ANNA KENDRICK (LEFT) WITH JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT IN 50/50.
Anna Kendrick has a knack for playing precocious go-getters. Since breaking out as a pint-sized, Sondheim-loving schemer in 2003's Camp, she's won acclaim as a cutthroat high school debate champion in Rocket Science (2007) and as George Clooney's hyper-ambitious foil in Up in the Air (2009). The latter film also netted Kendrick an Oscar nomination.
But in the new comedy 50/50, Kendrick shines as a very different sort of character. She plays Katherine, a 24-year-old therapist who finds that she's in over her head when she begins treating Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a 27-year-old with a rare, often deadly form of spinal cancer. Before 50/50's September 30 release, we chatted with Kendrick about overcoming cuteness, Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (Kendrick plays Jessica, Bella Swan's very human friend, in the Twilight films), and the '90s musical she just can't quit.
HILLARY BUSIS: 50/50's script is based on screenwriter Will Reiser's life. What's that like, knowing you're working off someone's personal experience?
ANNA KENDRICK: Well, two things helped. One was that my character is totally fictional, which is great. It takes some of the pressure off, certainly. And then, I was initially really nervous about meeting Will because I read the script, and the story is so funny—but also, it's so real and so sad and so scary for whoever must have lived it. And you know that, reading it. So I was nervous to meet him because I thought I was supposed to try to say something profound: "Thank you for sharing your story!" or some horrible thing like that. And I met him and he's just so lovely and so warm and funny that you just feel like, "Oh, okay, you're just a real person and I'm allowed to joke around with you."
BUSIS: Did you initially think a comedy about someone with cancer would work?
KENDRICK: I heard, basically, that it was a dark comedy, and that is my favorite kind of film. So I wasn't freaked out by it. It doesn't feel like a movie about cancer where they put some jokes in it and it feels dark and inappropriate and naughty. It feels like you're watching something horrible, but for the first time you're seeing, "Oh my God, this is actually really funny in a sick way." So as the reader, and hopefully as the viewer, it's more like it's the first time it's occurred to you how deeply bizarre and therefore hilarious some of these situations are.
BUSIS: Definitely. At the screening I went to, the audience was really reacting vocally to everything that was happening on screen. I think that they connected with it on a visceral level.
KENDRICK: That's great.
BUSIS: At some point when you were onscreen, I also heard people whispering loudly to their friends, "Oh, she's so cute!"
KENDRICK: [laughs] Aww.
BUSIS: Do you feel like you get that reaction a lot?
KENDRICK: I don't know. I guess my fear was, in trying to play her honestly, that she would come across as just an idiot. So I'm glad it's endearing, because I didn't want to—there were times that I'd find myself trying to be cute, because I'd want to apologize for how inept she is. You know, she's a smart girl, and I think she will be good at this some day, but right now she's really floundering. I had to fight the urge to try to apologize for that. But I think because she's so well intentioned, and because she so genuinely cares about Adam and so genuinely is taken aback by him and wants to rise to the occasion, I think that is really what makes up for it. I think maybe that's what people are responding to.
BUSIS: This character is a bit of a departure for you. The role you're best known for—your character in Up in the Air—is somebody who's hyper-competent and on her game all the time. And Katherine is not.
KENDRICK: [laughs] Yeah. And that was exactly what attracted me to the role. I had been talking about Up in the Air for so long, and it was right while I was doing press for Up in the Air and going to award shows and stuff, and I felt really vulnerable. So Katherine really spoke to me, because she was supposed to know what she was talking about and supposed to look like she knew what she was doing, and she really didn't. That helped me on a really direct level. But it's funny because a lot of people see her as confident because she's projecting this false confidence when we first meet her. But to me it's such a thin veil—if you just looked for two seconds, you'd see how lost she is and how hard she's trying.
BUSIS: Tell me about working with Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
KENDRICK: Well, Joe and I didn't really have any rehearsal time, so I met him when I flew up to Vancouver and got put in a hair and makeup chair and got driven to set. Joe and Jonathan and me went—is that right? Jonathan and me? Jonathan and I?
BUSIS: It's "and I."
KENDRICK: Is it "and I"? Is that right?
BUSIS: Because it would be "I went."
