Wednesday, December 23, 2009
By Barbara Vancheri, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dale Robinette
Anna Kendrick, right, complicates corporate downsizer George Clooney’s work life in “Up in the Air.”

When is an apparent insult not an insult? When it comes from George Clooney, exercising that famous sense of humor to put a young actress at ease.

A jittery Anna Kendrick first met Clooney at an “Up in the Air” camera test for wardrobe and hair.

“And, of course, I’d been terrified out of my mind before going into any of this and knowing I would meet him that day and I would see Jason [Reitman] again. Probably the second or third thing he ever said to me was, ‘You’re not wearing your hair like that, are you?’ ”

Kendrick, recalling the encounter from a plush hotel at the Toronto International Film Festival, added, “Of course if it came out of anybody else’s mouth, you would think they were just so tactless, but because it’s George Clooney, you can’t help but smile and feel as though it’s a kindness that he’s trying to make you laugh and put you at ease.”

That was crucial because of the dynamic between their characters, corporate downsizers Ryan Bingham and Natalie Keener.

He is that rare business traveler who is never happier than when he’s in the air or on the road. She’s a young efficiency expert who wonders if people can be laid off via remote video conferencing.

“It was an intimidating process to be working with him, particularly because I’m not just working with him, but I have to go toe to toe with him, and I have to yell at him eventually.

“And I was really concerned about that, and then the second that you have a conversation with George, you realize what a good soul he is and also that he’s going to do everything in his power to make sure that you can perform when you need to.”

“Up in the Air” is based on the novel of the same name by Walter Kirn, but Kendrick’s character doesn’t appear in its pages. Although she didn’t know it until much later — after an audition she thought went “really poorly” — director and co-writer Reitman created the role of Natalie for her.

Pop-culture phenom “Twilight,” in which Kendrick plays Jessica, had yet to be released. Now 24 years old and already a Tony Award nominee for “High Society,” her film work in “Camp,” especially, and “Rocket Science” was stellar but little seen.

Kendrick asked Reitman, director of “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno,” why he wrote the role of Natalie, “particularly because it’s such an incredible role for a young woman and when it’s written by a man, I was curious.”

He told her Natalie enables Ryan to talk about his philosophies, but that was just part of the reason.

“He mentioned that Natalie was based on a shocking amount of women in his life that he knows and loves very dearly who are almost too smart for their own good, and their greatest frustration in life is constantly being the smartest person in the room.”

“And they work so hard and they’re so driven, and they are eventually in for this rude awakening that their life isn’t going to fall into place, and everything they thought is a given is not a given, even though they worked incredibly hard and are incredibly intelligent.”

Some of the most moving scenes in “Up in the Air” spotlight real Americans talking about unemployment. Reitman advertised in Detroit and St. Louis for people willing to talk about job loss for a movie on the subject.

Kendrick never met the people, who were asked what they said on the day they were let go — or what they wished they had said.

“I imagine that would have been incredibly difficult, but yes, I think part of why those moments are so authentic is because they were doing it documentary style, and had they been working against actors, I think it wouldn’t have captured what’s so special about that footage.”

The actress started to do research online about career transition counseling — business-speak for firing people.

“I realized pretty early that I think for Natalie, this isn’t about the fact that she fires people for a living … but I think it’s just about [how] she moved to this city for a guy, and she just found a job where she thought she could be ambitious and she could get ahead.

“And when she looked at the way they did business, of course it seemed like an obvious solution to her to start doing it over the Internet. I think she starts out seeing other people as weaker than she is, and she sees them as statistics, and she thinks that whatever is most efficient is the obvious path.”

Watching the movie with a packed audience in Toronto made Kendrick feel defensive about her character.

“Every time the audience would laugh at something that was a joke at Natalie’s expense, I would want to turn around and start yelling. I feel so protective of her even though I know she’s a little brat sometimes. I can’t tell you how that twisted my spine.”

But, she conceded, “Believe me, I was thrilled that they laughed.”