Af­ter mak­ing waves in De­fendor and Nick And Nora’s In­fi­nite Playlist, Kat Den­nings takes out cit­i­zen­ship in Day­dream Na­tion, show­ing why she’s one of the big screen’s most fas­ci­nat­ing ris­ing stars


CF D: Mike Gold­bach w/ Kat Den­nings, Josh Lu­cas. Canada. 96 min. Sep 10, 6 pm Ry­er­son; Sep 11, noon AMC 3 Rat­ing: NNNNN

Look at Kat Den­nings’s brief ca­reer and you have to think that the en­ter­tain­ment gods have been smil­ing down at her from the start. I mean, check out her co-stars – Robert Downey Jr. in Char­lie Bartlett, Woody Har­rel­son in De­fendor, Michael Cera in Nick And Nora’s In­fi­nite Playlist. She’s just wrapped up the shoot for Thor, di­rected by Ken­neth Branagh. Not the typ­i­cal re­sumé of a 24-year-old with no train­ing.

But Den­nings is not a typ­i­cal young ac­tor. Even when she plays a high school stu­dent, like the love in­ter­est in Char­lie Bartlett or Nora in Nick And Nora, she im­bues her fe­male char­ac­ters with a fe­ro­cious in­tel­li­gence.

The Philly-born, L.A.-based per­former al­ways seems to be the smartest kid in the story – but never in that teacher’s pet kind of way. She looks out from the screen and right through you. And she al­ways has an edge.

All those qual­i­ties drive her per­for­mance in Day­dream Na­tion, the de­but fea­ture from Michael Gold­bach that’s kick­ing off the Canada First slate at TIFF.

Den­nings plays Caro­line, who’s moved to a small town with her dad just af­ter her mother’s death. She def­i­nitely doesn’t be­long among the ston­ers or the do-good­ers, and she can’t find any­one to re­late to – ex­cept her his­tory teacher.

What’s ironic about her su­per-hip im­age on­screen – pop-cul­ture savvy, to­tally con­tem­po­rary – is that she’s not ex­actly of this world. Char­lie Bartlett’s about a high schooler who sells phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals to kids in his school, and in Day­dream Na­tion, her char­ac­ter sleeps with her teacher.

When I men­tion to her that high school just ain’t what it used to be, she quickly sets me straight.

“I wouldn’t know,” she laughs in that sig­na­ture scratchy voice, on the phone from L.A. “I was home-schooled. My par­ents were disen- chanted with the school sys­tem, and I be­came a freak ac­tor. I was a sweet, funny lit­tle kid who lived com­pletely in my imag­i­na­tion and wasn’t re­ally in­ter­ested in school. I wanted to be at home play­ing.”

When she got her first big break at 14, as a bratty bat mitz­vah girl in an episode of Sex And The City, she didn’t even know any­thing about the TV touch­stone.

“We didn’t have TV,” she al­lows. “I mean, we had a TV, but it only played films, and I didn’t know what Sex And The City was.

“On set, it was like be­ing in a bizarro world. It was all glam­our and beau­ti­ful women and big ac­tresses and lots of clothes. I’d never even had my hair straight­ened be­fore, and that was such a big deal. Sarah Jes­sica Parker was in Ho­cus Po­cus, my favourite movie ever, so I was over­whelmed. She’s so sweet, teeny-weeny, it­sy­bitsy, like a beau­ti­ful lit­tle fairy.”

Af­ter a few more tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances, Den­nings started to get roles in movies that made her a ris­ing star. From the mo­ment she hit the big screen, it was ob­vi­ous that this wasn’t just an­other pretty face. She’s def­i­nitely got stay­ing power.

“When she was cast, I had a victory party,” says writer/direc­tor Michael Gold­bach. “I lis­tened to so many ac­tresses au­di­tion and I didn’t buy it. But with Kat, it doesn’t feel like empty clev­er­ness. She’s just an old soul.

“You never know what you’re go­ing to get from her. She’s in­cred­i­bly fear­less, and she had to dare to be un­like­able.”

Just check out Woody Har­rel­son’s hooker girl­friend, also called Kat, in De­fendor. Den­nings gives her an un­com­mon fe­roc­ity and a com­plex­ity that’s un­usual for an un­trained ac­tor.

