Anna Kendrick, Hollywood's smartest actress, talks to Will Pavia.
"I should sit here with my back to the light," says Anna Kendrick, taking a chair in the corner of a rooftop lounge against the windows. "Isn't that, like, a power move?"
We're on the top floor of a hotel in midtown Manhattan. I am incredibly nervous. I've just read an essay Kendrick wrote about the business of giving interviews. Television interviewers sound very strange in person, she writes. "Every time I talk to one of these journalists, every single time, I picture them having sex … What is it like? Do they have that same crazy energy? Are they like, 'I mean, wow, Janet, this lovemaking is just sensational.'"
Thank heavens I am not on TV, I think. Thank heavens she won't be picturing me in bed with Janet.
But then Kendrick, 34, turns her fire on magazine interviewers and the hapless, black-socked pen nibblers that she has encountered. They are worse, she says. "This person's going to write up not only what you say, but how you seem as you say it, and how you seem as you pause, and how you seem as you walk in."
How can anyone be themselves under such circumstances, she asks. Once, she got really caught up in a conversation with a journalist who then described her as having a robot-like ability to turn herself on and off for the press. I think I know the chap she's talking about. I looked him up; he is quite good-looking. I doubt he owns any black socks. Kendrick says she developed a slight crush on him; then he accused her of faking it. "How do you prove that you aren't faking it?" she writes. "But here's the thing. I am faking it. It's an interview; the very construct is artificial. It's a manufactured conversation." Yikes.
"Pale, awkward and very, very small. Form an orderly queue, gents," says Kendrick's Twitter bio. She's very funny there, while at the same time signalling to her 7.4 million followers that her self-deprecating jokes are supplied by a deep aquifer of anxiety. In films she radiates waves of nervous energy. In person, she cannot promise she will be nice, she warns in her 2016 memoir, Scrappy Little Nobody: "Pygmy ferret cornered and ready for a fight is more like it."
Kendrick is already in the hotel lounge when I arrive and I am afraid this means I cannot tell you how she seemed when she walked into it. She's wearing a striped jumper and jeans with holes in the knees. The photographer is asking her to be herself and she is complaining about how tricky this is while standing in front of a white screen.
When the shoot is over she hugs everyone involved. I worry that she feels obliged to do this because the chap who called her robot-like also wrote of the disappointingly perfunctory manner in which she had shaken hands with him at the end. (She will hug me too; I will feel incredibly guilty.)
Now, sitting together on the edge of our seats, I congratulate Kendrick on her latest film, The Day Shall Come.
"Thanks," she replies. "Have you seen it?"
I have. Definitely.
"That's always nice."
It's the second feature by the British satirist Chris Morris, a creator and star of the TV programmes The Day Today and Brass Eye. His first, Four Lions, was about a band of quite incompetent jihadists from Sheffield. Kendrick says he contacted her in Los Angeles a few years ago about a "very top-secret project" that "would involve some Americans".
"I know all his work and I know how underrated he is," she says. "I would just never assume that our paths would cross. But he wanted to have breakfast."
Morris's secret project was inspired, partly, by a case the US government brought against six men who were charged, in 2006, with attempting "to wage war against the United States" and conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago.
In 2008, Morris learnt a bit more about the alleged plotters from a chap who served as a witness in their trial. Their leader, Narseal Batiste, who called himself Brother Naz, had attempted to found his own religious sect, which he called the Seas of David. His followers were five Americans and two Haitians who worked for his construction firm in a poor neighbourhood of Miami.
They met for Bible classes and martial arts sessions; neighbours said they were nice guys, if a little odd. They were also strapped for cash. When an FBI informant posing as a Middle Eastern terrorist offered to support their group to the tune of $50,000, they agreed to swear an oath to al-Qaeda and spoke in taped conversations of how they would conquer America on horseback. After two mistrials and the expenditure of many millions of dollars, Batiste and four of his followers were convicted as terrorists and received lengthy sentences.
