For Anna Kendrick, making a film about a toxic relationship was therapeutic

The Pitch Perfect actor was on Q with Tom Power talking about about the power of female friendship, how 'some teen vampire thing' became Twilight and her newest film Alice, Darling.

The Pitch Perfect actor opens up about female friendship, Twilight and her newest film Alice, Darling

Movie star Anna Kendrick on the red carpet in a yellow dress taking a selfie with fans.
Anna Kendrick at TIFF to promote Alice, Darling (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Warning: This article contains mentions of abuse

At age 12, Anna Kendrick was introduced to the 1939 film The Women while working on the cast of the Broadway musical High Society. Written by a woman, the film has an all-female cast and was for the young actor, an eye-opening experience: "the style of it and the writing and the female friendships — I'd never seen so many women being so fast and funny," Kendrick told Tom Power in a new interview on Q.

Kendrick is now known in Hollywood for her quirky humour and melodic voice, but it was her supporting role in the movie Twilight that launched her into fame and landed her roles alongside people like George Clooney, Olivia Wilde and Blake Lively. While probably known best as the star of the musical comedy Pitch Perfect, Kendrick's latest film Alice, Darling showcases a very different side of the actor.

WATCH | Anna Kendrick's interview with Tom Power:

Directed by Mary Nighy, Alice, Darling is about a woman in a psychologically abusive relationship. The titular character, played by Kendrick, relies on female friendship to find the strength to escape — although the audience is as unsure as she is that it is actually abuse.

When Kendrick read the script, she was instantly drawn to it because of the parallels with her own life. She told Power it gave her space to explore her past toxic relationship, and highlights how insidious and confusing psychological abuse is.

"My goal was to stay in that place where you're just as confused about it as Alice, because that's the experience," she said.

The film premiered at TIFF and saw a wide release on Jan. 20. Kendrick spoke more about her experience starring in and executive producing Alice, Darling on Q with Tom Power

The following has been edited for length and clarity. For the full interview, check out the podcast.

Congrats on the film. It's really beautiful. It's really powerful, and it is hard to watch at times. Tell me a little bit about your character.

Alice is in this really toxic abusive relationship, but it's one of those relationships where there's no physical violence, so it's a very confusing state for her to be in. 

One of the first people that saw it was telling me that "For half the movie, I really wasn't sure if Alice was making it up, or what was going on." And that's when it hit me. That's the thing I couldn't quite put into language as we were making the film. That was sort of the point.

It is a very confusing state to be in, and if certain lines haven't been crossed it's very difficult for you to imagine "I might be in an abusive relationship." So it's sort of easier to go "It must be something that I'm doing," and Alice keeps trying to purify her thoughts, because if she can just be a little bit better, everything will be okay. 

You sort of say it out loud, and you go "Well, that doesn't sound right." But when it's internal, it feels like "I don't know, maybe I just need to work on myself and I need to read one more self help book or something." It's kind of a trap.

Where you really got me was the idea that when there's scars or bruises, it's easy for your friends to look at you and go "Oh, that person's in trouble." And it's easy for you to look internally and see that you're in trouble.

Yeah, and denial can happen at many levels, so I don't want to discount that either. But, yes, this kind of invisible abuse is so insidious in that way, because it becomes really easy for the person to blame themselves. 

The film was always this kind of high wire act because it felt like we were always trying to measure the tipping point of giving the audience an easy answer. My goal was to stay in that place where you're just as confused about it as Alice, because that's the experience. There have been films that deal with abuse that's more black and white, and I was interested in that uncomfortable tension of letting the audience have the experience of "Wait, what is going on?"

You've talked a little bit about getting out of what seems like a toxic relationship around the same time that you were making this movie. How was it making the movie with all that happening?

The script was really powerful to me and felt personal to me, and Mary, the director, created a really safe environment. I think that there could have been the danger of it being a re-traumatizing experience, and it was in a window of time where I felt like I could explore it without putting myself in kind of mental trouble. 

It also felt like so many people around me were drawn to the script for the same reason. There was a day that I showed up on set, and I was like "Oh, I'm having 17 little therapy sessions with every department." Because every wardrobe choice and acting choice and lighting choice was informed by somebody's experience, so everybody wanted to talk about that. It actually meant that there were days where camera rehearsals ended up devolving into group therapy, which was really lovely and validating. It was probably the only time that I ever saw the lovely Mary Nighy be like "Guys, we are here to shoot a movie, come on!"

The film is also about the friends who can help you figure it out!

It's funny, because I've been sort of talking about the way that this story to me is genderless. There have been a couple of people who've asked me what I want the film to say about men and women, and I think abuse like this can happen in any combination of gender orientation or sexual orientation. 

