Anna Kendrick: Girl on top

Anna Kendrick was a catty schoolgirl in Twilight. Now she's graduated to play a management consultant tearing a strip off George Clooney in Up in the Air. Kaleem Aftab meets her
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The Independent Culture

It has come as a surprise to some that a young actress hitherto best known over here for her supporting turn in the Twilight films (mainly gossiping in the school canteen with Bella) should suddenly be in the running for a Golden Globe. Those who have seen Anna Kendrick's acerbic turn as a management consultant opposite George Clooney in Up in the Air, though, are not at all surprised she has been given the nod for Best Supporting Actress. The American critics have been falling over themselves to praise her. "The ferocious Ms Kendrick, her ponytail swinging like an ax, grabs every scene she's in", said The New York Times. "Spot-on!" said The Washington Post. Seemingly out of nowhere, the 24-year old Twilight sidekick is the toast of the industry.

In Jason Reitman's fêted film, Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a management consultant who loves his job, travelling from place to place across America downsizing companies. He loves it, that is, until Kendrick's character, Natalie Keener, is brought in by his own firm to change company working practices in an effort to reduce costs, increase efficiency and most heinously for Ryan, cut down on travelling. Ryan doesn't cope too well when the boot is on the other foot, especially as the latter will seriously impact on the romantic entanglements he has booked in at airport hotels across America with Alex (Vera Farmiga). It's impressive how well Kendrick holds her own against such exalted company, especially as Clooney and Farmiga are at the top of their respective games. Yet it's Kendrick who has been winning the gongs that have been handed out to the film so far – with more sure to follow.

Today, Kendrick is sporting a perfectly matched black dress, jacket and shoes. She dresses like a woman who means business and has a forthright demeanour to match so it's not much of a surprise when she suggests that having power is the aspect of Natalie's character that she could most appreciate. "I related mostly to the fact that she likes to be in control and gets really uncomfortable whenever she's not in control. Her hatred of airports stems from the loss of control and my hatred of airports stems from that same loss of control."

Is she a control freak? Without missing a beat Kendrick replies, "Yep." Then adds, "The reason I get so stressed out when I travel is the idea you give up your belongings and you give yourself up to another person and your schedule is determined by other people. If you're in a car you can always make a decision to get out and decide when to go, when not to go. There's something about being at the mercy of other people that makes me feel very uncomfortable." How does that work in relationships, I wonder. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean!" she jokes, showing a hitherto well-concealed lighter side. "I'm a dream in relationships! I'm the best! I really couldn't comment. You'd have to ask my ex-boyfriends..."

Given that her career trajectory so far has been a straight line upwards, it's unsurprising when Kendrick reveals that she's never been in the line of fire in real life. "When you're an actor and you don't get hired for a role, there is a sense of being rejected that becomes part of your everyday life, but I've never been fired. Rejection is similar to being fired but I don't think it's as bad. Being fired would be worse."

Our conversation inevitably drifts towards the Twilight franchise, in which she plays the catty Jessica Stanley, one of the few prominent "human" characters and queen of the school canteen. In New Moon, she puts in a hilarious performance as the spoiled, slightly jealous friend of Bella who gives an amusing scene-stealing rant about zombie movies. Kendrick has been surprised at how the franchise has grown into a multiplex behemoth. "Truly, we really didn't know what a big thing it would become. I just thought it was a movie like any other movie. I was really surprised that I was supposed to audition for and then surprised when I got the role of Jessica because she's so different from me", she says. "I'm used to that kind of jealous catty girl at school being tall, blonde and anorexic and I just felt like, 'What am I doing auditioning for this role?' When I got it, it was interesting. I guess they like that I did something different with it and it made me feel like it was something I should do."

The difference between filming the first movie and the second movie was unbelievable, she says. All of a sudden, the set was besieged by fans trying to get a glimpse of the actors at work. They are currently shooting part three in Vancouver in preparation for a summer release. Given what she knows from reading the Stephenie Meyer books, Kendrick suspects that this will be her last appearance in the franchise

Such has been the demand for the actress's services in the past year, she was fearful at one point that Twilight would stop her from doing Up in the Air. "There were scheduling problems with New Moon and Up in the Air and I had to shoot them simultaneously so I'd be shooting Up in the Air, fly to Vancouver shoot New Moon for a few days and fly back again. I guess that's what they pay make-up artists for," she says. "Through some miracle it all worked out. People say it's a good problem to have, but if you can't do a movie with Jason Reitman and George Clooney, that's simply not a good problem to have."

It seems that Kendrick has come out of nowhere to become the most talked-about young actress in Hollywood. But call her an overnight success, and she'll soon put you right: "I feel really lucky," she admits. "But I guess when you start at the age of 12, it doesn't really feel like an overnight success. I don't feel old by any means, but I don't exactly feel like a bright-eyed girl that got off the plane to Los Angeles."

