American Way: The Air Apparent

by J. Rentilly
Anna Kendrick may be small, but she’s got some major chops — and her big presence is being felt all across Hollywood.

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Photo credit: Jon Kopaloff/getty images

Anna Kendrick’s been up all night. Not because she was posing for the paparazzi, courting the tabloids or otherwise misbehaving as so many of her 20-something Hollywood contemporaries are wont to do. No, Kendrick was burning the midnight oil performing dialogue from a pivotal sequence in an upcoming, still-untitled project co-starring Seth Rogen.

After an “over the rainbow” 2009 in which the 25-year-old actress strode a yellow brick road — in the form of a red carpet — through endless months of extreme makeovers, mind-numbing interviews and other promotional duties in support of the blockbuster Twilight franchise and the Oscar nomination she garnered for her star-making turn opposite George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air, this dedication to her craft is Kendrick’s way of staying grounded.

“I’m really glad that the Oscar stuff is over, to be perfectly honest,” she says. “I mean, I am infinitely grateful — I’m so lucky — but it’s been a really crazy year. You’re constantly wearing clothes someone else picked out for you, delivering sound bites instead of real feelings, and walking into rooms full of people you don’t know. I didn’t become an actor for any of that, so it’s been kind of a confusing time for me.”

Which is to say that Kendrick was more than happy to lose sleep for the sake of her work, even if it was for a phone-call sequence in which she won’t even appear on-screen. She simply felt her voice on the other end of the line in this dramatic scene would elevate her co-star’s performance.

According to Rogen, Kendrick’s instincts were spot-on, if almost unprecedentedly magnanimous. “No one does that — staying awake all night to help out another actor,” he says. “The actor is almost never actually on the other end of a phone call you see the actor on-screen making, especially when the scene films in the middle of the night. But Anna was there, above and beyond what I expect from an actor.”

Expectations are something Kendrick is getting used to these days, or trying to anyway. She claims to be feeling “a little skittish” the morning after her all-nighter, catching only three hours of shut-eye and eschewing cosmetics and haute couture in favor of sneakers, a loose-fitting black-and-white hoodie, an iPod and a cup of joe. After almost a full year on the celebrity treadmill, leapfrogging from morning news show to magazine cover to morning news show, Kendrick’s self-described “plain Jane routine” is almost a form of protest — a return to self, forged authentically by a fine young artist intent on becoming an even greater one. “I don’t have any beauty tips. And the only hair secret I have is that I constantly think about chopping mine off,” she confesses with an endearing laugh.

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As rebellions go, it’s fairly intoxicating; on this rainy April afternoon, Kendrick is at once breathtakingly beautiful, absolutely approachable, perhaps a touch shy and almost palpably sweet, thrilled to be acting again instead of posing. With two films out in 2010 — this month’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the recently released The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, as well as the upcoming Rogen project, each of them wildly different from the other and showcasing a range and depth at which Kendrick has only previously hinted — the actress need not lose sleep over her career, no matter the face she wears. Indeed, after a long and winding road in service of Twilight and Oscar, not to mention the dozen years of local theater, Broadway musicals and independent cinema before that, Kendrick is finally coming into her own, and it all comes down to the work — even if that work is done at 4 a.m.

“I was really struggling through awards season. [I thought,] ‘If this is what I’ve been working so hard for, then why am I not enjoying it more?’ Things like that,” she reveals. “But we got into rehearsals for [the Seth Rogen movie] and I was surrounded by these great actors and this great director, and we were just focusing in on the words, the scene, the characters, and it all became very clear to me: I didn’t work so hard to wear designer dresses or go to dinners with foods I can’t pronounce. I did it for this. This is who I am.”

The irony of Kendrick’s distaste for high fashion is that the 5-year-old version of her would have adored such frilly duds. She grew up in Portland, Maine, toddling her way through a happy childhood scored by show tunes while dressed in tiaras and tutus. All the world was indeed her stage, and by design: At age 6, she was doing community productions of Annie and Gypsy.

“I used to be this girly, princessy little kid, and I had this weird idea about what adults were like, that all of the women of the world wore high heels and tutus. I might have been wrong,” she says, laughing. “But I really wanted to be grown-up. I wanted to be big.”

For many years, size definitely mattered to Kendrick, her otherwise idyllic upbringing marred by her comparatively pint-size physique and the cruel attention it was paid on the schoolyard. “Kids can be mean,” remembers Kendrick, who today stands 5 feet 1 inch tall. Fifteen rounds of playground agony inspired Kendrick to search for a place where she belonged. The viciousness of her peers was finally relieved when she, quite literally, found her voice onstage. “I remember auditioning for these musicals and singing these songs and being told by casting agents and directors, ‘You have a giant voice’ or ‘You’re a big singer,’ ” she says. “That kind of validation immediately caught my attention. There was one place in the world where I wasn’t tiny.”

