Pam Grady, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, September 25, 2011

Anna Kendrick plays Katie, a therapist, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Adam, a cancer patient, in Jonathan Levine’s comedy-drama “50/50,” about their evolving relationship.
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At age 9, Anna Kendrick’s favorite movie was “Life With Mikey,” the Michael J. Fox/Nathan Lane comedy about a theatrical agent whose clients are all children. She would watch it over and over and over again. Then one day while she was watching it, she started to cry.

“I realized that wasn’t going to be my life,” she says during a chat at the Toronto International Film Festival, where her latest movie, “50/50,” made its premiere.

“That sounds really silly, because I was only 9 years old, but that was the first time it occurred to me that ‘when I grow up’ – I live in Maine – ‘I’m not going to be on Broadway. I’m not going to be in movies.’ ”

Three years later, at 12, she was a Tony nominee for best featured actress in a musical for her role as the precocious little sister in a revival of “High Society.”

Kendrick credits her entire career, in a way, to a cousin’s decision to get married on Long Island. Her mother used the trip to New York as an opportunity to take her little girl into Manhattan to meet an agent.

“I didn’t even want to go. I was scared,” she says. “I wanted to back out at the last minute, but I went in and I sang a stupid song and read a Smucker’s jelly commercial and they started sending me out to auditions. It was all kind of just lucky. Sometimes, no matter how hard you work, sometimes there are just bizarre things.

“I genuinely believe that if my cousin had not gotten married at that particular time – maybe it would have happened later, maybe not. I don’t know.”

More recently, Kendrick has concentrated on movie work. She is part of the ensemble on the popular vampire romance “Twilight” and its sequels. She had prominent roles in “Camp,” “Rocket Science” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” At 24, she was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her role as George Clooney’s coldly efficient but ultimately vulnerable and all-too-human work colleague in Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air.”

“50/50” is the actress’ latest career highlight. Written by Will Reiser, directed by Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”), and staring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a young man with cancer, the comedy-drama is loosely based on Reiser’s own experience with the disease. Kendrick plays Katie, a therapist whose relationship with Adam begins on a strictly professional level before evolving into something else.

A Christmas present

“This was a Christmas present,” Kendrick says. “This role was offered to me while I was away for Christmas. I had had a meeting about it months and months before and I kind of thought it had gone away. I was sort of sad, but that’s part of the deal. Then Jonathan Levine offered it to me over Christmas.”

The production was not without its rocky moments. James McAvoy was originally cast as Adam, but a family emergency compelled him to leave the role just weeks before production began. Kendrick met Gordon-Levitt only 20 minutes before shooting their first scene together.

“That was intense and a little intimidating, but Joe was really focused and really committed and reassuring,” says Kendrick.

“I had rehearsed with James and he’s wonderful,” she adds. “I had gotten used to James being in it, but I saw a piece of footage before I really got into the meat of shooting my stuff, something that they’d cut together that they’d shot early on. It just felt like Joe came onto the movie and made it completely his. It was one of those meant-to-be kind of things.”

She also credits her co-star with making her job easier simply by being so good at his own. “I had never really played a traditional romantic role, so I was nervous about that,” she says. “I was so impressed with Joe’s ability to create a connection with someone he met 20 minutes prior, that thing where for a moment you actually believe, ‘Oh, he finds me really charming.’ And it’s like, ‘No, he’s a really fantastic actor.’ ”
Coziest job ever

Kendrick laughs that “50/50” is the coziest job she’s ever had, thanks to the number of scenes where she simply had to sit in a room acting out therapy sessions with Gordon-Levitt. She was also impressed by the atmosphere Levine created during the shoot as he invited the cast to elaborate and improve on what was written in their scripts.

“It was the most collaborative set that I’ve been on,” she says. “It felt like we were really encouraged to talk everything out beforehand and come up with ideas and come up with alternate things and alternate moments, so there was a little bit of improv.”

The little girl from Maine who never thought it possible to achieve her dream is now well on her way to a substantial career. In addition to “50/50,” she’ll be seen this fall in “Breaking Dawn: Part 1,” the penultimate chapter in the “Twilight” saga, with the finale coming in November 2012. She’s part of the ensemble in the comedy “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” plays a woman romantically pursued by the Antichrist in “Rapturepalooza,” lends her voice to the animated “ParaNorman,” and stars opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, America Ferrera and Michael Pena in the low-budget, indie crime drama “End of Watch.”
Rich body of work

Kendrick is building a rich and varied body of work, and that is not something she takes for granted.

“The reality is there are probably 20 people in Hollywood who have the luxury of making really specific decisions. I lean one way or look for something, but it’s not like I can just sort of lay out a five-year plan,” she says.

Always the plan

“I think about that a lot. It feels like since I’m here doing this at 26, I always knew and it always was what the plan was. But do I just think that I was going to pursue this forever, because that’s what ended up happening? Or was there a part of me that felt like one of these days I’m going to have to figure out what my 9-to-5 is going to be?”