Anna Kendrick On 'Pitch Perfect,' Singing Onscreen, And How Being 'Aggressively Dorky' Paid Off
Oscar nominee Anna Kendrick (Twilight, Up in the Air) got her start on Broadway — nabbing a Tony nomination at the age of 12, no less — before making her film debut in 2003's musical Camp. In this week's infectiously fun college-set comedy Pitch Perfect she comes full circle playing Beca, an antisocial college freshman who reluctantly joins a ragtag campus a capella group as they attempt to pop song-warble their way to the top.
Kendrick rang Movieline to discuss the crowd-pleasing Pitch Perfect, her initial resistance to doing a musical, how one afternoon's worth of YouTube obsessing paid off (and led to one of the neatest performances in the film, and the undeniable power of Miley Cyrus's "Party in the USA."
Beca is an audience surrogate of sorts, a loner entering this strange world of college a cappella from the outside.
She is kind of an audience stand-in, and you get to be kind of repulsed by this aggressively geeky world at the beginning of the movie and then fall in love with it while Beca does. The interesting thing to me about the idea of a character that on paper is supposed to be really “cool” is, when you bring it to life, breaking her down and making her seem less cool, because that’s when I think the audience really connects with her. I don’t think you can just say, “Hey audience, this is a cool character so you’re supposed to like her.” For me, I fall in love with characters when they’re out of their element or are uncomfortable and you really feel for them in a knee-jerk sympathetic way. So I had a lot of fun trying to make Beca less cool. It’s fun to take a girl who fancies herself a little bad-ass and kind of embarrass her.
That is a lesson she learns — that she’s not too cool for a cappella and she really does need these friends in her life.
Yes — she has a secret love of pop music that she pretends to not have, but she lets her freak flag fly.
She’s also probably the first mash-up DJ protagonist we’ve seen in the movies.
To be perfectly honest, I was really nervous about that because I know friends who are into that kind of stuff and I didn’t want to put anything across onscreen that felt inauthentic. By the time we started filming I was like, “But really — when are you guys going to show me how to do this?” And we kind of ran out of time so I kind of refused to have them explicitly show too much of what Beca was doing because I didn’t know what I was doing. So it’s all alluded to but I didn’t want to have any glaring inaccuracies onscreen.
You probably don't need to worry too much. I have a feeling Pitch Perfect might inspire a generation of kids to look into this whole mash-up business.
I hope so! That would be pretty sweet.
Your career started on Broadway and in the film Camp, so Pitch Perfect brings you full circle back to music. Were you looking for a musically-oriented project?
I wasn’t looking for this, and in fact I remember reading the script and the thing that made me nervous was the musical aspect. It was almost like I wish Kay Cannon could rewrite the script replacing the a cappella with a chess club because I was worried about it being corny. But I fell in love with the script so much because it was so smart and funny and surprising. I was so charmed by it, I was like, “Okay — guess I’m singing in a movie!”
What gave you pause about singing again?
I knew there’d be comparisons to Glee and there are people who just will not accept a musical as a good movie or automatically think it’s corny, so I knew that would be a little bit of a hurdle. And also it’s making yourself vulnerable in another way, putting yourself on screen singing in a completely sincere fashion.
Which is not a problem for a lot of the characters in this movie, these kids who are so, so into a cappella and these competitions. It makes me happy to know this is based on a real community, that there are people like this out there in the world.
When I was like 18 and I had just moved to L.A., a friend of mine had a crush on a guy who was in the UCLA a cappella group and I got dragged to this competition between UCLA and USC, and I thought it was going to be the most excruciating night of my life. By the end of it I was starstruck and thought these guys were the coolest, I wanted to meet them and hang out with them — and this was years ago, so it was an interesting example of how you can think something’s really dorky, like in the documentary Spellbound, but by the end of it you’re so invested.
Do you see many parallels between the world of musical theater that you started out in and the world of a cappella?
I think there are rock stars within every subgenre, and for people who are obsessed with musical theater Sutton Foster and Audra MacDonald are like Beyonce to them. I’m sure the a cappella world has their own version of that, and that exists in every geeky subculture.
Did you audition for Pitch Perfect with a song?
I met Jason like two years ago about it and they did ask me to sing, so I sang that song with the cups [from the film] that I learned from a YouTube video, and they were like, “Oh my god, that’s going in the movie!”
I loved that routine! What inspired you to use that piece?
Well, I had just learned it because I’m aggressively dorky. [Laughs] When they asked me to sing I was like, as it happened, here’s something I wasted an afternoon learning, so I might as well show them.
That’s pretty impressive. It only took one afternoon?
And from a YouTube video it was hard!
The relationship Beca has with her fellow classmate Jesse (Skylar Adkins) is so adorably John Hughesian, but they bond over Beca’s film illiteracy. How has she never seen The Breakfast Club?
Coming from a film world and living in a film bubble it’s so hard for me to believe that anyone in the world says they don’t like movies and they’ve never seen Breakfast Club, so that was the least plausible thing in the movie in my mind. And I hated every second of pretending I wasn’t a huge film nerd.
I mean, I suppose we all have holes in our film viewing history…
Oh, so many! There are definitely movies I’ve never seen. I’ve never seen the original Heartbreak Kid, I’ve never seen Rome, Open City… obviously thousands upon thousands of films that I wish I could see. Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day, but I do the best I can.
In a fairly short period of time you’ve taken on a real variety of roles and projects. How much have the roles you’ve sought out and been offered changed over the years?
I think right after Up in the Air everyone wanted me to play the girl from Up in the Air, and it took a little while for people to think of me as an actress from a film that they liked instead of just that character. So it was weird, a little bit of time had to pass before people like [End of Watch director] David Ayer began thinking of me as the kind of softer, sexier wife character or in this, a kind of rebellious tattooed character. So I’m definitely grateful that those opportunities are coming along.
And in The Company You Keep you play an FBI agent, which is pretty mind-blowing that you can play a college freshman and a government agent back to back.
Yeah! I remember Michelle Monaghan one year played like 34 and 19 within a month of each other. I’m just flattered to have the opportunity to play so many different things, that people see me in different ways.
Another upcoming film of yours is Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies…
It was one of those tightrope things where it was really amazing and really scary, but I had an amazing time making it. I’m glad I had the chance to do it, really glad I got to challenge myself in that way.
Given that you had that bit of difficulty getting people to see you differently after Up in the Air this is particularly interesting because the cast of Drinking Buddies were allowed to help shape their characters.
I basically based the character on my sister-in-law, which was fun. I don’t know if she’ll think it’s anything like her but that’s what I had in mind.
Lastly, to bring it back to Pitch Perfect one last time, there’s a scene in the film that I see as a depiction of a universal truth: Nobody can resist singing along to Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA.” True or false?
[Laughs] I think that scene was brilliant because it’s such a painfully corny song that Beca should hate, but it’s a telling moment. Is she going to pretend to be too cool for school, or is she going to go along with it and bond with these girls? I love that she’s willing to embarrass herself out of love for these new friends that she has.
Pitch Perfect is in theaters Friday.