Prolificity: A short series on the methods, meaning and occasional madness of the creatively super-productive.
Anna Kendrick kept a journal once. She stuck with it for two years, between the ages of 17 and 19, and by her hyperproductive standards it contains a pitiful number of entries. Still, it’s a record of her early days in Los Angeles — after her Tony nomination at age 12 for High Society but before Twilight — when, in the wake of a pilot that never got off the ground, she was auditioning for seemingly every network-television procedural on the air.
“Rereading the kind of fear I had then made me wonder, If I was that afraid of something now, would I still do it?” Kendrick says. In the journal, she has discovered a version of herself that she worries was “more motivated and ambitious” than she is now.
It’s early June, and we’re in an empty café in L.A.’s Mid-City. Kendrick is hours away from winning a Spike TV award for being Hot & Funny, a distinction that could only be dreamed up by a Guys Choice gathering, but at the moment she is actress-incognito: tee and jeans, no makeup, contemplative. She continues, “I texted my brother, and I was like, ‘I miss being a scrappy little nobody.’ And he was like, ‘You’re still scrappy, you just get more emails.’ ”
It’s hard to believe that Kendrick, 30, could question her ambition when her filmography is only five credits shy of Tom Cruise’s. Even she’s surprised by hearing her output quantified. “Jesus,” she says, retrieving a sweet-potato chip from the bag on the table in front of her. “But I’m not making movies where I’m going to Dubai for six months and flying off a building.”
Kendrick proceeds to tell me she attended the L.A. Film Festival last night to promote this summer’s family drama The Hollars, for which she happily played fourth banana in a cast that includes director John Krasinski and Margo Martindale. “I was on set for, like, two weeks,” she says, shrugging. (Krasinski notes that Kendrick drove the six-hour round trip from New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi, on her days off from Pitch Perfect 2 to participate in his film.) “I knew the second John sent me the script it was going to be personally fulfilling, so even if I don’t feel like it will set my career on fire, why on earth would I say no?”
This modest philosophy will lead to Kendrick’s having appeared in six films in the space of a year, a fairly standard workload for her, a rare workload for just about everyone else. Indies (Happy Christmas), musicals (Into the Woods), comedies (Mr. Right), franchises (Pitch Perfect), animated interpretations of collectible childhood toys (Trolls) — she has done everything except don a superhero’s spandex. Things can get hectic, even overwhelming. There was a time not too long ago, when she was dashing from the set of The Accountant, her forthcoming drama with Ben Affleck, to the set of the Duplass brothers’ comedy Table 19, both of which filmed in Atlanta, then split for Hawaii to shoot Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, which is in theaters next month.
But such productivity serves her well. Instead of cultivating an unreachable aura, Kendrick, through a combination of near ubiquity, a winning social-media presence, and who, me? charm, has established herself as a down-to-earth and relatable celebrity. The exact kind of person who can expect to score with a collection of humorous essays covering former crushes, friendships, and professional obstacles — i.e., Kendrick’s Scrappy Little Nobody, which will be published in November. There are only so many stars who can afford to sit and wait for a prestige project to come their way. For Kendrick, a more proactive approach is both smarter and more realistic than being aloof or overly choosy.
“There’s obviously value to the Ferraris of the world, where the whole point is that only the very few can access this,” she says. “I’m just so not a fucking Ferrari.”
Yet her most valuable role, as Pitch Perfect’s Beca Mitchell, has slowed Kendrick’s pace of late. Schedule delays and personnel changes on the third installment — Pitch Perfect 2 director Elizabeth Banks is not returning in the same capacity — have kept the actress “on hold” for most of 2016 after shooting was pushed back from March to September.
She’s not totally comfortable with the prospect of downtime. “I don’t know,” she says semi-jokingly, “if I’m going to end up in a total tailspin.”
Ever since Kendrick broke through to mainstream audiences with a small but amusing part as a squirrelly teen on the sidelines of the supernatural hullabaloo in 2008’s Twilight, she’s had a curious trajectory. She hates that word — it implies too much calculation — but it’s hard to avoid when you consider that a year later, she was co-starring opposite George Clooney in Up in the Air, a supporting role that earned her an Oscar nomination. Only Jennifer Lawrence has so deftly juggled young-adult franchise work with more artistically challenging projects. “To some people, I was just that girl who got to work with Kristen and Rob,” she says, referring to co-stars Stewart and Pattinson, with whom she did three more Twilight films, “and to other people, I was that girl who’d made all these other movies. There was very little crossover.”
Before moving to L.A. in 2004, Kendrick was a theater kid. A native of Portland, Maine, and the daughter of parents who worked in finance, she isn’t quite sure how that happened, but, she says, “by the time I was 6, I was in community theater, because when I saw kids playing soccer I was like, yawn.”
Now she compares an acting career to the stock market. “There’s no way you can engineer it to be perpetually rising, because nobody knows what’s going to happen,” she says, though, unlike some of her peers, she isn’t seduced by opportunities on TV or Broadway. “If we’re in the last era where people sit in a cinema and watch movies, I want to be a part of it.”
