Anna Kendrick doesn’t get that she’s about to be a star. When she race walks into Joan’s on Third in West Hollywood, dressed in head-to-toe black, with aviator glasses propped up on her head, she is oblivious to the head turns she’s caused out front of the gourmet cafe. She arrives alone—no publicist is there for the handoff—and when this is remarked upon, Kendrick looks surprised. “Why? Was I supposed to bring someone?”
Such naïveté—and self-sufficiency (within seconds, she has procured a Caesar salad and is lined up to pay for it herself)—will presumably be obliterated within the next week, when Up in the Air hits theaters and Kendrick will be known not as Bella’s chatty sidekick in the Twilight movies, to the extent that she is known for that, but as the girl who steals the show in the new George Clooney movie.
“I think I don’t succeed at being in control as often as Natalie does,” Kendrick says.
In Up in the Air, which is based on the Walter Kirn novel, the 24-year-old Kendrick plays Natalie, an über-confident whippersnapper put in charge of overseeing the new way downsizing is being handled at a company that’s hired to fire people. Until now, the process has been conducted humanely by Ryan Bingham (Clooney), who flies all over the country to break the bad news. The old vs. new, young vs. old(er) dynamic between Clooney and Kendrick animates Up in the Air, serving as the comedic, connective tissue that keeps a movie about economic hard times light on its feet.
Kendrick is the perfect uptight foil to Clooney’s loose amiableness. As he cracks his easy, familiar grin and oozes out jokes that make everyone in the room feel better, she is a coil of brittle ambition, fast-talking her way through PowerPoints and lunches.
“There was a moment where I felt really sorry for her,” Kendrick says, sitting at a table in an obscure corner of Joan’s, delicately nibbling on her salad, which she says she has to eat because the Up in the Air Los Angeles premiere is in a few hours and “it’s impossible to eat at premieres.”
“There was part of me that really wanted to make her really sympathetic,” Kendrick continues. “But I just realized, at one point, how kind of ridiculous and funny [Natalie] was, and I think that’s sort of the thing I had to prove I could do.”
Natalie is not Kendrick’s first turn as a bossy young shrew. In Rocket Science, a Napoleon Dynamite-esque film that debuted at Sundance in 2007, Kendrick played a high-school debate team star who uses chilly punctiliousness to deliver lines like (when wooing a nerd to join the debate team): “Deformed people are the best. Maybe it’s because they have a deep resource of anger. It seems to suit them well.” When the young man stutters something that implies he’s not interested, Kendrick says coolly: “Are you stuck trying to say ‘Thank you’?” Pause. “You’re welcome.”
Although Rocket Science—which was Kendrick’s second feature film after Camp, in 2003—wasn’t a mainstream hit, Kendrick’s performance was noted. After seeing the film, director Catherine Hardwicke, who was on the jury at Sundance that year, cast her in the first Twilight movie (she is also in New Moon and the upcoming Eclipse). Juno writer-director Jason Reitman also loved her in Rocket Science, so much so that he created a character based on Kendrick for a movie he was working on called Up in the Air. (In the novel, the Natalie character does not exist.)
Not that Kendrick had any inkling of this when she first auditioned with Reitman. In fact, she was certain she hadn’t gotten the part, based on his cool behavior. “He was poker faced. He barely said two words to me,” Kendrick says. “So I was like, OK, maybe next time… And then, two days later I got a call saying they were going to offer me the job, and I didn’t know what to make of that.”
It was only when Kendrick met Reitman for lunch at Pinches Tacos that Reitmain disclosed his little secret. “I was so bewildered that I even had the job,” Kendrick recalls. “I was trying to act totally cool as a cucumber about the whole thing. I was just like, ‘Oh! OK! That makes sense. Of course, you wrote a role for me.'”
He also warmed up. “He couldn’t be friendlier or more supportive,” Kendrick said of Reitman. “He said he was trying not to psyche me out at the audition, because he thought if he told me he’d written it for me, I would have choked.”
In person, Kendrick seems to possess at least a few Natalie-isms. She is more casually dressed—black, skinny jeans and nylon jacket—but still perfectly put together. No makeup, but the face and hair are flawless. The enunciation is precise, indicating years of training. (In fact, it was while attending public school in Portland, Maine, that she got her first break: a role in the Broadway production of High Society, which earned her a Tony nomination at the age of 12.)
She also cops to control-freakish tendencies.
“I think I don’t succeed at being in control as often as Natalie does,” Kendrick says. “When Natalie first meets Ryan, that’s the first time in her life that she’s out of her element, and I’m out of my element most of the time. I’m falling apart most of the time. And I get clumsier and more awkward. She gets more rigid and self-aware.”
Kendrick admits that her desire to “have things just my way” has made the full-throttle ride of Hollywood—between the double whammy of New Moon and Up in the Air—“a little uncomfortable.”
“I pride myself in being self-sufficient, and it’s really frustrating to be in this position where everything’s so overwhelming that I’m constantly asking someone what I’m doing, what I’m wearing, where I’m going, what I’m doing when I get there.”
She’s also growing weary of all the questions, the most frequently asked, she says—without having to think about it—is: “George.”
Right behind it is: “George or Rob?”
“When people ask me to compare Rob [Pattinson] and Clooney as actors, I mean, I have one scene with Rob in three movies. And I worked with George Clooney for two and a half months.”
Packing up her half-uneaten salad to take with her, Kendrick says she’s headed for her publicist’s office, two blocks away, to get ready for the premiere. “My house is such a mess, I don’t want hair and makeup people to come in, so I’m going to my publicist’s office to take over the conference room.” She smiles and darts out the door, looking—for now—like just another pretty young girl in Los Angeles.
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.