“If I’m a de­cent ac­tor, it’s be­cause I take ad­van­tage of the peo­ple I’m work­ing with,” she says. “I don’t let a mo­ment go by with­out ob­serv­ing their process or what they’re do­ing or ask­ing them ques­tions or just lis­ten­ing. Lis­ten­ing is the key. I just watch and ask ques­tions, and you can’t help but learn from that.”

That’s why, when­ever she’s on set, she keeps ask­ing all her col­leagues – Branagh, Downey, Har­rel­son, with whom she’s main­tained a friend­ship – to tell her sto­ries, any­thing that she can feed off for a role.

She also does her homework. Since she had no ex­pe­ri­ence with crack, doesn’t do any drugs – “I’m com­i­cally strait­laced,” she says – and has no ex­pe­ri­ence sell­ing sex, De­fendor direc­tor Peter Steb­bings made sure she con­nected with sex work­ers so she could bring her char­ac­ter to life.

“You go into some­thing like this with one thought. You think pros­ti­tutes are one thing, that they’re look­ing for a way out, they’re pity­ing them­selves. And they’re not. They’re strong­willed peo­ple with limited op­tions. They specif­i­cally said to me, ‘Don’t make Kat pity her­self.’ They’re very proud.”

Den­nings claims she also has lit­tle in com­mon with Day­dream Na­tion’s Caro­line, but she says she’s al­ways felt out­side her own gen­er­a­tion and never thought of her­self as fit­ting into the teen thing. Which makes her per­fect for the role of some­one who has the nerve to se­duce her teacher.

She knows some view­ers will have a prob­lem with that par­tic­u­lar theme.

“Peo­ple will be di­vided, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons,” she ad­mits. “But it’s han­dled in a way that Caro­line is the cap­tain of the ship. She is very cal­cu­lat­ing in the things she’s do­ing. She’s think­ing ev­ery­thing through al­most too much – and not enough. She’s ex­per­i­ment­ing in or­der to snap her­self into feel­ing things. It’s less about him be­ing her teacher than about him be­ing right in front of her and in­ter­est­ing.”

She doesn’t like to think of Day­dream Na­tion as a teen movie.

“This film doesn’t pan­der. It’s an adult film, ac­tu­ally. Caro­line’s an adult girl and young girl at the same time. She just hap­pens to be a high school stu­dent. She’s an in­ter­est­ing egg. She’s like an alien. She’s been plopped in this town, into this en­vi­ron­ment, and she com­pletely doesn’t be­long there.”

Den­nings has be­come some­thing of an indie dar­ling, but she’s ready to do an ac­tion pic (she doesn’t get to do the blow-up stuff in Thor) or maybe even a pe­riod piece, some­thing that I sug­gest would be a chal­lenge for an ac­tor with her kind of ul­tra-con­tem­po­rary vibe.

“Yeah, I’m a mod­ern lady, but I still want to be laced in a corset and pass out when I sneeze. That’s what I’m look­ing for.”

Given her ca­reer tra­jec­tory, chances are she’ll get just about any­thing she wants, sooner rather than later. That should cause the act­ing teacher who told her she didn’t have a chance to think again be­fore he dis­cour­ages an­other as­pir­ing ac­tor.

“I’ll never for­get it,” she says, al­most shout­ing. “I signed with a manager when I was 10, and part of the sign-up process was to go to her hus­band’s act­ing class. By the sec­ond ses­sion, he told me I’d never be an ac­tor and to stop im­me­di­ately – I was ter­ri­ble.”

Not that his com­ment made a damn bit of dif­fer­ence to the young girl who al­ways felt that act­ing was her call­ing.

“In­stead of run­ning out and cry­ing, I said, ‘Fuck it, this is ridicu­lous. How could you tell me that?’

“And so here we are.”

“If I’m a de­cent ac­tor, it’s be­cause I take ad­van­tage of the peo­ple I’m work­ing with. Lis­ten­ing is

the key.”

Reece Thomp­son tries to get Kat Dennings’s at­ten­tion in Day­dream Na­tion.

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