"I forget that people think that I'm the girl with a ponytail and a briefcase," says Anna Kendrick, perched on a couch in a T-shirt and jeans. Her career-launching role as a prim go-getter in Up in the Air is so far removed from her actual self that she's still surprised when the rest of us are surprised by the real deal. Say, the actor in her upcoming Into the Woods, who assumed she'd be a vegetarian. "He was, like, 'You know, because of the characters you play,' that I'd be gluten-free and really uptight about food."
As a counterpoint, Kendrick shows off that day's purchases from the mall: a bag of jelly beans, jalapeño/ranch–flavored popcorn, and a wedge of giant cookie cake. Consider her emotional journey with the "hot" sausage a Chicago hot dog joint named the Anna Kendrick. "My hot dog had been the Britney Spears and the Keira Knightley. And then it was me, and I signed the hot dog menu and I went, 'Yay!' and I did the whole fucking thing, and I thought, ‘Okay, I'm there for life,' " Kendrick says. "And now it's the fucking Malin Åkerman. Who is very hot, but fuck, man!"
Still, Kendrick wasn't shocked when Joe Swanberg cast her as the levelheaded counterpoint to Olivia Wilde's boozehound in Drinking Buddies. She and the director had only spoken once before over Skype. But she raised an eyebrow when Swanberg later asked her to play the lead in his next film, Happy Christmas, about a brokenhearted 20-something named Jenny, who rattles her brother (Swanberg) and sister-in-law (Melanie Lynskey) when she squats in their basement. Laughs Kendrick, "I don't know if I should be proud or really concerned that after Joe met me, he was, like, ‘Oh yeah, you should play a selfish, narcissistic, drunk mess.' "
Over the course of Happy Christmas, Jenny gets blackout-wasted, embarrasses her family and best friend (Lena Dunham), gets stoned with her nephew's babysitter, and hides like a scared dog whenever she realizes she's in trouble. Worse, she risks the safety of her brother's infant son (Swanberg's real-life kid Jude) in an unthinking accident, a scene that Kendrick calls "the worst day of the shoot." She was hoping to get through Jenny's rock-bottom blunder in one take, but then Swanberg -- exercising his rights as both scene partner and director -- asked for a second as backup. Sighs Kendrick, "I hated it, I hated going again, I hated it so much because Joe was yelling at me, and I couldn't say ‘I'm sorry.' "
The good news is that Jenny may finally overwrite Kendrick's Miss Perfect image. The bad news is she might have done too good a job.
"When I was at Sundance, this woman raised her hand and really praised Melanie's performance, and then she looked at me and said, ‘You -- you, I wanted to throttle.' " At the premiere's after party, Kendrick found herself monitoring her drinks and wondering why she couldn't shake off the stranger's words. "It just haunted me," she says. "I suppose you're supposed to take it as a compliment that people had such a visceral response to your character that they don't even separate you from your performance. But it was unsettling."
Part of the trouble is that she is Jenny, at least a little. Swanberg seeks synergy between his actors and their parts. To play Jenny, Kendrick offered up bits of both herself and her friends for judgment. "I was really exposing parts of myself that I didn't like," Kendrick says. Swanberg, while filming, would ask her to do things like speak on camera about a recent visit from her mother. "And a deeper betrayal, in every way, is exposing parts of people who are incredibly close to me."
Being a young actress means navigating emotional and strategic pitfalls: both what you can handle, and how much of you Hollywood actually wants, even when it clamors for more. It's no coincidence that Kendrick, who's been averaging five films a year, is watchful of her image, which means turning down endless offers to play "unlikable, business-focused young things." She has to say no to the wrong projects before audiences say no to her, and she's surrounded by cautionary tales. "Like Jennifer Lawrence being everywhere and then people going, ‘Ugh, that Jennifer Lawrence is fucking everywhere,' " Kendrick says. "Right, but that's because you put her everywhere. You keep blogging about her, and then she's too ubiquitous for your taste."
For now, Kendrick is emulating the classic stars of the '30s and '40s, her favorite period in Hollywood history. She's working closely with directors she loves (next year's Digging for Fire will be her third teaming with Swanberg in 18 months) and even resurrecting the musical with three song-heavy flicks in a row: Into the Woods, The Last Five Years, and Pitch Perfect 2. "That was the opposite of a plan -- like, you're not supposed to do that," she admits. That doesn't mean she's making a career of hoofing it. "And I don't have the discipline to dance like a Busby Berkeley dancer. That shit is on point."
While preparing for Woods, the musical director warned her that no Cinderella had ever nailed the big ballad, "On the Steps of the Palace," an atonal whirlwind.
"There's always a note or two that's wrong, because the song is impossible," Kendrick says, "so I made it my mission to actually get the fucking notes right, which I didn't realize was going to be such a problem." Doesn't that sounds like the vow of a Type-A overachiever, after all?