ANNA Kendrick should be having a ball making so many films, but this musical dynamo’s always ready for the day she’ll turn into a pumpkin
For Up In The Air, she was a corporate warrior tussling with George Clooney. In the new film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods she’s a Cinderella who learns to assert herself. And in real life, Anna Kendrick may have just played her first fairytale character, but she’s no bland movie princess.
Three million people follow her wry Twitter updates, such as: “Burned my thumb on set today. iPhone fingerprint ID won’t work. Pretty sure I can get away with murder as long as I only use my thumb.”
Kendrick fizzes with random ideas. Left home alone one afternoon, she taught herself to shuffle and beat a plastic cup as a percussive accompaniment to the Carter Family’s When I’m Gone; a party piece that turned up in the film Pitch Perfect and later became a Top 10 hit.
You’d think Kendrick’s quirky, energetic smarts could easily find a home in Hollywood, but studios have only recently worked out how to deploy a 29-year-old dynamo; over the next 12 months she has eight movies on release ranging from mumblecore to musicals.
I tease her a little about this: perhaps she should leave some film work for other actors? “I just prefer working to not working,” she shrugs. “What are other actors doing when they aren’t making movies? Do they have side businesses? Are they basket weaving? Maybe I shouldn’t do so many things. Maybe there’s a strategy to that, but I’m not thinking about it in terms of strategy. I just think, ‘Well, I’ve finished that film, so what’s next?’”
I’m not sure anyone makes back-to-back movies just because they can’t think of anything better to do, and Kendrick cops to this eventually. When she was 17, she landed a TV show and relocated to California – only to have the series canned after its pilot, leaving Kendrick high and dry. “I was in LA, I knew no-one, I had no plan, no money, and I was wondering why the hell I hadn’t thought of a back-up plan while all my friends were at college and had the next four years mapped out for them. I was insanely jealous of them and so terrified.”
So maybe it’s the memory of that experience that drives her. Does she ever worry that it could all end tomorrow? “Totally,” she cries. “I grew up working class, so the idea that I don’t have a salary is really alarming to me. I always feel that last film I made might be the last money I make in my life.”
“That’s not the thing that drives me to do films at this point,” she says, “but it is definitely at the back of my mind. I want to say that’s silly, but it’s not – because people are fickle. Who knows why people like somebody, but then turn on them. So I don’t buy anything on credit.”
Even her Oscar nomination for playing a flinty, laser-focused efficiency expert in Up In The Air hasn’t given her a feeling of job security – if anything, the experience carried its own sense of powerlessness when she was sent out on three months of TV appearances, premieres and events. Studio publicists picked her events, and stylists picked her clothes.
“Actually awards are the closest I get to being like Cinderella,” she says, “because I’m wearing great dresses and jewellery, but it all has to go back in the morning.”
She was more comfortable on the set of Up In The Air, going toe-to-toe with George Clooney. She says Clooney makes an effort to be playful to relax actors. Between takes they would banter about her height and his age: “He would call me ‘short’, so I’d ask him how his hip replacement was going.” She especially admired his ease when women practically threw themselves in his general direction on a location shoot. “‘It’s actually quite upsetting to see grown women turn into monkeys. I wanted to say, ‘Get it together, you’re embarrassing yourselves and our gender.’
“Even when he might have been having a bad day, it didn’t show,” she says. “George made me think that you can do this job for a long time yet keep some level of sanity.”
Like Clooney, Kendrick prods her roles for firmness of purpose. Even in the soppy vampire franchise Twilight, Kendrick had al dente bite, playing the smart, confident confidante of the swooning heroine
“I get really excited every time there’s a female character that is really strong,” she says briskly. “A lot of females in film are really soft.” When reading scripts, she scrutinises character arcs, and lobbied to change the plot of 2012 comedy musical Pitch Perfect because her character is depicted as hitting rock bottom when a guy she fancies turns out to be in a relationship.
“I thought, ‘That sucks.’ And I fought hard so that her low point would be that she was never going to get real responsibility at her job instead. I think we compromised on a mix of both, but I felt very strongly that she shouldn’t doubt herself just because her crush had a girlfriend.”
Pitch Perfect, a movie that treats an a cappella girl group competition like three rounds of Rocky, unexpectedly, but deservedly, developed box-office legs and a cult following on DVD. Impressed by the till music it generated, the studio have reunited the cast, including Kendrick, for more harmonising in Pitch Perfect 2 later this year.
Musical number three is The Last Five Years, in which she is half of a young couple’s dysfunctional romance. “I’ve pitched songs for all eight films that I’ve done,” she deadpans. “They really don’t like it.”
Leading the way in what she assures us is an unplanned Kendrick – Year Of Song, (“What would an Anna Kendrick musical sound like? Probably a lone ukulele and maybe some hip hop sung over it.”) is Into The Woods, the long-awaited film version of Stephen Sondheim’s 1987 hit, in which beloved bedtime stories collide and fracture. “It’s a different twist on Cinderella than what we’ve seen in other fairytales,” says Kendrick. “She’s not a naïve thing who happens upon a prince and her life changes. She has an active role.”