This is the story Morris told Kendrick over breakfast. He asked her to meet him the next day to read a scene. She thinks he may have just finished writing it when she arrived. Her part was that of an FBI agent. "I noticed that the character's name was Kendra and I thought, 'Great, I'm getting this job,' because he had subconsciously combined my first name and my last name."
Kendra's boss at the FBI, Andy (played by Denis O'Hare), gets some of the best lines. "I'm just a guy, standing before a guy, trying to send a third guy to jail," he declares, movingly. But Kendrick holds a lot of these scenes together as the concerned but self-preserving agent. She's funny too, but also often the most plausible person in the room. I tell Kendrick it reminds me of terrorism cases I've covered as a news reporter.
"You're like, 'I'm a real journalist. Why am I here?' " she says.
Oh no. I think a federal terror trial is much easier than this. I start to say so but then stop, worried that it might sound insulting.
Morris kept rewriting as they began shooting scenes in the Dominican Republic. "The script was changing constantly. It was changing in ways where it would get more and more clever, but more and more impenetrable," says Kendrick. "Occasionally I would point out that if you want the audience to follow the plot so that they will laugh at the clever jokes, maybe we should just very clearly state that this person is going to this place. Then all the jokes will work. When I noticed something, I would shout, 'Christopher!' Because it gave me pleasure to rattle someone who is so intelligent, and he did not like it. He was, like, 'Every time you say that, I feel like I'm in trouble at school.' It gave me a lot of joy, because he's so intimidating."
Kendrick is good at sticking it to intimidating people. There's an amazing series of photographs of her meeting President Obama in 2012 at a campaign event in Los Angeles. Obama gave a short speech about the state of the economy and then, spotting Kendrick in the crowd, said that she was in one of his favourite films, Up in the Air, in which she and George Clooney play "termination consultants", jetting around America to tell people they are being laid off.
Kendrick says that afterwards, as they all lined up to shake hands with the president, Obama told her, " 'I hope I didn't embarrass you earlier.' And I was like, 'Yeah, you're such an asshole.' " Not many people say that, I expect. "I'm amazed the Secret Service didn't tackle me."
I tell her the story makes me vaguely nostalgic for the days when a Hollywood actress could call the president an asshole and everyone could be sure she was joking. Kendrick puts her head in her hands.
The thing that made Obama laugh actually came after she called him an asshole, she says. "He asked me where I was from and I said, 'Maine.' And then I said, 'Well, actually I got here early,' about to launch into some vaguely relevant story. Obama interrupted and said, 'Wait, are people from Maine really punctual?' "
Kendrick replied in a tone of high dudgeon, as if she was appalled by his ignorance, " 'Yeah. You didn't know that? You're the president.' He thought that was funny, thank God."
Kendrick, who is indeed from Maine, believes that the essential parameters of her personality were in place by the time she was a toddler. In her early teens, she compiled lists of the things a normal girl would be doing when a boy popped round. One of them ordered that she should braid her hair and "lie in the yard with Walkman". "Of course, the one time a boy showed up unexpectedly, he found this list," she writes in her memoir.
I expect a psychologist might think she was going to be an actor or a writer.
"I see what you're saying," she says. "Yes, a list of how to behave. It's very self-aware. I'm creating my own character and my own narrative. I do that. I imagine scenarios that I might be in, how I might behave."
I ask her about being on Broadway as a child. She was always small for her age, with a disproportionately powerful voice. By the time she was ten, she had an agent. When she was 12, her parents, fed up with driving to New York, allowed her older brother, Mike, who was 14, to accompany her on the bus for an audition for High Society. The casting people kept asking her to come back the next day, so her parents faxed a hotel manager their credit card details and the siblings spent several days living in Manhattan, dining on pancakes and pretending, to any curious adult, that they were not really on their own in the big city.
Her brother was her idol and protector, Kendrick says. Back then, "he had a really unpredictable quality", she says. He now works at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a famous New York theatre. They're going back to Broadway in a few days to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and have been discussing which Hogwarts house Mike would be placed in. They all have certain characteristics. "I'm Slytherin," says Kendrick, proudly. "They're the baddies."
