NEW YORK — To fully appreciate the skill involved in Anna Kendrick's purse-lipped, perfect-postured turn as Natalie, the comic and dramatic foil to George Clooney in Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air," it helps to watch the 24-year-old in action. In the dramedy about a middle-aged executive (Clooney) who uses his job on the road as a hall pass for life, Kendrick's Natalie is the sassy upstart, armed with sensible pumps, a decidedly unfashionable low ponytail, and a purposeful stride that gives her stature. The elf-like Kendrick, on the other hand, bounds into the room like a puppy in laceless black Converse sneakers, hair askew, and collapses on a couch, folding her jean-clad legs beneath her.
While Kendrick may still have the goofy enthusiasm of a teenager, her ability to transform herself on-screen is that elusive quality directors spend lifetimes chasing. After seeing Kendrick in 2007's "Rocket Science," Reitman ("Juno") began adapting Walter Kirn's novel with Kendrick in mind. "She's so smart, so self-assured, and so ahead of herself in how she thinks and acts," he says. "There's not a dumb bone in her body. She has the ability to act way beyond her years because she is way beyond her years."
Which isn't to say she has the confidence of an older woman. Like most beautiful young actresses, the Portland, Maine, native professes that she wasn't attractive and didn't have boyfriends in high school. Unlike those who doth protest too much, watching Kendrick's ungainliness as she shifts around in her seat, it's easy to believe she had no idea how beautiful she was and still has no idea how many boys loved her. Indeed, it wasn't until she was out for a celebratory lunch with Reitman after reading for and winning the part that she found out he knew her work, and that her costar would be Clooney. Neither fact comforted her.
"I spent every day from the moment I won the part sure I was about to be fired," she says. "First it was the costume fitting, then the camera test, and then the table read. Each day was the day I knew they would realize they actually wanted Evan Rachel Wood. Then the first day on set," she continues, "I showed up with a cold and I thought no one would like me because I'm the girl who showed up sick, and George told me to have chicken soup and to listen to him because he had played a doctor on TV. And I thought, 'It will all be all right.' " Within a few days, "he called me short, I called him old, and that was the foundation that set the tone just to kid around with each other."
The joking was largely limited to time onset. While Clooney gamely offered to set her up on blind dates, Kendrick's days off were spent flying from "Up in the Air's" Midwest set to Vancouver, Canada, where she was reprising her role as Jessica for the "Twilight" sequel "New Moon." "It was sort of fun because Natalie is so rigid," Kendrick says, "and I got to go and play the silliest girl on the planet, so it was getting to run and jump and play a little."
Now, Kendrick -- who was the second youngest Tony nominee for her performance in "High Society" at the age of 12 -- is looking forward to returning to L.A., where she lives in the same apartment and drives the same Prius she's had since she was 18. "I don't like change of any kind," she says with a giggle. "The template for fame for me is going home and my mom's friends assuming I'm an extra. If I was lucky, this time around I got to meet George Clooney."