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[Interview] Anna Kendrick on ‘Pitch Perfect 2’ and Not Trying Too Hard

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LOS ANGELES — Having acted in 15 movies over the last three years, Anna Kendrick is well versed in the indignities of the modern publicity trail, where stars are increasingly expected to do much more than engage in witty banter. Marie Claire once asked Ms. Kendrick to get drunk during an interview. She complied. In January, at the request of Nylon magazine, she spoke to a reporter while hanging from a trapeze.

So when Ms. Kendrick, 29, arrived at the 101 Coffee Shop here to chat about her continuing adventures in musical comedy — her “Pitch Perfect 2” struts into theaters on May 15 — it seemed perfectly reasonable to demand that she sing the answers to questions using nothing but song lyrics. Ms. Kendrick, as game as ever, agreed.

What goes through her mind when these odd, borderline-offensive requests are made in the name of celebrity journalism and movie promotion? Ms. Kendrick, without missing a beat, served up an answer courtesy of Destiny’s Child: “I’m a survivor! I’m not gon’ give up! I’m not gon’ stop! I’m gon’ work harder!”

Impressive. But that was a softball. “Some people loathe sequels,” I asked her. “Your response?” I thought that perhaps she would opt for 1980s pop (“Nothing I can do, a total eclipse of the heart”) or maybe Sly and the Family Stone (“Different strokes for different folks”). Instead, she blurted out a line from a Kendrick Lamar hit.

“Bitch, don’t kill my vibe,” she said, duplicating Mr. Lamar’s voice.

And there you have Anna Kendrick: irrepressibly clever, eager to please, musically gifted, able to surprise, all-around cool chick. “She has always been fearless,” Michael Cooke Kendrick, her older brother, told me in an email. He cited a summer trip in the early 1990s to a vacation spot in Maine called Papoose Pond, where Ms. Kendrick, then about 8, stupefied the other guests by suddenly belting out “Tomorrow” from “Annie.”

“Being small for her age, I think the crowd was expecting that she might sing a nursery rhyme,” Mr. Kendrick said.

Anna Kendrick stars in “Pitch Perfect 2,” which opens on May 15. She has been nominated for an Oscar (“Up in the Air”) and a Tony (“High Society,” when she was 12).

No one underestimates Ms. Kendrick anymore. She was nominated for a Tony Award at the age of 12 for her supporting role in the Broadway musical “High Society.” In 2010, when she was 24, Ms. Kendrick was nominated for an Oscar, for her overly efficient corporate drone in “Up in the Air.” She has acted in big franchise movies (the “Twilight” series), tiny indies (“Drinking Buddies”), R-rated thrillers (“End of Watch”) and movie musicals (“Into the Woods,” “Pitch Perfect”).

Ms. Kendrick — all 5 feet 2 inches of her — has also embedded herself in pop culture by live-tweeting episodes of “The Bachelor,” performing on the hit television series “Lip Sync Battle,” and skewering “The Little Mermaid” on “Saturday Night Live.” She is a model for Kate Spade. She has a book of humorous essays on the way. Last year, she scored a radio hit with the song “Cups (Pitch Perfect’s When I’m Gone).”

“In case you can’t tell, I don’t really have a career strategy,” she said. “My decisions are entirely based on, ‘Well, I’m around, and this is something that the 15-year-old me would be excited to do.’ ” A star without a meticulous plot to become famous and stay that way? Now that is a rare breed. In person, Ms. Kendrick, while certainly ambitious, comes across as enormously down to earth. She arrived early for breakfast, alone, wearing no makeup and a basic T-shirt and jeans. Afterward, she texted a follow-up question: “What was the name of that reality show you said I should watch?” (“Southern Charm” on Bravo.)

With “Pitch Perfect 2,” Ms. Kendrick may add another accomplishment to her résumé. The PG-13 sequel, which finds the misfit Barden Bellas squaring off against a German a cappella group called Das Sound Machine, represents the first time Ms. Kendrick has anchored a summer blockbuster. Based on the enormous response to “Pitch Perfect,” which took in $113 million worldwide during the fall of 2012, spawned a hit soundtrack and became a sensation on DVD, Universal Pictures dropped the sequel into the May major leagues.

To compete with behemoths like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Pitch Perfect 2” dials up the razzmatazz in the weird world of college a cappella competitions — an activity, as the movie puts it, “for girls all over the country too ugly to be cheerleaders.” This time, the plot turns on a catastrophic wardrobe malfunction suffered by a Barden Bella known as Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson). Barred from competing in the United States, the group tries to redeem itself overseas.

