Anna Kendrick Puts Her Characters, Her Career—and Herself—Under the Microscope

The actor turns inward to reflect. But don’t worry, she’s laughing along the way.

Anna Kendrick has an idea. “Every character should do a scene with her mother at the beginning of a shoot,” she suggests. Her theory is that this type of interior work could function as a sort of controlled breakthrough in therapy—but instead of your own lifetime’s worth of baggage, it’s your character’s.

The notion occurred to her during production on her new HBO Max series “Love Life” (debuting May 27), on which Hope Davis portrays her mom. “I learned so much about my character during that episode; you go back to your own childhood stuff,” she says. And though she hadn’t previously considered it in such explicit terms, to hear Kendrick talk about her acting is to realize she’s actually been putting her roles under the proverbial microscope for years.

“Why does that person behave that way? Why do some people see the world in a different way?” she muses, chatting by telephone from her home in Los Angeles, where she’s been quarantining since mid-March. “And that’s the kind of driving curiosity that, hopefully, makes me effective at my job.”

Of course, having been acting professionally since adolescence, Kendrick knows that what initially lured her to the trade was a good deal less existential. “It would be really insane for me to suggest that finding truth in a person’s psychology interested me at that age,” she says, with just a little bite. “It was more that I knew plays like ‘Annie’ and ‘Gypsy’ meant that I could get on a stage and wear a costume, and people had to pay attention to me. My goals were more streamlined: I wanted to sing really loud and be onstage.”

Streamlined, indeed. Kendrick starred in the 1998 Broadway premiere of “High Society,” for which she earned a Tony nomination at the ripe age of 12, making her one of the youngest performers in history to earn the distinction. Not long after, as it so often does, Los Angeles came knocking. And, as it so often does, it quickly proved less glamorous than advertised.

“I don’t really know what to say about it other than it sucked. It was hard,” Kendrick says of her early days navigating the “business” side of the business. “Every now and then, I’m walking around in L.A. and I notice some back alley, weird entrance, and remember I used to go around to that entrance because they didn’t want you coming in the front entrance if you were there to audition. It’s a very degrading process to be holding your sides and have some bored receptionist say, ‘Can you use this back entrance?’ And then, obviously, the image of walking into a room and there are 20 girls who look exactly like you.”

Though she hardly recalls the period with rose-hued fondness, it was a necessary steppingstone to becoming the Anna Kendrick we know today, the singular one who is known as much for her turns onscreen as her quips on Twitter. (She even wrote a book of nonfiction essays, “Scrappy Little Nobody,” that went on to become a New York Times best-seller.) As it happens, learning to unleash the persona inside the person—to embrace rather than smother whatever nonconformity exists within—was a critical turning point in her approach to both acting and auditioning; one which, believe it or not, came courtesy of a certain vampire franchise.

“I remember auditioning for the family in ‘Twilight’ and running into a friend of mine and both of us being like, ‘Why are we here?’ ” Kendrick recalls. “ ‘[The role] is the bitchy mean girl, they’re going to hire some leggy blonde, because that’s the part.’ I thought, OK, I’ll just go in and do something dumb, because I’m not going to get the job anyway. Hopefully, the casting director will remember me as being funny, and they’ll bring me back in for something else. It’s such a hideous cliché, but I just had to realize the only times I got a job were when there was something I could do that nobody else could do.”

To again lift that turn of phrase right off the therapist’s couch, it wasn’t just a career breakthrough, but a psychological one. That isn’t to say it suddenly unlocked the secret to enduring Hollywood success, but it did help secure the actor’s first Oscar nomination.

The story—well-documented in the history book of Kendrick’s life by now—goes that the writer-director Jason Reitman already had her in mind when she came in to audition for his new feature “Up in the Air.” The role was a co-lead opposite George Clooney. She got it, obviously, but as the greener of the two actors, how did she step on set and believe, I have a right to be here?

