Despite being five-feet-nothing in person, Anna Kendrick is a strong, capable woman, more likely to embrace the post-feminist lyrics of Stephen Sondheim than the damsel in distress hysterics of most silver screen ingénues.
She is not an expert on blush or any kind of make-up whatsoever, so please do not ask Anna Kendrick about cosmetics. She would be most grateful if you’d honor that one request, as a thousand journalists failed to during her madcap, coiffed-and-rouged rush of the awards circuit when she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her starmaking work in Up in the Air (2009). And still, if you did ask, Anna Kendrick would probably answer, and intelligently, and with a smile. Not because it’s good for business, but because she believes it’s important to be kind. Even to idiot reporters.
Nevertheless, after logging some 20,000 frequent-flier miles during an arduous world tour in support of Up in the Air, Kendrick discovered something surprising about herself; she actually has a girlie side and even likes it when a man offered to carry her luggage. “Which doesn’t make me weak,” Kendrick says, coquettishly. “It makes me a lady.”
At 30, Kendrick wasn’t born huge; she became an overnight success in 12 short years, having made her Broadway debut as a preteen, followed by a round of Sondheim, a run of independent films, a shot of Twilight (portraying the gossipy Jessica Stanley), her spectacular work as Natalie Kenner opposite George Clooney in Up in the Air and her star turn in the a-cappella hit Pitch Perfect and its sequel and the movie version of the musical Into the Woods.
Always the smallest kid in her grade school classrooms in Portland, Maine (and constantly reminded of it on the playground), Kendrick knew from an early age that she would one day play in a world that was larger than life. Much larger than Portland, for sure. By 10, Kendrick and her older brother would take marathon bus rides into Manhattan so she could audition for plays, memories she deeply cherishes. Her skin already thickened to rejection after 15 rounds with the schoolyard bullies, Kendrick persevered, ultimately earning a Tony nomination for her precocious turn in the Broadway musical, High Society. Tinseltown town came calling, and Kendrick’s prolific and diverse body of work has quickly made her one of the movie industry’s most popular and powerful leading ladies. This Friday, fans can see Kendrick in the quirky black comedy, Mr. Right, starring as a woman whose perfect guy, played by Sam Rockwell, turns out to be a hitman. Guess who the last man standing in that one is?
In person, Kendrick arrives in a black and white hoodie, listening to an iPod, not a trace of blush to be found on a face that is at once breathtakingly beautiful and absolutely approachable. She is diminutive, the kind of girl about whom its likely been said weighs only 90-pounds dripping wet, but Kendrick has something many giants lack: presence.
In conversation, Kendrick is humble, self-deprecating, easy to laugh, and always kind. It’s a mantra that’s served her well, being good to people she doesn’t know. It’s that gratitude thing, that rule about treating people as you’d like to be treated, that maxim about us all being in this together. We’re lucky Kendrick’s in the same boat as the rest of us, even as one of Hollywood’s fastest rising stars, and we don’t mind saying so – even if it makes her blush.
Perhaps an odd icebreaker, but you’ve mentioned several times in the past how being small has been the great blessing and curse of your life and that your classmates were often unkind. How did that begin?
I was in seventh or eighth grade and I was reading Jane Eyre. We got to choose our own book. There was this girl – who shall remain nameless, but she was that girl for me – who kept picking fights with me about Jane Eyre. ‘Oh, you think you’re better than us because your book is thicker than ours?’ What do you say to that? I was just so small. I had no response.
Clever though, picking on someone for their height . . .
I know! Kids can be so mean! Growing up always being the smallest kid in the class, it did have its advantages. It was usually silly stuff, like sometimes we'd line up by height or I'd get to be on the top of a pyramid in gym class. When I was young and my family did spring cleaning they'd make a big deal out of how they couldn't get into the small spaces in the house and they’d come to find me for specific chores instead of just having me clean my room. I remember feeling really needed. It was oddly one of the sweetest things they could have done.
So the tough part was on the playground.
Definitely! While I wouldn't wish being teased on anyone, I think it eventually leads to a kind of solidarity in adult life. The few people I know who weren't picked on in school are people I find I can't relate to on much more than a surface level. There's a sensitivity that comes with feeling like an outsider at some point in your life. I'd rather be emotionally tuned in to other people than slightly more confident because no one ever made fun of my hair or my height.
Wait… Should I ask about the hair now?
(Laughs) Please don’t.
What would you like a journalist to ask you?
