Made in Cola Town

Anna Camp goes from Riverbanks to Red Carpet

By Katie McElveen

Recently engaged, Anna Camp — like most women about to get married — is dying to talk about her upcoming wedding. It’s too bad she can’t. “This is so weird,” she says. “In a normal world I’d tell you all about where we’re getting married and having the reception, when it will be and where we’ve decided to go on our honeymoon. But all I can say is that it will be sometime this fall.” She’s not being coy or overly dramatic — as a bona fide movie star, the former Columbian who went through school at Meadowfield, Hand and Dreher can’t reveal anything about her upcoming nuptials to her Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2 co-star, Skylar Astin, lest they be overrun with reporters and paparazzi. But she will disclose one detail: “We’re definitely having shrimp and grits at the reception,” she laughs.

Although Anna started acting at a young age, it wasn’t because she longed for the stage. Instead, she had tagged along to acting class at Workshop Theatre with Saluda, her sister, who was seven years older. As it turned out, Anna was a natural. “One of our early exercises was to pretend we were sick so we could get out of going to school,” she recalls. “I put on a sad, scratchy sore-throat voice and nailed it!”

After graduating from the University of North Carolina School for the Arts, Anna moved to New York, where she paid $360 a month for a walk-up apartment on the “upper, upper, upper” West Side of Manhattan. Her first break came when she was offered a role in a play produced by the Dallas Theater Center. Although it required her to relocate to Dallas for a couple of months, the payoff — getting her equity card — was worth it. 

“It was a big deal to be cast before I had my equity card,” she says, referring to a membership in the Actors’ Equity Association, which represents working theater artists. “Since taking the job would give me great experience and the chance to get my card, there was no chance I’d say no.” 

Returning from Dallas as a working actress, Anna found herself cast in a number of plays and off-Broadway productions. It was when she was performing in God Hates the Irish, her first off-off-Broadway musical, that she came to the attention of legendary director Mike Nichols, who then recommended her for a role in To The Scene opposite Monk’s Tony Shalhoub and Patricia Heaton, the Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle star. Her work was so strong that Charles Isherwood, the theater critic from The New York Times, complimented her portrayal twice in his review of the play.

From there, Anna went to Broadway, where she had a small part in The Country Girl, which was directed by Mike Nichols and featured Morgan Freeman and Frances McDormand. “I was thrilled to be on Broadway, and the small role gave me a chance to watch and learn from Frances and Morgan without being under too much pressure,” says Anna. Her work paid off: Anna’s next role was opposite Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame, in the 2008 Broadway revival of Equus. “It was super intimidating,” she says. “I had to be British and naked on stage with Harry Potter! But he turned out to be amazing — smart and dedicated. I’m so happy I did it.”

That time was a turning point for Anna in other ways as well. Although she’d always worked hard, she found that the Broadway schedule of eight shows a week was incredibly exhausting. “At some point, you just learn to let go, not over analyze your performance and let it flow,” she says. “But it taught me to own my work and stop worrying so much about what people think, which has served me well. It’s amazing when people ‘get you’ and respond positively, but learning to keep your perspective in a business that’s like a roller coaster is a great skill to have.” 

It was also around this time that Anna decided to leave New York and move to California, an idea she had originally resisted. “Even though I had adored old movies like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca since I was very young, I was a theater nerd, so I never saw myself moving west,” she explains. But since California seemed to be the right move for her career, Anna packed her bags and headed to the Golden State where she found, surprisingly, a second home. “I adore California,” she says. “It’s gorgeous and Zen. I love New York, but I don’t miss it. My heart is in California. It does help that I have a peach tree and a magnolia tree in my yard — they’re like a little bit of the South.” 

Adapting her acting from stage to screen was challenging, but with a little work, Anna soon made the shift. “Acting on stage is about big, exaggerated movements and emotions while television and movies require everything to be smaller and more detailed,” she explains. “Until I figured out just how much to tone it down during the production of my first movie, I was literally afraid to move at all! But then I realized that if you’re fully committed to the role, the right amount of emotion will appear on screen. You just have to trust that it will be enough.”

Anna clearly figured it out, because she was soon appearing on a variety of television shows, including The Office, Glee, Numb3rs, Vegas, Covert Affairs and How I Met Your Mother. She also was chosen for recurring roles on The Mindy Project, the HBO vampire drama True Blood, Mad Men and The Good Wife, where her character was reprised for the 2016 season. There were movie roles as well, including Jolene French, a friend of two of the racist protagonists in The Help, the Oscar-nominated film that was adapted from Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 novel of the same name. Her breakout came as uptight Aubrey in the smash hit Pitch Perfect, a sweet come-from-behind story about an a cappella singing group that also introduced Anna to Skylar, a fellow stage actor. Pitch Perfect 2 was released in 2015.

That same year, Anna found herself back on Broadway, this time as the lead in the limited-run show Verite, a play about a housewife who aspires to be a writer. Although she’d been gone less than 10 years, she found that appearing on stage as a Hollywood star rather than a young actor was a very different experience. “So many television and movie actors make appearances on Broadway, and people are always wondering about how well they’ll be able to make the transition,” she says. “People don’t realize that I got my start on the stage, so I saw the question come up about me, which was kind of funny. I was so happy to be back!” 

She also found that with her change in status came a change in her ability to move around the city unnoticed. “I definitely found that sometimes I had to resort to hats and sunglasses to keep from being recognized,” she says. “But people are generally very nice and tell me that I look just like Anna Camp. I’ve found that the best reply is ‘That’s so weird! People tell me that all the time!’”

As Anna’s star continues to rise, she finds herself relying more and more on what she calls “pockets of wisdom” picked up from acting teachers, including those in Columbia. “Once you realize that great acting, whether it’s comedy or drama, is rooted in truth, you can begin to find your own voice in the character,” she explains. “My True Blood character, for instance, was nutty and weird, but she was still human.” Her strategy is working: she draws rave reviews from publications ranging from Rolling Stone magazine, who called her work “… brilliant, week after week” to the New York Post, “wonderfully dry” and The New York Times, “magnetic.”

Although Anna tries to live her life focused on the future — she rarely watches her own performances and tries not to get caught up in reviews — she has fond memories of growing up in Columbia. “I loved riding my bike around Hampton’s Grant with friends, going to plays with my parents and, when I was older, hanging out in Five Points at the record store and Loose Lucy’s,” she says. “I also remember acting classes with Mary Jeffcoat at Workshop Theater and really finding my place in the acting programs at Trustus. It was such a creative place to live and grow up. My early acting teachers were smart and caring, and they created an environment that was warm and stimulating. I always felt that my creativity was nurtured and encouraged in school too. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”

 

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