The one thing that I did start thinking about was female friendships. I had a moment where I was hanging out with some friends and the intensity of attunement is so valuable. There was this moment where three of my best friends and I were sitting on my kitchen floor, and we like ended up grabbing all these blankets because we were cold and we were in this little huddle of love and joy, and I genuinely thought "Do men get this?" Like, I really hope they do! It was so beautiful, and I would be so sad for men if they don't ever get this kind of experience.

I bet there was also a lovely feeling on set because it was largely a women directed and produced film. What does that do on set for you? 

For so long I didn't even think about the fact that I was surrounded by men all the time, doing my job. It was amazing how quickly it felt so normal and so comfortable to have chicks everywhere. To the point that there was a day that Charlie Carrick, who plays my boyfriend in the film, showed up a couple of weeks into filming and there really was this like, "What is this boy doing here? Who let him in?"

It was almost alarming to know I've had the inverse experience almost my entire career. Obviously there were still tons of men everywhere, but even a bit more of a female heavy casting crew. I got so used to it so quickly that having a male energy on set was a weird culture shock, and Charlie's the loveliest person.

I learned about this film you're sort of obsessed with, The Women, from the late 1930's. Why is it so important to you?

My mentors Lisa Banes and Randy Graf were like "You're sharp, you need to watch this film." They were guiding me through film history, so every recommendation that they ever gave me was important. The Women was the first one they gave me, and the little comedic nuances, the style of it, the writing and the female friendships made it my favourite film. I've never seen so many women being so fast and funny, and I've seen it more than any other film.

I guess it's hard to put into words why it's important. It feels so part of my identity because I started watching it when I was so young, and I think a big part of it is because of these women that I looked up to who were in the show. Lisa played my mother in the show, and it was sort of a life imitating art thing. 

When you go from the attention of a Broadway show to these big movies like Twilight and Up In The Air, what was that level of attention on you like?

Twilight's especially a strange one. It was this massive thing, but none of us knew that when we were making the first one. Like, I just thought "Oh, okay, great. I can pay the rent this month." We had to throw our own wrap party for that movie, because the producers were like "We don't really have the money." — it's just like some teen vampire thing. 

After the first one they started putting up more money, but for the first one I just thought "I'm one of the friends in this random movie." Then that movie was enormous, but the attention wasn't really on me because I wasn't one of the characters that people really cared about. Compared to what it was doing for some of the other people in Twilight, I was like "Oh, I'm peanuts compared to them." So I was happy that it wasn't on the level where I couldn't, like, go to the drug store.

It was kind of right at that same time that I did Up In The Air, and even with that I was like "I'm probably gonna get cut out of this movie." Being the lead of the movie didn't make any sense to me, so I was like "They're gonna cut this part way down because I'm not the romantic interest or anything, so what am I really doing here?"

I think that part was originally supposed to be a guy. Especially when, 10 years ago, some girl wasn't just the co-lead of a movie with George Clooney unless she was the romantic interest. So I just thought they sort of made a mistake, and they'll end up realizing they don't really need this character. I had no idea I was going to enter a phase of massive fame.

In your memoir, you talk about how when you went to TIFF for the first time, when Up In The Air premiered, you couldn't afford the shoes. 

So once the movie had premiered at TIFF in this lovely country, then it was like "Okay, so she's really in a movie and we'll lend her clothes." But before that, it was like "Supposedly, she's in this movie that's premiering at some film festival. Why would we let her borrow shoes?"

The great irony was, for TIFF, I bought these Louboutin shoes that I couldn't afford, and I still have them! They're in my closet, even though they're 12 years old and out of fashion, and I just can't get rid of them because at one point they were as much as my rent. This was an insanely stupid thing, but if you're going to premiere a George Clooney film at the Toronto International Film Festival, you simply must wear the right shoes. So I had to buy these shoes, my credit card just shaking as I handed it over.

I feel like Alice, Darling is an untold story. Is that intentional in the kind of stories that you want to tell? 

I think I was sort of on the treadmill without thinking. I was like "I'll do that project, and that project, and that project." I started so young and I was just so grateful for every opportunity because I was sort of scraping by for so long. When you're literally going "Wait, how did I get strong armed into buying shoes that are more than my rent?" And then you have opportunities to work, it's like "Why would I ever not work? Or are you out of your mind?" 

So I ended up constantly working and not really taking stock. And then, you know, things come spectacularly crashing down and you have to reassess your life. I ended up feeling like if I'm not going into something with full authenticity, what is the point? Why am I on the treadmill? I don't know how to say all of this without sounding just so cliche, but if I kept going, I wouldn't have to think about why I'm doing this. Slowing down does lead you to asking those questions like "Why do I want to do this?" Because I'm here to be authentic.

The full conversation with Anna Kendrick is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Written by Lian McMillan. Interview produced by Vanessa Greco.


Lian McMillan is a pop-culture writer, creator and consumer. An alum of the University of Toronto and Humber College, Lian is co-founder of the band ‘cutsleeve,' which has been featured in Exclaim!, NOW magazine, and CBC. She can be reached on Twitter @lian_mcmillan.