Hmm. . .I like that. I’ve never been asked that! Well, I would drown in any conversation with a genuine film buff, but film is the thing that I love most and that fascinates me. Movies are one of the few things I know more about than my father does, which is kind of cool. He’s impossibly brilliant and a know-it-all, in the best possible way — but I know more about movies than he does. When I see Stalag 17 and he starts talking about the actors, he wins. When he talks about Gunsmoke, he’ll always trump me there because I’ll never rent the entire series and watch every episode. But I love the Criterion collection. I rent every Bergman film I can get my hands on. There’s not a bad movie in the Criterion collection.
Do you have a favorite film?
My favorite movie of all time is The Women. I never saw the (2008) remake. It’s not fair for me to pass judgment on it, but I also have the right to refuse it exists. The original is just my favorite movie of all time. I saw that movie for the first time when I was 12 years old. The dialogue got me hooked. It completely captured my ears and my imagination. It’s the only film I’ve seen more times than Star Wars. It’s just one of those movies that no matter how old I am – whether I’m 12 or 24 – I still find things to appreciate about it. It still completely speaks to me and the performances still dazzle me. I love The Thin Man series and His Girl Friday too. They hold up so well. I think that’s really tricky to do. I think that’s just the best it can ever get –really, really smart dialogue and great comic timing. I don’t know how many films that have been made in the past decade that will hold up like that. I hope I’ve been in one of them.
You were only a teenager when you finally bid adieu to the playground bullies and started working on Broadway, and then you moved to Hollywood. How long does it take to become an overnight success?
(Laughs) About 12 years, give or take a decade! (Laughs) I’ve worked very, very hard and I’ve been very, very lucky. The reason I came to Los Angeles is because I was cast in a television pilot. The pilot wasn’t very good and even though they picked up the show, we never aired – but that job got me to Los Angeles. That gave me enough money to stay in L.A. and keep auditioning for better jobs. It gave me enough money to be tragically unemployed for a period of time. I’ve always been really lucky. It’s strange.
You’ve had the good fortune of meeting one of your heroes, the Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim, and you also appeared in the filmed version of his musical, Into the Woods. Tell me about your Sondheim fascination.
As a performer, Sondheim’s music is a pure revelation — and it's such genius. It's like he wrote the performance into the melody and the rhythm. You can almost work backwards when you’re doing Sondheim. It's like he’s giving you a line reading – simply with the songs he wrote. That’s the thing that’s so exciting about him, and why those offbeat melodies and rhythms work so well. It’s the character that performs those roles, not the actor. Sondheim actually made a cameo as himself in my first film, Camp, which is where I first met him. He was so kind and encouraging, a really beautiful human being. Then, a few years later, I did A Little Night Music on Broadway and I was feeling a little intimidated. That’s a big show, a difficult show, and you’re doing it in Sondheim’s backyard – on the Broadway stage. But Sondheim came up to me on the first day of rehearsals, in front of the whole cast, and he said, ‘Hello, it’s so nice to see you again.’ I don’t think I’ve ever felt cooler in my entire life than I did in that moment. I was 17 and terrified. I had just moved to New York by myself. I was surrounded by these incredible actors and it was, like, ‘Yeah, Sondheim knows me. Just so you’re all aware.’ (Laughs)
Despite your tiny stature, you’ve not played any damsels in distress. The young women you play tend to be composed, fast-talking, fiercely driven creatures who sometimes seem like they could really, really use a good, long hug. What do you think?
I’m definitely drawn to strong female characters, but those characters wouldn’t be interesting or real if they didn’t have vulnerable sides too. I’m really connecting with characters who feel a little bit lost or vulnerable right now. Maybe the interesting part of that job would be finding that character’s strength. That would, no doubt, be a reflection of what I’m going through in my life right now and the fact that I’m in this place where I’m searching for my own strength in a very vulnerable time. In a way, it’s a lot easier to be discontented when there’s something you can immediately blame that on – financial instability or not being allowed to do what you love. It’s interesting to be in a place where I’m doing exactly what I want to do and it's all going better than I could have ever dreamed and now I have to look at all of these other aspects of my life and figure out what it is I really want. I can’t blame my discontent on the fact that I don’t have the job I want. That’s the best, and the scariest place, to be. I have to do the inside work now.
It looks like the world is yours for the taking.
Well, the world is everyone’s for the asking and the taking. I don’t have anything up on anybody. But maybe I’ll just bail on this, walk away from it all one day. Maybe go to culinary school and move far away from Los Angeles and open a little pastry shop. I’ve gotten really into baking recently. Baking is the perfect activity for me to shut off and quiet my mind. I have to focus on something very simple — but very precise —for about an hour at a time. I can't get in my own head about work, friends, family —just whether or not those egg whites are stiff enough yet. And then people treat you like a saint for doing it. It's genius. Yeah . . .Maybe I’ll do that.