KENDRICK: "I went." Right. [laughs] So we sat in the back of this house we were shooting in and really quickly just read through all of our scenes out loud, just so that we could say everything once before we had to film our first scene. And we left that room and got in a car and filmed our first scene together. It was really great, because Joe turned out to be this amazing, open, hilarious person, but he was so focused. So it was this combination of drive and passion, and then a lot of levity that came later on when we had the time for it.
BUSIS: Did you and Joe and Seth [Rogen] spend much time together off set?
KENDRICK: Yeah, I filmed a lot of my stuff pretty quickly and I came in late, so you wonder if you're ever gonna really get to be part of the family. And they were so welcoming—Seth and Evan Goldberg, too—they all just really wanted to make me feel at home.
BUSIS: What do you think was the most challenging part of filming the movie?
KENDRICK: Actually, this was ultimately kind of an actor's wet dream, because I just sat indoors, in the daytime, with another actor and talked about feelings. Which is like, the perfect setting: to not be worrying about some insane special effect or some camera move.
BUSIS: Your scenes are sort of like a play.
KENDRICK: Yeah, exactly. But you know, I would say Joe really challenged me - intentionally or not—but in the most fantastic way, because that's meant to be our relationship. So there were days where he would kind of talk back, and I would feel really chastised, and that just made my job all the easier. So, I don't know. I was going to say that was challenging, but at the same time it was perfect.
BUSIS: The movie might be a player when award season comes. Having gone through that process a couple of years ago, is that something that you are looking forward to?
KENDRICK: I would say, having gone through that process two years ago, I have made an extremely conscious effort not to read or listen to anything. So I honestly, genuinely, have no idea. Whatever happens, happens. But I am keeping my nose out of it.
BUSIS: Next up, you're appearing in What to Expect When You're Expecting. It's a big ensemble movie sort of like He's Just Not That Into You.
KENDRICK: It's definitely new territory for me. I was surprised that anybody was interested in having me in that kind of movie. So it's been exciting. I very briefly met Jennifer [Lopez] and Cameron [Diaz] and they're extremely lovely and shockingly gorgeous people. And I'm wearing, like, a pregnancy belly, which is really hot in Atlanta in August. But I'm trying to look cool and collected doing it.
BUSIS: Since you're playing a pregnant person, is this a more mature role for you?
KENDRICK: Well, weirdly, my character just sort of gets knocked up, so it's not the most mature role on the planet. But I guess I do find that I'm attracted to things that are in direct opposition to something that I've just done. It's not like I'm trying to make the right chess move. It's more just that personal thing where you get connected to something for so long and then you want to do something that's in opposition to that. I guess one of these days I should learn how to be strategic, but right now it's just sort of how I feel.
BUSIS: The second-to-last Twilight movie is also coming up. What is it like to be a part of that phenomenon, in a more peripheral sense?
KENDRICK: It's like that feeling when you were a kid and there would be a lightning storm, and you would just want it to be over because it was really loud and really scary. But then when it was over you were like, "Okay, that was actually kind of exciting." Because I'm allowed to walk away from it, I have a little bit more fun with it than if it was something that I was tied to every second of my life. So I feel lucky to be able to kind of witness this lightning storm and then I get to go back to being normal.
BUSIS: Do you get recognized more for Twilight than for other things?
KENDRICK: When I get recognized for Twilight, it's usually a teenage girl, and they're usually really loud. So it certainly feels like I get recognized the most from that, but it could just be because of the nature of how vocal those fans are.
BUSIS: I also read that you're in talks for a movie about a college a cappella group called Pitch Perfect. I'm not sure if you can say anything about that.
KENDRICK: I can't really, I guess. Sorry!
BUSIS: No, that's fine. I was just excited to read that news because I remember you from Camp—
KENDRICK: Oh my God!
BUSIS: —and I'm sure that there are a lot of people who have been waiting to see you sing again.
KENDRICK: Yeah, I hope it works out.
BUSIS: Do you miss musical theater?
KENDRICK: Yeah, I'm a pretty big dork. It's crazy. I'm one of those people who grew up with all kinds of musicals, but I was right at that age where Rent was a big deal for me and for my friends. If you were from that age, I challenge you to put that on. Even if you haven't listened to it in ten years, you will know every lyric, every nuance. It's crazy. That's like, ingrained in my brain the way that the Mario theme music is for most kids.
50/50 IS OUT FRIDAY.