But “Pitch Perfect 2” — part “Animal House” with women, part “Glee” goes to college, part “Bring It On” — was not an idea that immediately thrilled Ms. Kendrick. She started thinking about critical washouts like “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous” and “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and “getting understandably nervous because comedy sequels are really hard to pull off,” she said.

In the end, Ms. Kendrick agreed to reprise Beca, a coolheaded Bellas member who functions as a counter to the ribald high jinks of Fat Amy and crew. The acting challenge was to avoid succumbing to the inevitable bloat of a sequel or what Ms. Kendrick described as “punch-drunk, banana-town land.”

“The machinery was so much more present on the second one,” Ms. Kendrick said. “There’s worrying over product placement and how many deluxe-edition albums are we going to be able to pull out of this one and heightened choreography.” The sequel, which was directed by Elizabeth Banks and has a rather loose definition of a cappella, ahem, cost roughly $29 million to make, about 70 percent more than the original.

Ms. Kendrick said she had relied on the director of the first movie, Jason Moore, and the screenwriter of both films, Kay Cannon, to remain grounded. “I would email Jason and Kay before certain scenes and just get words of wisdom or a little mantra from Kay,” Ms. Kendrick said. “Sometimes it was just great to be reminded by Kay that the Bellas are supposed to be people trying to find their place.”

Despite her brother’s assessment of her fearlessness, it may actually be fear that keeps Ms. Kendrick working so hard. Between sips of tea and interruptions from fans wanting photos, requests that she politely indulged, Ms. Kendrick spoke about growing up in Maine as the daughter of an accountant mother and a history-teacher father.

“When you grow up middle class, you just always feel like you’ve got to be working or you won’t be able to pay the bills,” she said. “I never let myself forget that I can’t just put this down and expect it to be waiting for me when I feel like coming back to it. The memory that at one point I couldn’t book a guest spot on ‘Gilmore Girls’ is always on my mind. There is someone else out there who can do my job.”

Critics don’t seem to agree. Sure, she has starred in her share of terrible movies. One is “Rapture-Palooza,” a comedic fantasy that even she has never watched, she said. But Ms. Kendrick is more often than not singled out as indispensable.

“Kendrick is spectacularly good — moving and honest, able to deliver the big numbers without tiring out the audience or scaling her effects too aggressively for the camera,” Michael Phillips, a critic for The Chicago Tribune, wrote in February of her performance in “The Last Five Years,” a little-seen independent movie musical. Some studio executives compare Ms. Kendrick to Tina Fey.

It’s true that Hollywood does not have a shortage of young actresses, but casting directors say Ms. Kendrick has a dual appeal that is extremely rare. Women are drawn to her wit, intellect and get-off-my-runway confidence. At the same time, a lot of men see her as the perfect girlfriend: pretty but still approachable, brainy yet able to knock back whiskey and hold her own in a game of Assassin’s Creed.

“The delight, at least for me, was that she came as advertised,” said Jason Reitman, who directed “Up in the Air.” “She’s both comedic and dramatic. She is fun to be around — fast-talking, über-confident, one of the boys.” Mr. Reitman, who cast Ms. Kendrick after seeing her 2007 comedic drama “Rocket Science,” compared her with actresses from the 1930s who excelled in battle-of-the-sexes screwball comedies.

Ms. Kendrick, who lives in Los Angeles and has been dating Ben Richardson, a cinematographer, puts the contradictory parts of her personality on vivid display using Twitter. One minute she is full of self-doubt. “It’s cute how I used to think this ‘barely-holding-it-together’ feeling was temporary,” she confessed in February to her 3.9 million Twitter followers. Soon, she is overflowing with confidence. “Ana-Ken-Drink-You-Under-The-Table” she wrote on St. Patrick’s Day.

It must be said: Ms. Kendrick has a filthy mouth, which grabs attention in that nice-girl-says-naughty-stuff way. That sweet little thing said what about Ryan Gosling movies? She swears it’s not a shtick, but rather an effort to be herself.

Her approach to her real-life persona may well be found in her approach to her “Pitch Perfect” character. “I remember something in the air on the first movie where people wanted Beca to be more energetic and enthusiastic,” Ms. Kendrick said. “I told them that I just don’t think we need to try that hard. I think when you try to create the ultimate cool-girl badass, people recoil. Just let people discover her.”


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