Born in Portland, Maine, she had some start to her acting career. In 1998, aged 12, she played Dinah in the Broadway musical High Society and earned herself a Tony Award nomination, becoming the third youngest nominee in history. She then appeared in a number of musicals before making the transition to film in 2003 when she appeared in the musical comedy Camp, for which she was nominated for a Best Debut Performance Independent Spirit Award for her performance as Fritzi Wagner. Nominations also greeted her turn in 2007's Rocket Science, in which she played a fast-talking high-school debater.

Now, there's no slowing the actress down. After the release of the third Twilight film, she'll be seen in the much anticipated adaptation of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz). "I play Michael Cera's younger sister and I mostly show up to scold him about his life decisions," she explains. "Edgar is fantastic and so specific. He knew exactly what shot he would use for every line, how he wanted your head and hand to move. I've never shot anything so specific. It was challenging but really fun."

Throw in travelling to the numerous awards ceremonies that she'll need to attend over the next few months and it becomes clear that Kendrick's controlling nature will have to be tempered as her schedule inevitably shoots her from one airport to another.



'Up in the Air' is released on Friday

Good day at the office: Workplace movies

The humdrum world of middle management isn't much shown in movies. There have been plenty of films and TV dramas set in offices, but they've invariably shown the workplace in a stylised or exaggerated fashion. Whether it is the early-Sixties Madison Avenue advertising agency high jinks in 'Mad Men' or the dog-eat-dog world of the real-estate agents in 'Glengarry Glen Ross', the office is portrayed as gilded playpen or as battleground.

Another convention is to show offices as soulless and dehumanising places. In Orson Welles's film adaptation of Franz Kafka's 'The Trial', there's a famous scene of a huge open-space office in which 850 typewriters are being pounded. It's the stuff of real nightmare. It's little wonder Josef K seems lost against such a backdrop. In 'The Apartment' (top right), master satirist Billy Wilder was able to hint at how disorienting and demeaning is the plight of the low-level corporate employee, trying to keep in with his bosses. C C Baxter (Jack Lemmon) acts as a virtual pimp for his insurance company's senior management, allowing them to take over his apartment for their extramarital dalliances.

There have been workplace movies about Billy Liar-like fantasists who use their imagination to escape the tedium of their daily lives, and dramas about corporate types who take a stand against corruption and price-fixing by their colleagues (for example, Michael Mann's 'The Insider'.) Steven Soderbergh's recent feature, 'The Informant!'(bottom right), is an unusual hybrid, combining whistle-blower drama with Billy Liar-like elements.

However, Jason Reitman's 'Up in the Air' takes a more subtle and oblique approach in its depiction of middle management than most earlier workplace movies. Its hero, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), spends more time in airports than he does in his own office. He is a management consultant whose job is to fly across America, visiting other people's offices and telling people that they've been laid off.

Much of the comedy and pathos lies in its double-edged portrayal of Bingham's work world. As played by Clooney, Bingham looks like one of those über-businessmen shown in airline and credit-card ads. Dapperly dressed, he prides himself on his ability to negotiate airport check-in lines and security systems. Spending 300 nights a year away from home, he is quite literally "at home" in the executive lounges and hotel rooms where he lives so much of his life. He has made racking up air miles a lifetime quest.

Some critics have noted the resemblance between Clooney's Ryan Bingham and the all-American types played by James Stewart and Cary Grant jogged out of their comfort zones in Alfred Hitchcock films of the 1950s. He has their poise and humour. Only slowly do you begin to realise that this slick middle manager is, in fact, corporate America's answer to the grim reaper. To the people he sacks in such vast numbers, his appearance invariably heralds the worst day of their lives.

Gradually, we begin to realise that Bingham is more like one of Jack Lemmon's harassed office workers than a Gordon Gekko-like master of the universe. He lives in a tiny apartment. He struggles to build meaningful relationships. He doesn't realise just how craven he sounds when he complains about the plans of his new colleague, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), to do the sacking by video conference. Bingham is a little like one of those "salarymen" shown in Japanese movies about the workplace whose lives are entirely defined by their jobs. If he wasn't able to fly around America sacking people – or if he was sacked himself – he would be at a dead loss. You could even imagine him in a different context turning into a desperate and dangerous man, like the corporate consultant who loses his job and won't tell anyone in Laurent Cantet's grim cautionary tale, 'Time Out'.

Through some Billy Wilder-like feats of prestidigitation, Reitman manages to make a film that is at its core very bleak indeed into the stuff of romantic comedy. Clooney and Vera Farmiga (the businesswoman with whom he has an affair) could be mistaken for a couple from an old screwball comedy. In one sequence, we see them comparing loyalty cards and credit cards and trying to work out who has the most frequent-flyer miles. It's very funny – until you realise just how hollow their discourse actually is.

It's not surprising that there are few movies about middle-management and the workplace. Audiences don't want to see too many films that reflect the banality of office life. Then again, as Reitman and others have realised, in these straitened times, when everybody's jobs seem to hang by a thread, there is as much drama in the workplace as anywhere else in our society. Geoffrey Macnab

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