“Um, I didn’t,” she says with a terse laugh. “George was such an angel, and would say things like, ‘Are you nervous? Got to get nervous for your first day’—and that is complete bullshit. He absolutely does not [get nervous], but I believed it at the time, and that’s what I needed to hear: that I had permission to be nervous. Because it’s one thing to be nervous, and it’s another to be pretending you’re not.”

Now, Kendrick is herself a formidable leading lady, having starred most notably in all three “Pitch Perfect” movies; the series has to date made more than $500 million worldwide and solidified Kendrick as a capital-N Name. In a position quite different from the one she was in about a decade ago, today she tries to practice the same on-set empathy that has been shown to her.

“No, I’m an absolute monster,” she says with just a split-second pause before answering in earnest. “I mean, you try to adjust to your various co-workers. Obviously, there are people who you realize really thrive when it feels spontaneous, and it would be better if we weren’t word-perfect. And then, for other people, it’s those early takes that are really magical and you want to make sure it’s as on-book as it can be.” As for her ideal scene partner, when given a preference, Kendrick does have one in mind.

“I like it when they’re women,” she says. “Women, in my experience, are the most generous scene partners. I have worked with a lot of talented men, and sometimes I feel like they have decided on their performance beforehand. And, no matter how good it is, it sort of weirds me out when it doesn’t seem like they’re engaging me. It’s less that either gender is working from a deficit and more that, I guess, I just personally connect more with female actors.”

Gender aside, Kendrick has come to recognize that what works for her may not work for others. An actor’s approach to any given role or material will be informed entirely by what they have in their toolbox. Naturally, she describes it more colorfully: “There are times when I’ll have this kind of supernatural desire to inhabit Angelina Jolie’s body for a day, just to act as her and be like, ‘Holy crap, this is such a different set of tools.’ I would play the instrument differently than she plays her instrument—” she cuts herself off. “Sorry, I feel like that’s so pretentious.”

What she’s getting at, though, is really an extension of the character psychosis she’s already been probing: that a role is irrevocably yours once you have played it, because no one else can and no one else will do it like you.

It’s no wonder that by the end of a shoot, Kendrick is usually of the mind that no one understands her character better than she does. How could they? “There’s no amount of prep that I can do for a movie where I’ll feel like I know the character better than the writer,” she says. “But if we’re doing press for the movie [afterward] and I hear a director say, ‘Well, Anna’s character is really X-Y-Z,’ I’ll probably think, You don’t know her. She’s mine! Even if they wrote it. Once you start working on something, you find things in the moment. Like on ‘Love Life,’ I just felt like I knew this character better than anybody, because I’ve actually lived these situations now and had to react honestly.”

In addition to that ownership of her character, Kendrick has another deep investment in “Love Life.” The series, created by Sam Boyd, marks her first venture into producing. The decision to sign on as executive producer was in no small part derived from a desire to have more input both creatively and practically. “I think part of it is just being allowed to be as bossy as I can be normally,” she says. “Being allowed to look at the shot as it’s getting set up and say, ‘Wait, why are we using such a wide lens?’ Now, I’m allowed to say, ‘No, let’s not do that.’ 

“It’s nice to feel like I’m not just a yappy dog annoying everybody,” she adds. “To feel like I’m allowed to have my opinion, and that my opinion is, frankly, valued.”

Along with “Love Life,” this year also saw Kendrick star in and executive produce the Quibi comedy “Dummy.” And while she doesn’t necessarily plan to anchor every project from both in front of and behind the camera, she will continue to seek opportunities that, above all else, engage her natural curiosity. Well, for the most part.

“I’m sure that there will be times when I’m like, Am I done learning? Do I know everything yet?,” she prods before hanging up. “Isn’t it human nature to occasionally be like, Have I mastered it yet? Jesus, enough already.”

This story originally appeared in the May 21 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Photos courtesy of Anna Kendrick

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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