It’s not easy to predict which projects will get her attention. “I’m a famously bad communicator with my agent,” she says, having abandoned the chips for a giant ginger cookie. “Usually I just sit on things for like a week. Then he sent me the script for The Voices, and I wrote back immediately. He was like, ‘Okay, if I ever really need to get in touch with you, I just need to say Marjane Satrapi?’ ” Satrapi is the Persepolis writer-director who, in 2014, helmed an out-there black comedy about a serial killer starring Kendrick and Ryan Reynolds that, judging from box-office totals, you didn’t see.
“If it was as simple as saying ‘I’m only going to do projects now that are gonna really reach audiences,’ I would probably do that, but since there’s no formula, you just have to go off of personal joy,” she says. This is likely a more recent and ex post facto strategy, unless pursuing joy somehow resulted in 2012’s dud What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
Pitch Perfect sequels aside, Kendrick admits to occasionally being kept in a frustrating limbo on movies until the male leads are locked down. “I could get pissy about it,” she says. “But I feel lucky to be among what I think is one of the great generations of female actors, so I can’t be that mad if you cast the part that’s harder to cast first.”
Case in point: the upcoming Mike and Dave, for which Zac Efron and Adam Devine (and director Jake Szymanski) were officially signed on before Kendrick and her BFF Aubrey Plaza, despite the ladies’ initial eagerness to work together on the raunchy gender-flip comedy in which a horny, hard-partying layabout (Kendrick) joins her scheming friend (Plaza) to out-deprave the guys. “I usually play a character who is a little bit savvier and more of the commentary gal,” she says, and it’s true that she normally inflects even minuscule parts with a native intelligence (or buttoned-up neuroses). “Being an idiot was fun.”
If you could tease out a rule for dictating Kendrick’s choices, it might be this: Try everything. The result has been a broad variety of winning performances — her improvised roles in Joe Swanberg’s affecting microdramas Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas; her unofficial duet with Jake Gyllenhaal to Cam’ron’s “Hey Ma” in a minor scene in End of Watch; and her half of the two-hander movie-musical The Last Five Years, in which a singing Kendrick showcases some impressive face acting.
“If you take on eight movies, you’re running the risk that you’re going to diminish your quality level,” says Krasinski. “Anna doesn’t have that problem. She always assures whomever she’s working with that she’s going to knock it out of the park. And that’s incredibly rare.”
Useful, too. She’s careful not to put too much emphasis ahead of the time on whom her co-stars will be. “Sometimes an actor [is] fucking crazy,” she says. “There are people I’ve worked with that are so wonderful and have kind of a bad reputation, and vice versa. I wish that I could put flyers everywhere saying this person is great, this person is crazy.” I ask for details, and Kendrick flashes a quick, toothy grin. “Obviously,” she says, “I’m not trying to get myself kicked out of L.A.”
Kendrick’s publisher approached her about writing a book almost two years ago, partly to build on a witty social-media persona that has attracted millions of followers and that flirts with the same style of self-deprecation as Taylor Swift and J. Law. While famous, beautiful people trying to convince us that they’re hopeless dorks can appear contrived — a recent Instagram photo of Kendrick looking great next to Justin Timberlake fell flat with its faux-embarrassed “take a normal picture” caption — it generally works in her case.
Take the essay in Scrappy Little Nobody that tackles Kendrick’s first boyfriend. “I started dating him as a social experiment,” she explains, absently braiding a strand of her fine brown hair. “Not in any sort of [Neil LaBute’s play and movie] The Shape of Things way. I was 19, I’d never had a boyfriend, and I was like, ‘This is unacceptable. You seem clean and punctual — let’s do it.’ I was sort of winking at everything we did together, and probably because of that, the relationship did not work out.”
The story, plucked from the afore;mentioned journal, hits on every note that, by and large, appeals to modern women: It’s frank, funny, self-aware, a little abashed but not lacking confidence. Companies especially want to capitalize on that image. Newcastle ran a memorable 2014 Super Bowl anti-ad in which Kendrick muses on not being “beer-commercial hot,” and last year, Kate Spade released a series of engaging vignettes titled “#MissAdventure” in which the actress plays a flightier, more eccentric version of herself traipsing around New York City like a grown-up Eloise.
If anything, Pitch Perfect is the outlier in this lineup of idiosyncratic ventures. It did what more niche roles have not — set Kendrick’s career on fire, to use her earlier phrasing. The first movie was a sleeper hit that also had the effect of turning her into a pop star. (Her percussive cover of the Appalachian folk song “When I’m Gone” eventually climbed to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.) The 2015 sequel grossed double what the original did, fetching nearly $300 million worldwide.
“We could shit on a canvas, and it would be great,” says Kendrick about the criticproof franchise. “There were times when the music was changing a lot and the powers that be couldn’t decide a lot of things until the very last minute. I would have been really stressed about it if there wasn’t so much love for what we’re doing. I can’t totally account for why that is with this movie and not others.”
Pitch Perfect will most likely be behind her after the third film comes out next year — she says she “hadn’t even considered that anyone would want to do more” — but it’s not clear whether she’s going to slow down anytime soon.
“I like the pace,” she says. “But I feel like it’s not really sustainable. I want to work harder to curate my choices, just so I don’t ruin my life.” She’s come close. “I’ve just endured a year of people saying ‘You have to see Hamilton,’ ” she says, throwing up her hands in exasperation. Not having done so might be her only regret. So she’s going in a couple weeks.
*This article appears in the June 27, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.