She is quite convinced of this. "I've done all the tests and stuff, and I'm definitely Slytherin."
I've only the vaguest notion of what she is talking about.
We get back to the business of being a child actor. I wonder if Kendrick thinks it should be allowed. Her parents were not theatre people; her father is a history teacher and her mother is an accountant. They were supportive, and no doubt proud to see their 12-year-old nominated for a Tony award for High Society, but occasionally they felt uneasy about the demands being placed on their daughter.
Now, Kendrick says she worries when she sees children on sets. Also, "I get very anxious when I see kids on talk shows," she says. "They're trying to act so adult; the programme wants an adorable child. The child wants so desperately to behave the way that their co-stars do, trying to sound adult. Then they can't quite carry it off and the whole thing is so cringe-making. I could just throw up."
Kendrick relocated to Los Angeles at 17, moving in with a flatmate who had presumed she was an adult. "There are still streets that I go down that give me butterflies, because the city really intimidated me when I first arrived there. There's a certain section of Sunset Strip that I remember driving on and being like, 'Oh my God, I will never belong here.' My pulse goes through the roof every time I drive on it," she says. "I thought if I stepped out of the car, people would know and they'd be like, 'Oh, she's faking it.' "
You must get recognised now, when you step out.
"In LA, to a certain extent. Nobody gives a shit, but I can sometimes feel a bit of a shift in people," she says. "Actually, it's funny being here in New York and realising that in the evenings, if I go out walking, I'm really anonymous … I forgot how nice it is not to have to tilt my head down or wear a baseball hat."
The film that made her famous, recognisable even to the president of the United States, was Up in the Air, where she played an anxious young high-achiever alongside the butter-smooth presence of George Clooney. His public persona, as a star so famous and polished that he seemed almost unreachable, added something to the film, and so did hers.
Sometimes, on set, she was so wound up that Clooney would throw things at her, to try to get her to relax. But there was also a day when she was filming a scene in which her character fires someone over Skype. "It was a tricky scene for me, and I just stayed put in between every set-up," she says. "It's hours and hours and George stayed next to me the whole time. It was very generous of him to be there, to stay in that energy with me. Not to be all f***ing hippy-dippy about it, but it was a knife's edge of a scene. He could have just been joking around with the crew between every take and instead he sat with me. Everybody else was moving around us."
Kendrick and Clooney both got Oscar nominations. At the time, her chief source of income was a recurring role in the Twilight series – the stylist hired to dress her for Up in the Air promotional events earned more than Kendrick was paid for shooting the film.
She didn't win an Oscar (Clooney apparently leant towards her, after the best supporting actress award was announced, and whispered, "I'm still a nominee and you're just some loser"), but within a few years Kendrick would be part of the Oscars scene. After she appeared as Cinderella in the 2014 Disney film Into the Woods, she was asked to burst onto the Oscars stage the following year as Cinders, as if she had popped out of the screen, to sing a duet with the host, Neil Patrick Harris. "It was so insane to me in the first place – that of all the more polished, Cinderella-y people in the world, I got to play that character. Then to revive a sillier version of her for the Oscars. It was so fun."
She remembers being racked with nerves, too. "Weirdly, because Meryl [Streep] was in the front row, and I was so afraid of letting her down," she says. "I was hitting some notes; they really wanted me to wail. It would suck for ever if this was one of those moments that your voice gives out." She recalls being backstage, "trying to warm up but not get too warm. Because what if you strain your voice and you f*** it up because you overthought it?"
Well, she went on, wailed, changed out of her Cinderella costume, presented an award, then scarpered out in her gown like Cinderella fleeing the ball, to take a car to the airport, where a private jet was idling to take her and Ben Affleck to Georgia to shoot a scene for The Accountant. "It was a very glamorous evening, but it's also why my eyes are very bloodshot in that one scene," she says. "We've just landed and started to do the most intimate scene of the film."