The singing is almost wall-to-wall here, including the Sondheim showstopper On The Steps Of The Palace, where Kendrick dithers about whether or not to bag her Prince (Chris Pine) “while running about in a corset,” she interjects, “which is like being slightly asthmatic all the time.”
Kendrick is steeped in musicals: her first stab at acting was an am-dram production of Annie aged six, singing It’s A Hard Knock Life with the orphans. After persistent nagging, her parents, Janice, an insurance accountant, and William, a teacher, took turns driving her from Portland, Maine, to New York for auditions that were sometimes more gruelling than the stage roles.
“Theatre mums can be intense, and some of them would be there, listing their child’s accomplishments. My dad and I would just look at each other…” she says. “But I’m glad that I started out in theatre because eight shows a week instils a good work ethic. You’re much more mollycoddled on a film set; I wouldn’t have wanted to start my career that way.”
Kendrick was a toddler when Into The Woods premiered, but by 12 she was on Broadway too, with a Tony-nominated performance in High Society. Five years later she was cast in a revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. “It was like being the cool girl in school for the first time in my life, having Stephen Sondheim say hello to me,”
Her film debut in 2003 involved another Sondheim encounter. Camp cast its eye over a company of stage-struck teenagers, featured a cameo from Sondheim and gave Kendrick the chance to sing his paean to jaded society broads, The Ladies Who Lunch. She was far too young for this bitter rant, but gave such a ferocious rendition that reviewers, including me, made a note of her name when the final credits rolled.
It also meant that when she came to Into The Woods, co-stars Meryl Streep, James Corden and Emily Blunt tended to assume she had the inside track and was well within her comfort zone. “They were like, ‘You’ve done this before. You got this.’ But I was singing one of the most challenging songs in the film, and in a vocal range I had not sung before.”
“Sondheim is fun to perform, but a pain in the ass to sing. Even running around in that corset on the steps was really no match for the dissonance and vocal gymnastics that you’re trying to deal with in Sondheim’s melodies. They’re a gift, but one that you really have to work for.”
Sondheim considers it a badge of honour that actors find it difficult to get their mouths around his wording. The brilliant composer of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Company, Sweeney Todd, and Sunday In The Park With George, has always been a tough critic. He once wrote a letter to the New York Times dismissing the singer Audra McDonald, one of his most faithful interpreters. “If he likes something, he’ll send you a note,” McDonald noted ruefully. “And if he doesn’t, he sends a note to the New York Times.”
Kendrick’s experience of being side by side by Sondheim is that, “He’s sort of wonderfully grumpy. He’s not interested in false flattery, so he will not tell you that something is satisfactory until it is. Actually that’s a really nice feeling, because I hate feeling, ‘Was it really good, or are you just running out of time and need to get me out of the recording booth?’ Sondheim isn’t going to tell you it’s good unless it is.”
Into The Woods features a baker, his wife, Jack, Rapunzel, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood entering a fairytale forest in search of happy ever afters, only to discover that it’s more a case of all good things must come to an end. Film studios have circled the musical for more than two decades, but wrangling the material from stage to screen defeated previous attempts. Few would have predicted that Disney would finally get Woods on screen, given the theatre version’s Grimm violence, and Freudian gags (check out Jack’s shooting beanstalk). To give studio executives a sense of the show’s potential, as well as its potential bear traps, Chicago director Rob Marshall rented a theatre in October 2012 and put together a workshop cast which included Kendrick, Corden and Christine Baranski to act out the entire script over three days. The high-profile casting of Streep as a vindictive witch, Johnny Depp as a big bad zoot-suited wolf and Kendrick’s deeply conflicted Cinderella secured a $50m budget, as well as six weeks of rehearsal on a London soundstage before filming – a luxury for film now.
However, there was consternation last June when Sondheim appeared to complain that more subversive elements were being clipped from the film and that Disney had objected to the sexualised relationship between Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf.
Sondheim now says he was misquoted, pointing out that he assisted in making changes for the movie, including rewriting Kendrick’s big number, On The Steps Of The Palace, so that Cinderella no longer recalls her indecision in the past tense, but plays it out in real time before the audience.
“He was more willing to change things than any of us were. It was sort of like watching Monet make brushstrokes over something that you know and love so well.”
Even during the recording, Sondheim was still making modifications: “I wanted to just enjoy the fact that Sondheim was rewriting his work, and coming in and out of the recording booth to hand me lyrics. But most of that day I was just terrified.
Sondheim has seen a rough cut of the film and pronounced it “a first-rate movie”. He also upgraded praise for Kendrick, his once-time Lady Who Lunched. “On Camp he told me I had “nice teeth”. And, you know, that was fine. But on this, I got worked up to “very good”, and that was more than I needed.”
Kendrick grins. Sondheim is right: they really are nice teeth.
• Into The Woods is on general release from Friday
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