As far as friend and co-star Rogen is concerned, Kendrick has never had a problem measuring up with her generation’s finest actors. “The first time I met Anna, I was blown away by how powerful such a small person could be. As a huge person, I attribute a lot of my presence to my sheer occupation of space,” he says. “Anna proves that theory wrong. Never has such a tiny person been such a presence in a room.”

Before Kendrick was a teenager, she was holding her own on some of the world’s biggest stages, treading the boards on Broadway. She and her older brother, Michael, would commute on Greyhound buses from Portland to New York City for auditions. She landed plum roles in big shows such as High Society (for which she was nominated for a Tony), a musical adaptation of the classic film The Philadelphia Story and Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. When Hollywood beckoned, Kendrick moved west and did a round of failed television pilots that kept her from waiting tables, then quickly landed her first film role in 2003’s Camp. Small-statured though she may be, Kendrick’s star wattage has always been big enough to avoid the bane of odd jobs that afflicts most Hollywood comers.

“It’s luck, pure and simple. I mean, I work very, very hard, but I don’t take any of this for granted and I don’t think any of it is because I’m better or more talented than other actors,” she says. “There are people who work at least as hard as me and are twice as talented, and nobody’s asking them about makeup secrets. There is a lot of luck to how my life’s turned out.”

Kendrick’s rise was so immediate and stratospheric, she can still barely believe it happened. Credit the Stephenie Meyer Effect. “None of us knew that Twilight was going to be such a big deal. We really thought we were just making this little movie. Maybe it would turn out OK, maybe a few people would see it, maybe it would break even,” she says. “We were all just happy to have jobs.”

Kendrick relished the opportunity to play a high school student so completely opposite from her own adolescence — her version of Twilight’s Jessica Stanley is a prickly, self-absorbed gossip girl — just the same as she embraced Natalie Keener, the tightly coiled corporate lass she portrayed in Up in the Air, a role Kendrick says is “much closer to who I am.” The similarities may or may not be coincidental; either way, the film’s screenwriter and director Jason Reitman, a longtime fan of Kendrick’s work, penned the role of Natalie specifically for the young actress.

“You get a lot of stuff from Anna that you don’t get from other young performers. Her voice is so clearly articulated,” Reitman says. “What impresses me most is her ability to play a part without judging a character and her obsession with honesty in the moment.”

For Kendrick, the gig was a no-brainer. “People ask me what drew me to Up in the Air and I’m, like, ‘Is this a joke?’ It’s George Clooney and Jason Reitman and the script is beautiful and they actually want to hire me,” she says. “It didn’t matter what the movie was about, really. I was just so lucky to be asked to do it.”

Today, Kendrick is exercising a more powerful voice in the projects she chooses, and she’s doing her best to choose wisely. She recalls a piece of advice she was given before Up in the Air premiered. “Everyone told me, ‘After this movie comes out, you’re going to be offered a lot of movies and 99 percent of them will want to cast you as the character you just played, but with a different name. Don’t do those projects,’ ” she says. “And it’s true: Almost every script I’ve gotten has been, ‘Rebecca, overachiever, business suit, uptight.’ I don’t think I can do that any better than I have.”

Kendrick, whose favorite films are screwball comedies of the 1930s such as The Women and His Girl Friday, is particularly sanguine about this month’s Scott Pilgrim — which is “stylistically, tonally and visually like nothing anyone’s ever seen before,” she promises — and is presently holding out for the right roles in the right projects. She would love to do a musical comedy and deeply desires the opportunity to deliver more crackerjack dialogue in the Cary Grant–Rosalind Russell mode, the kind rarely offered up by contemporary cinema. After several years of playing strong women in search of their softer sides, Kendrick is looking to portray women “who feel a little lost or a little vulnerable,” she says. “Maybe the interesting part of that job would be finding the character’s strength. This is certainly a reflection of what I’m going through in my life right now.”

And if her good fortune should expire — if she doesn’t find the character she’s yearning to play or nobody wants to hire her ever again and she’s suddenly small again — what would she do? Kendrick, who has recently discovered a passion for baking, has a viable plan B.

“I could just walk away and go to culinary school or something,” she says with a winsome smile. “With a movie, I work for a few weeks or months, but the movie doesn’t come out for a year and it takes so long to know if people like what you did. And even if they do, you’re only a small ingredient in a bigger thing. With baking, it’s cause and effect, instant response. You can always say, ‘I made this.’ That’s an important instinct in human beings, I think.”

Reitman, for one, is confident Kendrick won’t be sending tuition checks to Le Cordon Bleu anytime soon.

“She’ll be working long after the rest of us,” he says. “She is so well beyond her years that it will be exciting to see who she is when we all catch up with her.”

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