The other big hit on her CV by then was Pitch Perfect, the musical comedy about a college a capella group. Kendrick was cast as the lead, Beca, a rebellious student who reluctantly auditions for the group. In the film's original script, Beca mockingly performs I'm a Little Teapot at the audition, but does it so well that they want her in the group.
Kendrick wasn't sure she could sing I'm a Little Teapot well enough to make this plausible. She'd just watched a viral video on Reddit in which two members of the British band Lulu and the Lampshades sang a version of an old bluegrass number while clapping, slapping and tapping an empty cup on a table. "I learnt to do it just for fun, because I'm a loser," Kendrick says. She persuaded the director to let her do that instead. Afterwards, Cups was released as a single. "To this day, I think about the other songs that were in the Top Ten in that time period," she says. "Macklemore and Miley Cyrus must have been like, 'Seriously, what the f*** is this song?' Because I wasn't promoting it. I was just sitting in a basement in Harlem getting ready to shoot my next scene for this indie film. And I was getting emails like, 'Oh yeah, it's double platinum now.' "
She was approached by record companies, suggesting that she take things further. "There are better vocalists," she says. "The film industry is insane but, truly, the record industry seems like hell on toast."
You'd have to go on tour.
"Can you imagine?"
By then, in fact, she could probably have reached as large an audience from her living room sofa. She was beginning to draw a following on Twitter, where she posted jokes. One of my favourites is from December 23, 2016: "Sometimes I feel like I could pull off the perfect murder," she writes. "I'm not saying I would … but I think I could. Merry Christmas!"
Her dark quips, the inverse of the inspirational quote ("Oh God. I just realised I'm stuck with me my whole life"), are useful, she says, because when people approach her in the street, they no longer take her sarcasm the wrong way.
I think they've made her a sort of fantasy girlfriend for millennials.
"It's funny, because I think that people feel comfortable saying to me, 'You're on my list,' " she says, meaning the list of famous people their partner would allow them to sleep with.
"Men have come up to me and said, 'I'm in a relationship, but you're on my list,' " she says.
The men who approach her at parties, she says, "just think that would be a charming thing to say and I'll get a kick out of it. I don't think that if Kendall Jenner was on your list, you would actually bother to go up and say it to her. 'Yes, of course [she would say]. I'm literally the most gorgeous creature on two legs.' " When men say it to Kendrick, "There's a lack of an aspirational quality," she says. "I don't know, I suppose 'approachable' is a good thing."
She looks at me. "Sorry, I was just taking what you're trying to say as a lovely thing, and I'm doing myself down."
I don't know what to say to that.
Kendrick, according to several elderly gossip stories, is in a relationship with the British cinematographer Ben Richardson, although when I ask her about this, she waves her hand in front of her face and shakes her head to indicate that she won't speak about it.
I remember seeing a tweet of hers one evening in 2013 that made me snort. "Ugh – NEVER going to a Ryan Gosling movie in a theater again. Apparently masturbating in the back row is still considered 'inappropriate'."
I imagined she'd seen a Gosling film and was making fun of the way everyone was talking about him. But the process, as Kendrick describes it, was almost an intellectual exercise. "I was really pleased that I'd come up with that joke structure and then I had to google what was playing in cinemas at the time, and find … what hunky actor is in something, so that I can write his name as a joke," she says.
It was so striking to see it. Around that time, Jodie Foster published an essay about the tabloid frenzy over Kristen Stewart's break-up with Robert Pattinson, in which she wondered how any young actress could survive 21st-century celebrity culture with her wits intact. Yet there was Kendrick making masturbation jokes.
"What Kristen was going through during that time … was other people completely creating a narrative for her," she says. "To me [social media] is the opposite, because I get to have a little control."
You seem very comfortable, I say.
"Very comfortable!" She laughs. "It's not something that people usually say about me."
Comfortable in that troll-infested place.
"I don't know, it's all making me sound very neurotic and a control freak, which I'm not saying I'm not," she says. "But it's just storytelling. Isn't that what we're all doing?"
Written by: Will Pavia
© The Times of London