Nearly 20 years ago exactly, a 16-year-old Anna Kendrick booked her first movie role in Camp, an indie dramedy about kids attending an upstate performing arts summer camp. The film hailed from Todd Graff, the writer, director and cousin of theater actress Randy Graff, with whom Kendrick had starred in her first Broadway show a few years prior. Randy recommended Kendrick for the role of a nerdy camper who steals the show, which the young actress naturally nailed.
Her breakthrough came with the consecutive releases of Twilight in 2008 and Up in the Air in 2009, the latter of which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. In the years since, Kendrick would appear in four more Twilight movies and star in the Pitch Perfect trilogy, two Trolls movies (and a couple spin-offs), and a number of movie musicals (including playing Cinderella in Into the Woods). But at a certain point, she looked back and couldn't remember how she'd gotten to where she was.
"I'd been working back-to-back for so many years, and I think I wasn't really consciously making decisions. It was sort of a one foot in front of the other kind of thing, where by the end of a movie, I was thinking of it as like, 'Okay, I just have to get through the last week' — which isn't where you want to be," Kendrick, now 37, tells A.frame. "I was overworked. Also, things in my life were falling apart, and I ended up taking a break. And then, COVID happened."
The self-imposed break suddenly got even longer, no longer by her own volition.
"Which was good for me in a way. And obviously, nobody likes COVID, but I'll take the wins where I can get them," she points out. "I ended up really wanting to find something that was restrained and felt worth pursuing, but also dealt with an issue that really resonated with me."
That film was Alice, Darling, with a script written by Alanna Francis and directed by Mary Nighy in her feature debut. Kendrick stars as Alice, whose girls getaway with two closest friends (Kaniehtiio Horn and Wunmi Mosaku) forces her to confront the fact that her boyfriend (Charlie Carrick) is psychologically abusive. When he unexpectedly shows up to their remote cabin, Alice struggles to extricate herself from the hold he has on her.
"The first time that we met, I remember telling Mary that I loved the script, and I was sort of disclosing that I had just been going through something really similar," Kendrick says. "And it was recent enough that I was like, 'By the way, if we were shooting the movie in two months, I really shouldn't do this. This is too much.' Luckily, I had several months to work on not re-traumatizing myself on set."
Many in the cast and crew had lived experiences of their own, either as survivors of abuse or friends of survivors. On Kendrick's first day on set, "I heard 18 stories in a row from each new person that I met — from the actors to wardrobe, camera department, hair, makeup —about what resonated with them about the script," she recalls. On her most challenging days, then, Kendrick didn't lose herself in the darkness of the role but felt cocooned by those around her.
"It was difficult not getting the big, smiling thumbs up from the people behind Video Village after every take, because I've gotten pretty good at being the star student."
"I felt like everybody was really coming into it with their bodies and their hearts so open that I felt so held by everybody," she says. "It felt like the kind of place where you are safe enough to be in these really ugly, scary places in your mind and in your body, and to feel like that can be kind of excised instead of just this weird exercise in re-traumatizing yourself. Because no art is worth that. I felt really grateful to have such an empathetic and supportive crew around me."
In that environment around her, and coming off of her break with a renewed approach to her craft, Kendrick found herself stretching beyond the actor's tool kit she'd unconsciously been relying on more and more. She found herself having to tolerate the discomfort of disregarding her natural inclination to people please and, therefore, not get the immediate validation. "And it was difficult not getting the big, smiling thumbs up from the people behind Video Village after every take, because I've gotten pretty good at figuring out what people need out of a scene so that we can just move on and I can be the star student."
"That was also incredibly valuable to me for rebuilding the self-trust that had been broken," Kendrick reflects. "To go into something and know, 'Oh boy, not only are the people at Video Village not over the moon, but I'm also risking that some portion of people who see the movie might not really be on Alice's side.' There's lots of ways to make her a little bit more likable, but I thought it was more interesting that there are occasions where she's cold and very rude to her friends, because she has to hide from them and she can't tolerate that they can really see her. Doing all of that made me feel very naked. And that was really exciting, but really scary."
Coming off of Alice, Darling, Kendrick felt ready to take the next step in her career: Making her directorial debut. She had previously signed on to produce and star in The Dating Game, a true crime thriller about a serial killer, Rodney Alcala, who brazenly appeared on the titular series in the midst of a murder spree and ultimately won a date with contestant Cheryl Bradshaw. When the project fell apart and producers set out looking for another director, Kendrick knew she was the right person to take over.
"It's been wild," Kendrick exclaims. At the time of this interview, she'd only wrapped shooting three days prior, admitting with a laugh, "I might remember this conversation and I might be in a total fugue state, who can say? But I haven't had that much fun in many years. It was so exciting. I remember even just doing Zoom callbacks with actors" — the movie also stars Daniel Zovatto, Nicolette Robinson, and Tony Hale — "this expression of, 'Oh my God! I love talented people so much. It was so exciting to be around talented people and just watch them work."
"I tried to basically interfere as little as possible with performance," she adds. "I was surprised by how many producers, after certain scenes were done, would be like, 'I thought you weren't supposed to say stuff like that to actors,' or whatever. I think there's a lot of myths about how you're supposed to deal with us, these weird sensitive child creatures — whatever the hell we are — and what you should and shouldn't say."
Especially with the experience of Alice, Darling having been such an affirming one — as an actor, as an artist, as a person — Kendrick wanted to run her set in a way that would let her cast walk away feeling something similar. "I always feel like, 'Let me know if I'm blowing the take. Don't, like, keep letting me do something that's ruining the performance I'm trying to give.' But other than that, trust that I'm going to do the right thing. Hire the right person and trust that. I can't believe how lucky I got in that." As if suddenly realizing that she's been cheesing this whole time, Kendrick laughs. "I feel like an idiot — I'm grinning like an idiot right now! I just had so much fun."
By John Boone