalie really comes into her own character-wise is when she has the conversation with Vera Farmiga’s Alex about the qualities they look for in a man. Let’s talk about the shooting of that. What type of rehearsals were done?
We didn’t do any rehearsals, actually, although that was my audition scene, and it was Vera’s audition scene also. I knew that….Jason said it was his favorite scene in the script, and so, having auditioned with it, I had basically thought it out, you know, from kind of every angle, almost to a point where I was worried that I oversaturated myself with that scene [laughs].
At some point, Natalie starts to see through George’s character completely, shortly after she has her breakdown scene. Since you didn’t shoot chronologically, how did you demarcate that point for yourself in building your performance?
Fortunately, all the stuff in Miami we shot in one week, in that chunk. So we did actually get to shoot the breakdown, and then a couple days later, the scene on the boardwalk where I yell at George Clooney. And I think it was actually really nice to have it coming off of the breakdown scene, because even though she’s just revealed so much about herself, and shown so much of her naiveté, and she’s in this really vulnerable place, and she’s holding onto, you know, a last shred of dignity…she still sees through him at that point.
How many of Natalie’s qualities do you think you have in common?
Um, I’m definitely a control freak [laughs]. I’m not as uptight as she is. I’m a little bit more awkward and clumsy, and definitely not as rigid, but I definitely like to be in control. I don’t think I concede as often as Natalie does.
Jason Reitman is very skilled at blending the tones of comedy and drama pretty seamlessly. Obviously, the script is a big part of this, but did you get any insight into how he pulls it off as a director?
I mean…that’s part of the magic and mystery of what makes him a great director, I guess. You know, if I knew how he managed to walk that fine line tonally, I’d certainly tell you. He’s really focused, and he gets very quiet, but it’s nice to feel like the person that you count on is really a safety net, and you can look at his previous work, and know just…I mean, how brilliant he is, which you see the first time that you meet him, and know that that’s a person that you can trust, and if he’s telling you to try it his way, there’s zero hesitation to try to give him what he wants.
Last night, we saw Jason, yourself, and most of the cast do the Q&A after the screening. Jason came in sort of like a ringmaster, full of high energy and really running the entire show. Is that how he is on the set often, or is that a persona he’s adopted now that he’s promoting the film?
[laughs] It’s like that in between takes, and when I say in between takes, I mean in between set-ups. When we’ve got a break, he’s so fun, but when we’re in a scene, he’s really focused, and that makes you feel really safe.
This dialogue could be read a variety of ways. How specific does Jason get in his direction on the way the dialogue is delivered?
You know, he is really specific, but I love that. I love knowing that he knows exactly how to make a moment work, and a line work, and if you’re not finding a rhythm that’s working, he’s got a suggestion that is going to fit into the plan. But he’s great about trusting people’s instincts, and so he definitely wants to let you try it your way, and see what happens, and if he needs to make adjustments, he does. We didn’t do any rehearsal, so it wasn’t as though he was nit-picking, but he definitely gets in there and gets specific about moments that he loves. But there’s also no arrogance about changing things if something isn’t working, and he’s so smart that he can just kind of come up with a solution, if something’s not working.
How fast did you warm up to George?
Immediately. He’s so sweet, you know, and wants people to feel comfortable. The first scene that we shot together was this little scene on a people-mover, and we were in between takes, and I really only met him very recently, and I was just sort of standing there in silence as they were changing a light or something, and he sort of turned to me and said, “You get nervous on the first day of a new movie?” and I was like, “Yeah,” and he goes, “Yeah, me too.”
At the age of 12, you were nominated for a Tony for your role in “High Society.” What do you remember now about that heady experience?
Very little. I mean, I remember being incredibly honored and overwhelmed, but at the same time, you know, you’re twelve years old. And you miss home, you miss your friends, and you know what a big deal it is…but at twelve there’s just no way to fully understand what it means to be nominated for a Tony Award. But in the end, I think that’s good because my little twelve-year-old head would have exploded if I’d been able to wrap my brain around it. In a way, I feel like it happened to a different person.
Todd Graff’s Camp was the first time we saw you on-screen. The scene where Fritzi poisons the diva during the performance of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” is a classic.
Yeah, that was really fun. That was the first time I heard the expression “lightning in a bottle,” which Todd said [laughs]. I was just absolutely bowled over by the expression, and the use of it, in regards to a performance of mine.
There were a few years between Camp and Rocket Science where you weren’t seen on-screen much. Did you intentionally take time off?
No, I did a show in between shooting, and then I did a pilot or something, but listen, there are times when you’re just not working. It wasn’t intentional. It’s those kind of times that I think about when people ask me about, you know, how great my career is going, and that kind of thing, I keep thinking about all the times that I was unemployed.
You’ve already finished your shooting on Eclipse. Do you think you’ll be in the fourth film, Breaking Dawn, also?
I doubt it, just because I’m not really in the books, so I’m assuming that I’m not.
How did the atmosphere on the set change when Chris Weitz was brought in as the new director for the second film?
People ask if there was more pressure on the second one, but I think there was a sense that we’d done something right, and as long as we didn’t, you know, go nuts, that fans would probably respond in a similar way, and that actually provided a relatively stress-free set. And Chris is just cool as a cucumber, and literally, it feels just like you’re hanging out, and then occasionally, you shoot a scene, and then you go back to hanging out. So that was actually shockingly stress-free.
It seems like it must be a great way to experience the whole Twilight thing the way you have. You don’t have to carry the series, but are still a part of it.
Yeah, I say that. Honestly, I say exactly that all the time. It’s like I get to just hop on the ride and hop right off whenever I feel like it.
In terms of actors and actresses, do you have any particular role models?
I feel like George is a big role model. The way that he treats people all day every day looks exhausting, because he’s just so consistently generous to people, and, you know, I think that takes a great deal of discipline. I mean, he’s Cary Grant, and everybody wants a piece of him. When we’re in all of these cities, everybody wanted to shake his hand. Everybody wanted to have a moment with him, and frankly, they didn’t just want a moment, they wanted more and more and more, and I don’t know how he doesn’t just get incredibly frustrated. I’m sure he does get incredibly frustrated, but the thing that makes him so admirable is the fact that he has the discipline to not show that he’s frustrated. I think both on and off the screen he’s incredibly generous, and if I could…I feel like if I could be half as kind and aware of other people’s comfort and needs, you know, I’d be a pretty good person.